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The Buffalo Religious Arts Center
Xavier Hall Gallery

By Martin Ederer

The Buffalo Religious Arts Center is housed in the former St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church complex. Saint Francis Xavier Church, located in the historic heart of the Black Rock section of Buffalo, was home to one of the city's most historic Roman Catholic parishes.

Black Rock was originally a village separate from Buffalo. In the 1820s, the two villages competed for the western terminal of the Erie Canal. Buffalo won its bid to become the western terminal of the Erie Canal. In 1832, Buffalo was incorporated as a city and eventually Black Rock became a part of Buffalo.

The first Roman Catholic parish in Buffalo was St. Louis, established in 1829.

Earliest records of significant Catholic activities in Black Rock date to 1847. By that time a sizable German Catholic community had formed, and established a school in rented quarters in 1847. In 1848, they bought land for a more permanent school. In 1849, itinerant Jesuit priests serving the community urged that the Catholics of Black Rock establish a parish church. They built a small wooden chapel.

St. Francis Xavier was one of three parishes established in Buffalo in 1849. The other two were Immaculate Conception (1849-2005; Irish), and St. Boniface (1849-1993; German). Prior to 1849, there were only three Catholic churches in Buffalo: St. Louis (1829; German), Old St. Patrick (1837-1855; Irish), and St. Mary Redemptorist (1842-1981; German).

In an 1852 meeting, Rev. Francis Sester, the parish's first resident pastor, urged his flock to build a bigger church. By the end of that meeting, $1300 had already been pledged, and over the next months, parishioners built a larger brick church with their own hands. It was completed in 1853. A small steeple was added between 1859 and 1862.

In 1859, the parish was formally incorporated as "German Roman Catholic St. Francis Xavier Church of Black Rock Dam." During the 1860s, the, parish was staffed by Jesuits from St. Michael's Church and by Oblates from Holy Angels. In 1873-74, the brick church was enlarged and a much higher steeple was built. In 1877, three bells were installed, and a clock was added to the tower. They were later moved to the present church tower.

Present church

The present church, built in Roman Basilica style, was designed by Max G. Beierl of the Buffalo architectural firm Lansing and Beierl and constructed between 1911 and 1912. The granite columns of the church were shipped to Buffalo on the Erie Canal,which went past Black Rock. They were offloaded at Black Rock, and rolled up from the canal to the church.

Muralwork was executed in Beuronese style (reminiscent of the great abbey of Benediktbeuem in Bavaria) by Rev. Raphael Pfisterer, a Benedictine monk.

The nave windows were made in Munich by F. X. Zettler. They depict the stations of the cross, and are the only set of its kind in Western New York. Zettler windows are also in St. Ann's Church and in both the old and new St. Michael's Church in Buffalo. Zettler windows also are in the Frauenkirche in Munich. They are indicative of the bold, pictorial Munich style of stained glass manufacturing.

The original altars were the gothic, carved wooden altars from the original brick church. The existing marble altars later replaced them.

The church tower was shortened in 1930 after dangerous cracks developed in the original tower, which was much higher than the existing tower.

The clock is the 1877 pendulum-driven mechanism originally installed in the old church. It must be hand wound once a week and still keeps excellent time.

The pipe organ is Herman Schlicker's op. 2. Schlicker was a Bavarian immigrant who started up his organ-building business in a garage on Bailey Ave. just as the Great Depression was beginning. Many organ builders came to Western New York because of the Wurlitzer works in North Tonawanda. Of all of Buffalo's organ builders - andthere were many - Schlicker went on to develop a prestigious national reputation. TheAmerican Organ Historical Society has cited Saint Francis Xavier's pipe organ for its historic significance.

Black Rock church history

St. Francis Xavier was the mother parish of all of the Black Rock Catholic parishes. St. John the Baptist on Hertel Ave. was established in 1867 when the Germans of St.Francis Xavier "evicted" the English-speaking Irish parishioners from "their" parish.The earliest Polish immigrants living in Black Rock attended St. Francis Xavier. Theyestablished Assumption in 1888. St. Elizabeth's Church in Black Rock was formed out of St. Francis Xavier Parish to provide a home to Black Rock's sizable HungarianCatholic community. Around that same time Fr. Francis X. Kofler, pastor from 1873 to1893, also encouraged Buffalo's growing Italian community to establish a parish oftheir own on the lower West Side. That led to the 1891 establishment of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Western New York's mother Italian parish.

St. Francis Xavier was closed in 2007 during the Buffalo Diocese's massive re-structuring of parishes from 2006-2009. Of Black Rock's five existing Catholic parishes, only Assumption survived.

A new chapter opened for St. Francis Xavier Church when it was purchased by the Buffalo Religious Arts Center in 2008. The Buffalo Religious Arts Center is committed to preserving the rich artistic and historic legacy of Buffalo's immigrant religious and cultural heritage.

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