St. Francis Church - Table of Contents

Significance of the St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church Complex

An excerpt from the 2009 Nomination to the State & National Registers of Historic Places
(Listed on both registers in 2009)

The St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church Complex in the Black Rock Section of Buffalo, New York is a largely intact example of a Roman Catholic urban parish established to meet the needs of a growing neighborhood populated predominantly by German and Irish immigrants. Consisting of a church, rectory, school and convent (not extant), the buildings were designed by prominent Buffalo architects, the church by Max G. Beirel, the rectory by Carl Schmill and the school, built in three sections by Carl Schmill, Schmill and Gould and the successor firm carried on by Karl Schmill after his father's death.

St. Francis Xavier is the first Catholic Parish and school to be established in Black Rock or what then was known as Lower Black Rock. In 1983, a school consolidation plan involving St. Francis and other Black Rock parish schools was implemented resulting in the closing of St. Francis' school, one of the oldest schools in the Catholic diocese, a school that had played a major role not only in the education but also in the social lives of virtually thousands of children. St. Francis Xavier is one of only two large ecclesiastical complexes that architecturally dominate the Black Rock section of Buffalo. Since its inception St. Francis Xavier has had an overriding presence in Black Rock.

Black Rock

he history of the parish of St. Francis Xavier is inexorable bound to the history and growth of the village of Black Rock which had its beginning when Augustus Porter and his younger brother Peter B. Porter along with Benjamin Barton and Joseph Annin purchased a tract of about 400 acres of land from the State of New York within what was then known as the Niagara "Mile Strip". The "Mile Strip" was a mile wide strip of Indian land along the Niagara River purchased by the state in 1802.

The village of Black Rock was named after a black Onondaga limestone formation which extended out in the river near where the Peace BridgeThis rock formation afforded a favorable landing place on the American shore for a ferry to and from Fort Erie on the Canadian shore and also was, at that time, the only viable harbor on the eastern end of Lake Erie. With the growth of steam power and ship building, Black Rock soon began to surpass its neighbor to the south, the village of Buffalo.

The War of 1812 ravaged both villages, but peace brought reconstruction and renewed growth. Peter B. Porter, who distinguished himself in the War of 1812, served two terms in Congress and was President Adam's Secretary of War, built a Federal Style mansion on Niagara Street in Black Rock in 1816, which, unfortunately, was demolished to allow for industrial expansion.

Another famous resident, one who lived in Black Rock in recent times, was American poet Robert Creeley who lived with his family in a converted firehouse around the corner from St. Francis at Amherst and East Streets from 1990 to 2003. Today this fire house, turned residence, still stands.

In May of 1818 the first steamboat to ply Lake Erie, the "Walk-in-the-Water", was launched from a small shipyard at the mouth of Scajaquada Creek. "The first experience of this little steamer gave a grave intimation that Black Rock would not be able to retain its past standing, as the port of commerce at the foot of Lake Erie; for the Walk-in-the-Water could not stem the swift current of the Niagara, and had to be dragged by oxen, as sail vessels were, up to the still water in the lake."So ending Black Rock's dream of becoming the terminus of the Erie Canal, the rockGerman and Irish immigrants who capitalized on the power generated by the canal lock located at the foot of Austin Street. The power was harnessed to operate flower mills, saw mills, and other water related industry.

In the 1830's Black Rock developed into a major flour milling center and by 1836 the community boasted some 400 buildings and 2000 residents. Before the Civil War, Black Rock became a northern terminus of the Underground Railroad. Black Rockers sang and toasted their guests, the fugitive slave, before skiffs silently rowed in the night from Black Rock Harborto the Canadian shore and a black man's freedom.The International Railroad Bridge
, built in 1873 by Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski and D. L. MacPherson, carries a railway line across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, Canada. The bridge consists of two sections, the first extending from American mainland shore to Squaw Island, NY, and the second extending from Squaw Island to the Canadian shore.

In 1883, in an effort to decentralize industrial development and better serve the industries in the city, the New York Central Railroad built the Belt Line Railroad, a freight and commuter line which ran from the Terrace in Buffalo along the Niagara River to Black Rock. Both these developments gave impetus to residential and industrial development in the area.
stands today. was dynamited in 1825, Buffalo became the terminus of the canal and annexed Black Rock in 1854. Lower Black Rock or Black Rock Dam, an area north of Scajaquada Creek, began to develop after the canal bypassed Upper Black Rock. Early in the 1820's the area became home to

New York State and Buffalo Diocese

n the beginning of the nineteeth century there was only one diocese and one bishop in the United States. The diocese was Baltimore and it was presided over by the Rt. Rev. John Carol. It proved impossible for one bishop to oversee such an immense territory and on the 24th of April 1808 Baltimore was made an Archiepiscopal See and four new dioceses were established. They were New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Bardstown. Rev. Luke Concanen, of the order of St. Domonic, was consecrated first bishop of the New York Diocese which encompassed all of the State. As the state grew in population it became difficult for one bishop to oversee and in the spring of 1847 the cities of Buffalo, incorporated as a city in 1832, and Albany, chartered as a municipality in 1686, were separated from the diocese of New York and formed into two new dioceses.

On October 17th, 1847 the Very Rev. John Timon was consecrated Buffalo's first Bishop, the first Bishop of Albany was the Very Rev. John McCloskey. There were three established parishes in the city of Buffalo, St. Louis (1825), St. Patrick (1837), St, Mary Redemptorist (1842), at the time of Bishop Timon's consecration. That same year, 1847, was the beginning of what would become the parish of St. Francis Xavier.

St. Francis Xavier Parish

The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 marks the beginning of Buffalo's growth as a major port. The canal's completion also saw an increase in immigrants settling in the area, in 1820 Buffalo's population was 2,095 in just ten years that number jumped to 8,668 and by 1840 the population had grown to 18,213. After 1828 the German immigration into the Buffalo area increased and kept pace with the growth of the community.

As the immigrants began to settle in Lower Black Rock in the 1830's and 40's the Catholics among them had to travel long distances, over what amounted to as country roads, to attend Mass on Sundays; they could either go to St. Louis Church at Main and Edward Streets in Buffalo or to St. John's Chapel in North Bush, in the Town of Tonawanda. The lack of a church was an inconvenience to the area's Catholic residents, but the lack of a suitable school was the motivating factor in the ultimate formation of a parish for the German Catholic residents.

In 1847, twelve men met and organized a school for their children in a rented a room at 63 Thompson Street, (not extant) which they converted into a temporary classroom so that secular and religious instruction might be imparted to their young. Only one other denomination had established a church in the neighborhood at that time. St. John's German United Evangelical Church was founded by German immigrants in 1847. The current church at 85 Amherst St was built in 1890. The immigrant population continued to grow as a result of the growth of industry in the community. Primarily the immigrants were German which prompted the founding of two other German churches, the Zion German Methodist Episcopal Church in 1866 and the Salem German Evangelical in 1892.

In 1848 the same twelve men, who had organized the school in the rented room, acquired two acres of land on East Streets near the corner of Amherst Street and a small house was built to serve as a school. The school flourished under the able tutelage of a certain Paul Metzger. The Rev. Bernard Fritsch S. J. was sent by Bishop Timon, in October of 1849 to inspect the school and report on its progress. Father Fritsch found the school flourishing and he suggested that an addition be added to the school to serve as a chapel. When the addition was completed a partition separated the sanctuary from the school, when Mass was celebrated the partition was drawn back, thus the building served as a school on weekdays and a church on Sundays. On the feast day of St. Francis Xavier, December 3, 1849, this little chapel was placed under the protection of St. Francis Xavier, a High Mass was celebrated by the Rev. Francis Guth, rector of St. Louis Church and the parish of St. Francis Xavier officially came into existence. Twice a month thereafter a Mass was celebrated by Father Guth in the little chapel. On the 16th of March 1851 Bishop Timon appointed Rev. Nicholas Sester as pastor of the new parish. He took up residence in a rented house on Amherst Street and immediately began planning for the construction of a larger and more substantial house of worship.

In January of 1852 funds were raised for the new church and spring was selected for construction to begin. The foundations of the new church were dug by hand by the men of the parish before they went to work in the morning and upon returning in the evening. The church was completed and dedicated the following spring (1853). It was built of brick and measured sixty feet in length and forty feet in width. The first parochial residence was built in 1856 and stood on the south side of the church. In 1864 Father Henry Marten became pastor and shortly thereafter he enlarged the church and bought additional land. Under his direction the parish was re-incorporated under the title "St. Francis Xavier German Roman Catholic Congregation". The parish at this time embraced all the area from Ferry Street on the south, Delaware Avenue on the east, the city line on the north and the Niagara River on the west. Father Francis Kofler became pastor in 1873 and enlarged the cemetery between the years of 1880 and 1887, the cemetery established in 1864 was enlarged. The cemetery, Located on Niagara Street, is today bounded on three sides by Riverside Park.

St. Francis Xavier School and the Sisters of Joseph

n 1836, eight Sisters of St. Joseph arrived in Carondelet, a small village near St. Louis, Missouri. They came from Lyon, France at the request of Bishop Joseph Rosati to teach the deaf. These sisters founded the Carondelet congregation in a log cabin in village and founded a school for deaf students in 1837, which is still functioning today. The first group of Sisters of Saint Joseph came to the diocese of Buffalo in December of 1854 at the request of Bishop Timon. They were from the Carondelet congregation and were sent to teach in a parochial school at Canandaigua, New York. Two years later one of these sisters was brought back to Buffalo by the Bishop to assume charge of St. Mary's Institution for the deaf which he had established that year (1856) on Edward Street, a short distance from St. Louis Church. The community of the Sisters of Saint Joseph grew rapidly after that and soon served in many parts of the diocese. By 1868 the sisters were sufficiently strong to direct their own affairs, and elect their own superior. In 1871 the Sisters of Saint Joseph took over the teaching duties at St. Francis Xavier School.

As the population of the parish increased, so did the school's enrollment and in 1874 it became necessary to enlarge the school built in 1849. In October of 1876 Otto Mindnich was engaged as organists and teacher of the older boys, a position he held for forty years.In 1877 the church was enlarged and a steeple was added to the west front. The school population continued to grow and with the arrival of Father Charles Schaus in 1893 work was immediately begun to raise funds for the construction for a new, larger school. 1895 saw the completion of the present day front portion of the brick school building designed by Buffalo architect Carl Schmill.In 1898 the old parochial residence was torn down and replaced with the two and one half story Queen Ann Style brick rectory also designed by Carl Schmill. That same year saw the convent (c.1875) enlarged and fitted with a new heating plant.

As the new century dawned it became apparent that the school and church were inadequate to meeting the needs of the thriving parish. By 1906, $11,500 had been raised and the firm of Schmill and Gould were chosen to draw plans for an addition to the school.

While the school addition was under construction, Max G Beirel was selected as architect for the new church. The old 1852 church was razed and the new church was built on its site. Expressive of the simplicity and solidarity of the parish itself, the new church was designed in the Romanesque Basilica Style. True to the Style the church has colonnades of stately polished granite columns flanking the nave. The colonnades support Romanesque arches which carry the clearstory, above which is a richly paneled ceiling. At the east end of the nave is a semi-circular apse, half enclosing the altar, the whole apse takes on the appearance of a triumphal arch.

The cornerstone was blessed by Bishop Colton, the fourth Bishop of Buffalo, on February 23rd, 1911. The stained glass windows, depicting the Stations of the Cross, were designed and made in Munich and placed in the church in February of 1913.

The exquisite paintings in the Sanctuary and side altars were executed in 1913 by Father Raphael [Pfisterer], a Benedictine Monk.

Disaster struck on February 2nd, 1922 when fire broke out in the school causing about $20,000 of damage. Before the start of school in September the damage was repaired and the school emerged from this misfortune much improved. The church appears as originally designed, except for the tower, which was rebuilt in 1931 after a crack developed in the west corner. At that time, the bottom forty feet was refaced and the top completely replaced at a cost of $18,970. The work began in June and was completed in December. The tower remains a landmark to this day in the Black Rock area.

Romanesque Revival

n 313 when Constantine issued the so-called Edict of Milan and recognized Christianity as a lawful religion, he needed a style of architecture that had meaning in the Roman World. The obvious solution to this was adapting the Roman Basilica as a church. Christianity, unlike the other religions of the time, required no bloody sacrifice, all that was required was some bread and wine. "The church is not a house for a god, it is a house for the people of God. A basilica is plain, it has broad surfaces with windows and doors flush with the masonry and with few recesses or extrusions. The space is dynamic because it embodies a forward movement toward the altar, where the climax of the Lord's Supper is reached in the act of communion."The impression conveyed by the basilica is that of solidity and strength and certainly St. Francis Xavier Church conveys this. As a Romanesque Basilica, St. Francis has the unique features that make it a classic example of this style of architecture.

The Exterior

Romanesque church facades, generally to the west end of the building, are usually symmetrical, have a large central portal made significant by its arched entrance, with moldings and an arrangement of arched-topped windows or as in Italy a single central ocular window. The Fašade of St. Francis Xavier (SFX) is symmetrical with an entrance framed by three Romanesque arches carried on four Tuscan columns. Each arch has an archivolt with a carved floral pattern. Above the entrance in the center of the fašade is a large rose window.

Arches in Romanesque architecture are semicircular, larger windows are nearly always arched. Doorways are also surmounted by a semi-circular arch and surmounted by a semi-circular "lunette" with decorative carving. All the windows at SFX, the aisle and clearstory windows as well as the windows and openings in the tower are arched with stone archivolts and lintels. Each tympanum over each front entry door has decorative mosaics bearing Christian symbols.

The eastern end of a Romanesque Basilica is almost always semi-circular, with either a high chancel surrounded by an ambulatory as in France, or a square end from which an apse projects as in Germany and Italy. SFX has, at its eastern end, a projecting semi-circular apse.

Because of the massive nature of Romanesque walls, buttresses are not a highly significant feature, as they are in Gothic architecture. Romanesque buttresses are generally of flat square profile and do not project a great deal beyond the wall. At SFX the buttresses are shallow and flat with a square profile.


Virtually an oblong box with base and lid formed of pavement and ceiling, its two long side are walls in three bands: columns at ground level, an expanse of masonry above and a series of window-openings on top of that. As such a nave is characterized by horizontality, self-containment and inward lookingness. SFX is a classic example of a Romanesque Basilica with the arcade dividing the nave into a higher, wider center aisle, on each of the center aisle is a narrow side aisle, its prominence lessened by its lower height.


Towers are an important feature of Romanesque churches. As a general rule, large Romanesque towers are square with corner buttresses of low profile, rising without diminishing through the various stages.To the right and set slightly back from the fašade, is possibly the most prominent feature of the exterior of SFX, the square Italianate campanile.

Triumphal Arch and Apse

Advancing both visually and physically along the nave in the direction so clearly indicated, the next architectural feature you encounter is the triumphal arch, bridging the space between the two sides. The Christians view it as marking the approach of their own "via triumphalis." At SFX the triumphal arch rises the full height of the nave and is flanked by two lesser arches framing the side altars.

The Triumphal arch frames the apse which is half an upright cylinder surmounted by a quarter sphere; it is clearly distinct from the rest of the building which is rectangular. The apse at SFX virtually glows with the magnificence of the painting and its very shape suggests the protection of an embrace.

There are a number of wonderful Romanesque Style churches in Buffalo. In addition to St. Francis, there is St. Luke and St. Gerard both beautiful Basilica Style churches. Unfortunately St. Gerard is closed and awaiting a possible "move" to Georgia, St. Luke was closed but purchased by two individuals who run the complex as an outreach serving the poor and homeless. Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church is a magnificent Romanesque Church that recently has been listed on the State and National Registers. Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church, a magnificent Lombardy Romanesque church, is also listed on the State and National Registers. Both of these churches are on the east side of Buffalo, not the best of neighborhoods, but landmarks still.


Carl Schmill - School & Rectory

Carl Schmill began practicing architecture in 1886, in 1906 he formed a partnership with George C. Gould and the firm became known as Schmill and Gould. Carl Schmill died in 1914 and his son, Karl, took over the firm.

The younger Schmill graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1910, he went to work for Green and Wicks for a year. In 1912 he joined George Cary and worked there for a year and in 1913 he joined his father's firm. After the death of his father in 1914 his brother William joined the firm and together they designed many churches, rectory, convents and schools. William died in 1952 and Karl continued to practice with various partners until his death in May of 1967. Besides the work at St. Francis, the firm had a number of significant commission including Transfiguration RC Church (1893), Corpus Christi RC Church (1907) NR listed 2007, St. Gerard RC Church (1911), Assumption RC Church (1914).

Max G. Beierl - Church

Max G. Beierl and William Lansing became partners around 1892; both had worked in the office of Green and Wicks prior to forming the partnership. Lansing and Beierl are credited with a number of noteworthy structures within Buffalo including the C. W. Miller Livery Stable [(1892-1894) NR Listed 2007], Lafayette Presbyterian Church (1894),  the collaborative design with state architect Isaac Perry for the Connecticut Street Armory [(1898) NR Listed 1994], Holy Family Roman Catholic Church (1906), and numerous residential, commercial, and ecclesiastical designs. In 1910, the Lansing and Beierl partnership dissolved and Lansing formed a new partnership with Lawrence H. Bley (1884-1939), an assistant in the previous firm. Max Beirel died in the early 1930's, little information exists concerning Beirel's early life or the exact date of his death.

The Franz Xavier Zettler Works of Munich - Windows

Franz Xavier Zettler, the son-in-law of Joseph Gabriel Mayer who had established the Institute for Christian Art Works in 1847, worked with his father-in-law until striking out on his own in 1870. In 1882 Zettler's company was appointed as the "Royal Bavarian Art Institute for Stained Glass" by "Mad" King Ludwig II. Both the Mayer and Zettler studios perfected what became known as the "Munich Style". "In this method, religious scenes were painted on larger sheets of glass, and then fused to the glass by firing at very high temperatures thus allowing for a blending of colors previously not attainable by the old medieval method. In the windows of the Munich school the leaded seams did not interrupt or intrude upon the scene portrayed, but rather were camouflaged in such a way they became hardly noticeable.  The new style also allowed for extremely detailed depictions of their subjects.  The scenes depicted were heavily influenced by the emotion and sentimentality of the 19th century European Romantic style of painting, and the detail and ornateness of the German Baroque style. Zettler and his Royal Bavarian Art Institute became known for the quality of their design, clearness of glass in spite of rich use of colors and their conscious employment of the medium to realize harmonious decorative effects. The firm also gained a reputation for technological innovations and familiarity with Christian iconography. Their windows appear in many American churches, especially those founded by European immigrants.

Fr. Raphael & Josef Varga - Murals

Fr. Raphael [Pfisterer], a Benedictine Monk, was about forty-years of age when he undertook the painted of the apse at St. Francis Xavier. He was born in Bavaria and moved to the United States. He established his studio at St. Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire. It is said that students would come from all over America to study with him. During his career he served as the president of the Catholic Art Association in America.

Working with Father Raphael at St. Francis Xavier was Josef Varga, a Hungarian immigrant, who had settled in Black Rock. Varga had decorated a number of churches in the city as well as some suburban churches. The murals in the apse, the Marian and St. Joseph chapels were executed by Father Raphael. In a news paper article by Louis Melody relating to St. Francis Xavier, Meloy states that in this remarkable series of paintings Father Raphael "was given the first real opportunity to show the big work of which he was capable. He has made a special study of basilicas of the early centuries and evidently steeped his soul in the traditions of Italy. The decorations are of the conventional traditional order, though where opportunity was given; he has wondrously modified them to relate them to the present."

Josef Varga worked primarily in the nave, he did the stenciling of the intrados and spandrels of the arches of the nave arcade, as well as the Christian symbols on the spandrels and between the windows of the clerestory he painted events in the life of Christ.

Bley & Lyman - Altars

In 1912 Duane S. Lyman (1886-1966) entered into partnership with Lansing and Bley. Lyman was born in Lockport, New York and received his education at Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School. When the U. S. entered the First World War Lyman volunteered for military service. At the war's end he returned to the firm and when William Lansing retired in 1919 the firm became Bley and Lyman. Over the years the firm demonstrated its ability to work in the popular revival styles of the early twentieth century as well as the emerging Art Deco and Art Moderne styles.  Upon the death of Bley in 1939 Lyman continue to work under Duane Lyman and Associates.

The Classic Revival/ Art Deco Williamsville High School [(1949-1951) NR Listed 2008] and the Art Deco Christ the King Chapel at Canisius College (1949) are just two examples of a large body of work that was done for a varied group of clients.

Recent history of St. Francis

In 1968, in response to a decline in enrolment, St. Francis Xavier School was merged with the school of St. John the Baptist a short distance away. The merged schools continued to offered instruction in all elementary grades. St. Francis' school which had its beginnings in 1847 ceased to function as a school and the building was used only for parish functions. 1972 marked the end of over one hundred years of service the Sisters of St. Joseph had provided the people of St. Francis Xavier Parish. Because of a decline in vocations, the Sisters withdrew from St. Francis Convent and as teachers at the merged school resulting in its closing. Their home which stood for many years behind the school was demolished. For a short time classes returned to St. Francis Xavier School, but now with lay teachers.

In 1983 a school consolidation plan involving St. Francis Xavier and other parishes in the area was implemented and St. Francis Xavier School was once again closed. In August of 1995 the parishes of St. Francis Xavier and St. John the Baptist were linked under one pastor. In June of 2005 Buffalo's Bishop Edward U. Kmiec announced a parish restructuring program, the "Journey of Faith and Grace", necessitated by the decline of parishioners in many of the parishes. In July of 2007 the one hundred and sixty year history of St. Francis Xavier Parish came to an end, the church was closed. As has happened with other architecturally significant churches, St. Francis Xavier Church could have been stripped of its unique stain glass and left at the mercy of the elements and vandals. But that was not going to happen, in September of 2008 the church complex was purchased and the church is now the centerpiece of the Buffalo Religious Arts Center.

The "Journey of Faith and Grace" is ongoing with the remaining parish mergers slated to take place in 2009 and 2010, when completed the "Journey of Faith and Grace" will result in the 265 parishes and 275 worship sites of the Diocese of Buffalo being reduced to 180 parishes using 198 worship sites. It is the goal of the Buffalo Religious Art Center to convert the church of St. Francis Xavier into a gallery and display as the art work from the closed churches while retaining the magnificence of the church. The Center has acquired stained glass, statues, paintings, and other artifacts, not only from closed Catholic churches, but also from churches of other denominations. It is the Center's objective to see the school and rectory reused in some productive manner, these buildings have served the community for many years, the complex has always been and will continue to be a center of neighborhood activity and pride.The tower stands as a visible symbol of Black Rock and it is the goal of the art center to continue to see this landmark flourish.

Larned, J. N. A History Of Buffalo,New York, The Progress of the Empire State Company, 1911

Davies, J. G. Temples, Churches and Mosques, a Guide to the Appreciation of Religious Architecture, New York, The Pilgrim Press, 1982

Toman, Rolf, Editor, Romanesque Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Oldenburg, Germany 1997 2/5/2009 neither the name of the paper nor the date of the article is given

Page by Chuck LaChiusa in 2010
| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index... |.....E-Mail ...| .

web site consulting by ingenious, inc.