"Introduction: The Heritage
of Buffalo's Catholic Churches"
Buffalo's Catholic Churches: Ethnic Communities and the Architectural Legacy
By Martin F. Ederer
Pub. by digital@bates jackson LLC2003 in 2003
Reprinted with Permission
Note: Photos are NOT from the book
For far too long, the Buffalo area has taken its deeply-rooted Roman Catholic heritage and its accompanying architectural legacy for granted.
Several reasons account for this attitude. The Catholic European immigrant populations who arrived in Buffalo were accustomed to being surrounded by architectural masterworks and they made tremendous sacrifices to duplicate or at least approximate such monuments here. Living in the shadow of well-designed churches in neighborhoods of often undistinguished housing, they once again - thinking as typical Europeans - came to regard these architectural gems as integral fixtures of everyday life meriting little further notice. In so doing, Buffalo's Catholic community failed, and often fails still, to recognize its achievement and its role in shaping the area's rich religious, cultural and architectural heritage.
Only after realizing the overwhelming lack of architectural excellence in the suburbs where many of Buffalo's immigrant descendants eventually relocated, or elsewhere in the United States where Catholic traditions are far less dominant than here, has the Buffalo area belatedly begun to understand what Catholic Buffalo really accomplished.
1669-1781 Colonial history
Buffalo's Catholic community can claim a heritage that predates the existence of Buffalo, Erie County, Western New York or the United States. Only five years after the 1664 English expulsion of the Dutch from what became the English colony of New York, French adventurers, traveling with Catholic missionary priests, were exploring the Niagara frontier, not yet a part of New York, and to European colonizers, a region very much up-for-grabs. The French explorers' goal was a mixture of adventure, knowledge and possibly colonial expansion. The accompanying missionaries' goal was the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity.
In 1669, the French explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier Sieur La Salle traveled around the region, bringing with him two Sulpician priests, and in 1678, a member of LaSalle's party, Father Louis Hennepin, a Franciscan priest, gained the arguable distinction of being the first European to have seen Niagara Falls. More certain is the fact that Hennepin celebrated the first Mass ever on the shores of the Niagara River.
In 1679, the French built Fort Conti - now called Fort Niagara - guarding the mouth of the Niagara River where it empties into Lake Ontario. There a chapel was set up, which served the French until they abandoned the fort in 1688. The French returned in 1726, and built the present stone "castle," setting aside space for a chapel, which functioned until the fort fell to the British in 1759. The present chapel inside the fort is a 20th-century reconstruction of the original.
The British victory in the French and Indian War of 1756-1763 effectively put an end to an incipient Catholicism in the region, which now fell into Anglican British hands at a time when British fears of Catholicism often enough led to oppressive legislation against Catholics, and certainly little desire to encourage Catholic missionary ventures.
After the American Revolution, there was little Catholic activity in the region, thanks to a state law perpetuating earlier colonial laws prohibiting the offering of aid or shelter to Catholic priests. After the law's repeal in 1784, the few scattered Catholics of Western New York came under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Baltimore, established in 1789 with jurisdiction over the entire United States. The Catholics of a lightly populated Western New York area next came under jurisdiction of the newly created Diocese of New York in 1808. Rev. Thomas Donohue's 1904 History of the Catholic Church in Western New York identifies only five Catholic families in the settlement of Buffalo in 1821, when Rev. Patrick Kelly - merely traveling through the region - celebrated Mass in St. Paul's Episcopal Church for them.
1825 Erie Canal era
By Bishop Dubois of New York's visit to Buffalo in 1829, the situation here had changed dramatically. The Erie Canal had opened for business in 1825, bringing prosperity - and immigration - to its western terminal, the village of Buffalo. Some Irish who helped to build the canal settled here, but the Irish actually would not settle here in significant numbers until the Irish potato famine [See Irish Famine Memorial] of the 1840s. Until that time, numerous French and German immigrants making fresh starts after leaving the upheaval of post-Napoleonic Europe made up the Catholic population in Buffalo. Especially large numbers of Catholic Alsatians made their way up the canal to Western New York, most of whom spoke a Germanic dialect, but had found themselves caught in Europe somewhere between Napoleonic-era French militarism and the German nationalistic yearnings it unleashed.
Buffalo's first Roman Catholic Parish was established in 1829, a venture made possible - fittingly enough, given Western New York Catholicism's French roots - through a land bequest for that purpose by Louis Etienne LeCouteulx deCaumont, one-time financier to King Louis XVI of France, who helped bankroll the colonial war effort against the British during the American Revolution. LeCouteulx's efforts resulted in the formation of Lamb of God Church (later renamed St. Louis), the mother Catholic church of Buffalo.
The German-speaking Rev. John Nicholas Mertz became Buffalo's first resident pastor, who said Mass for his growing congregation in temporary quarters, a one-time Methodist church on Pearl Street. The parish built its own small timber-framed church, which was completed in 1832, the same year Buffalo was incorporated as a city.
Other parishes followed Lamb of God's establishment: the Irish Old St. Patrick at Batavia Street (present-day Broadway) and Ellicott Street (1837), and the German Redemptorist St. Mary, at Batavia and Pine Streets (1842). Meanwhile, missionary efforts among outlying Catholic settlements - most notably the missions served by St. John Neumann in the late 1830s, were showing promise.
In 1847, the Diocese of Buffalo was created,and Bishop John Timon, a Pennsylvania-born Vincentian, assumed the task of building the new diocese as its first bishop. By the 1840s Buffalo was growing by leaps and bounds, and so too were its primarily Irish and German Catholic populations - who often coexisted only uneasily - making new parishes necessary. By the end of the 19th century, new groups of Catholic immigrants - Polish, Italian,Ukrainian, Lebanese, Hungarian and Slovak - required new parishes in their ethnic enclaves to minister to their distinctive linguistic and cultural needs.
The 1870s through the 1920s, peak years of Buffalo's prosperity, witnessed a veritable church-building boom in Buffalo for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. During these years, some of the greatest Catholic church projects got underway, from large but austere Irish-American structures to massive, elegant churches built by the Germans and the Polish. Almost every parish church represented an ethnic group, whether formally constituted as such, or whether it effectively gained an ethnic identity simply because of the neighborhood it served.
European Revival styles
The buildings immigrant parish communities built strongly reflected European sensibilities. To Europeans who came from a culture where churches dominated both urban and rural skylines and formed community focal points, the church had to be substantial, it had to be built for the ages, and to the European, that meant it had to be built of stone. Immigrant parish communities consequently emulated the building styles of their homelands, which they attempted to replicate in their new home. As a result, Catholic churches displaying Roman Basilica styles, as well as Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architectural styles are all represented in Buffalo.
But these more grandiose dreams for parish churches were usually realized only slowly. Grittier, more immediate realities demanded that more modest places of worship be built as soon as a parish was formed. Buffalo's harsh climate demanded that a new parish be sheltered as soon as possible, and that, together with the frightening financial realities of an infant parish, generally precluded immediate construction of any massive stone churches.
Accordingly, most of Buffalo's Catholic congregations only managed to build formidable stone structures after they were first housed in more temporary setups. Most parishes first worshiped in rather small, wood-frame structures, a style best characterized as "Yankee Shack style," many of which were slapped together in less than a week's time. These wood-frame structures then were replaced by rather bland American-Gothic brick structures or combination church/school multipurpose designs, which then in turn were replaced by distinctive and elegant stone church designs.
Depending on a parish's finances, some parishes never achieved the final stone-church stage or - like Immaculate Conception, St. James and St. Matthew - began the third stage but could never quite complete it. One church, Holy Apostles SS. Peter and Paul, remained at the first stage, now a remarkable historic monument, since it is the last of its kind among Catholic churches in Buffalo.
This church building boom obviously required not only adequate funding, but also specialized architects, manufacturers and craftsmen to meet the demand for church fittings and furnishings: pews and woodwork, organs, stained glass, muralwork and ornamentation, stonework, marblework and artistic metalwork. Local architects Albert A. Post, George Dietel, and the firms of Schallmo and Oakley, Schmill and Gould and Lansing and Beierl were responsible for a considerable share of Buffalo Catholic church designs from the turn of the twentieth century into the Depression. Local talent met many of the needs of the numerous church-building projects taking shape.
Local organ makers
As the church building work increased in Buffalo, it also gave rise to a home-grown organ-building industry. In the 19th century, Garrett House began building organs in Buffalo, and a fine example of his work remains here in St. Stephen's Church on Elk Street, an organ which began its life at the old First Presbyterian Church.
William Mohr, a German immigrant, also worked here, and built the organ for St. Mary Redemptorist on Broadway,which was auctioned off to a buyer from Texas in 1981.
During the depths of the Depression, Hermann Schlicker, an immigrant from Bavaria, began the Schlicker Organ Works, which supplied for the musical needs of numerous Buffalo churches of all denominations and went on to build organs all over the United States, earning a prestigious reputation in the process, and building a business that still flourishes.
The nearby Erie, Pennsylvania Teller-Kent organ works is also well represented in the Buffalo area, as is Johnson & Sons of Massachusetts (St. Stanislaus) and Hook & Hastings of Massachusetts, their most notable work here the organ in St. Joseph's Cathedral.
Hook & Hasting organ in St. Joseph's Cathedral
Local stained glass studios
Buffalo's great age of church building also spawned a local stained-glass industry, the Buffalo Stained Glass Works, Riester and Frohe, and Otto Andrle. Much stained glass was also imported,especially from the Royal Munich Art Works, the Bavarian Franz Mayer Works and from Tiroler Glasmalerei in Innsbruck, Austria.
Altars and bells
Much marblework for altars was imported from Italy.
Finally, true to their European Catholic heritage, few of the immigrant congregations considered their churches complete without bells, an ideal which stood in stark contrast to American Protestant low-church culture which looked askance at churches that refused to be polite, dour and silent. Some of the German and Polish parishes, especially, spared little expense in installing elaborate 3, 4, and 5-bell peals.
Finally, the high quality of Buffalo's Catholic church designs would have never been possible without the vision of Buffalo's clergy, its parish priests, who were often personally responsible for determining and modifying church designs for their parishes. Many of them possessed the cultural background and cosmopolitan finishing to understand well the cultural importance of their projects. Some of Buffalo's clergy were trained locally, either by the Franciscans at St. Bonaventure College or by the Vincentians at Our Lady of the Angels Seminary (now Niagara University), but many others completed studies in Louvain, Belgium, Rome, or at the Canisianum in Innsbruck, Austria.
Some of the clergy were immigrants themselves, and came to the United States as already-ordained priests.
American influence on design
If Europe inspired the designs that developed during Buffalo's Catholic church-building boom from the 1870s through the 1920s, those designs still reflected the fact that these churches were in America. Often they display broader, more horizontal American proportionalities. While the immigrant congregations attempted to build for the ages, their limited finances, combined with the total lack of government support common in Europe often led to construction of thinner, less massive walls (St. Michael's 4-foot-thick walls are a notable exception), a deficiency that nonetheless could be tolerated - with the exception of the disastrous New Cathedral design - as structural steel increasingly bore more of the loads of the structures being built. The other way to cut costs was for the parishioners to provide much of the basic labor of hauling stone and construction debris before and after their long and physically demanding work hours.
While many of the churches' designs reflected their ethnic heritage, there were design exceptions here too that underscored the fact that these churches were in America, especially among the German parishes, many which chose to adopt Italian or other un-Germanic architectural styles.
If St. Louis Church, St. Mary Redemptorist, St. Ann, and St. Mary of Sorrows adopted obviously Germanic design principles, many others adopted Roman Basilica designs (St. Francis Xavier, St. Gerard), Italian Romanesque (St., Francis de Sales, Blessed Trinity), or Byzantine (St. Vincent de Paul).
While Catholic southern Germany (the homeland. of many of Buffalo's German Catholics) long had a love affair with Italian Baroque designs, effectively making it its own by the 18th century, why so many Buffalo German Catholic congregations opted for more ancient Mediterranean designs here is open to conjecture. Perhaps the pastors simply let their imaginations run. Or perhaps Buffalo's German Catholics wanted to accentuate a Catholic identity that distinguished them from their Evangelical Lutheran compatriots, most of whom built more conventional Germanic/American Gothic structures.
But the story of Buffalo's parishes and their visible symbols of their devotion to their religious beliefs is incomplete if it is merely a story about an impressive architectural legacy. These structures symbolized a parish community, and almost always an ethnic identity. The parishes officially staked out a place for Catholics in a Protestant America, they informed a Protestant America that the Catholic Church and its people were here to stay: it was no accident that many of Buffalo's Catholic churches were strategically located at prominent street corners. The parishes provided a sense of place, a sense of community for immigrants settling into a strange city in a strange land. They provided a piece of home, a place with familiar language and customs.
For no group was this truer than for the Polish, who had already looked to their church in their politically voiceless and partitioned homeland to help maintain their identity as a people. Above all, Buffalo's parishes served as preservers of a now-distant home culture that immigrants often cherished but had to leave behind frequently enough for primarily economic reasons.
Buffalo's Catholic parishes also provided the immigrants a window on the new world they were living in, introduced them to that new world, and helped to prepare them for it. The parishes became centers of education, exercising a role the Church had long held in Europe. So important was education, in fact, that many parishes built schools before they even considered building churches. The fact that so many parishes in Buffalo never stopped worshiping in rather uninspired church/school combination buildings (St. Agatha, St. Ambrose, Holy Spirit, St. Valentine, Visitation, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, and the still existing combination buildings at St. Rose, St. Florian and St. Bartholomew) forcefully attests to the stress the Catholic Church in Buffalo placed on education.
Just as churches formed the dominating aesthetic focal points of villages and urban neighborhoods in Europe, Buffalo's parishes did the same for heavily Catholic immigrant neighborhoods here. The one-city-block combination of church, school, rectory and convent - sometimes as at Corpus Christi really resembling a fortress-made for a formidable sight. But the parishes were not merely about creating external image. They also served as centers of the neighborhood's social life, and created a "street identity" for Buffalo's Catholics, who routinely identified where they lived by parish, also a venerable European practice. Nobody who has spent any amount of time in Buffalo has not heard, especially among older generations, something like "I grew up in St. Boniface," or "She married a guy from St. Stan's." If churches meant neighborhood focal points, every neighborhood needed to have one.
But practical considerations also dictated the same necessity. Most of Buffalo's parishes developed at a time when relatively few people - and certainly not poor, newly-arrived immigrants - owned automobiles. The parish church consequently needed to be a reasonable walking distance, especially for the children who attended school there. The common observation that Buffalo has "so many churches so close together" is based on an American automotive lifestyle and mindset far removed from the pre-automotive and ethnic mentalities that built "so many churches so close together." Parishes had to be conveniently located for pedestrians, or to serve different ethnic groups who occupied the same neighborhood.
The fortunes of Buffalo's parishes mirrored the fortunes of Buffalo. During Buffalo's age of rapid growth through the 1870s through the 1920s, Buffalo's parishes grew and multiplied. When Buffalo stood as one of the most important cities in the United States, and boasted of more millionaires per capita by 1900 than any other city in America, Buffalo's parishes grew and prospered. But they did so in quintessentially immigrant settings that remained isolated from the millionaires' neighborhoods if not from their businesses and factories that they toiled at.
1960s and the suburbs
In some ways, however, Buffalo's parishes also presaged the troubles that would lead to Buffalo's population decline after the 1950s. The Redemptorists at St. Mary on Broadway already sounded the alarm in the 1940s, citing parish demographics that revealed disturbing trends already underway since 1918. Growth had leveled off, reflecting Buffalo's transition from a bustling frontier boomtown needing everything and attracting the young and adventuresome in prime childbearing years to a more settled, established place with a less youthful demographic. But the Redemptorists' fears went beyond observing a rather natural demographic trend. People were leaving the old neighborhood for more pleasant, more prosperous parts of the city, and most alarming to the Redemptorists, mixed marriages were rising as the German immigrants of the neighborhood became increasingly American - and wanted to do so, a result, in part, of World War I discrimination in the United States against German-Americans. But mixed marriages also reflected a growing belief among Catholics that religious differences were not so significant any more, an "Americanization" that neutralized long-standing Reformation-era religious rivalries the German immigrants brought with them to America.
"Becoming American" would turn out to be a significant factor in Catholic church design both in Buffalo proper and in the Diocese of Buffalo as a whole after the Depression and World War II, and these two events marked a major watershed in church design for all denominations in Buffalo. The financial body-blow of the Depression forced projects to become more modest, more practical, and more cost-effective. By the end of the War, the age of big church dreams had ended. The few church-building projects launched afterward no longer emulated traditional European designs. Plans became more modern, more horizontal, and in many ways, more temporary-looking. At the time this was considered progress: practical functionality was an improvement over drafty, ornate and expensive. Elements of traditional Latin church design remained, but they were superimposed on rather uninspired, cost-effective, practical, almost mass-production-designed structures that appeared to be almost cheap caricatures of more proper architectural specimens. That transition occurred despite the fact that prosperity returned to Buffalo as a result of the War. In a sense, Buffalo's Catholics had become American, and now having mastered English and facing less discrimination after the shared War experience began to break down ethnic barriers, they became less attached to the old neighborhood.
The exodus to the suburbs - Cheektowaga, West Seneca, Amherst, the Tonawandas, and beyond - had begun, facilitated nicely by the automobile and the American abundance of space. Thanks to postwar prosperity and educational opportunities made available through the G.I. Bill, many immigrants and children of immigrants who lived in the typical two-flat house in Buffalo grew prosperous enough to dream the American dream of owning single-family homes. Their children, the baby-boomers, could grow up in neighborhoods with large backyards far from industrial smokestacks, far from sooty houses on narrow lots, and far from the old ethnic neighborhoods that more prosperous second generations began to equate with their childhood poverty.
Other factors fueling the move to the suburbs reflected the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s that convulsed the whole country. World War I and especially World War II had attracted large numbers of rural African-Americans from the South to migrate to northern cities for jobs. Those who ended up in the Buffalo area settled in Lackawanna near the steel mills and in the more southern reaches of the Lower East Side where Buffalo's own very old African-American community - a not inconsiderable percentage of whom were Catholic - had established a neighborhood. As the Black neighborhood grew with the new influx of African-Americans, they moved into nearby German neighborhoods. An intricate combination of racist attitudes and sometimes merely typical Buffalo ethnic clannishness led many of the white German homeowners to seek homes elsewhere.
But racial and ethnic attitudes, too, were only part of the story. As African-Americans were still adjusting to northern urban life - and discovering that even up North the American Dream refused to include them - all the social rules were changing during the ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s. Those changes fueled skyrocketing crime rates in both Black and White communities, and those, in turn, fueled fears that led many who had the means to do so - more whites could - to seek more space with less people who could commit crimes.
Desegregation of schools and court-ordered busing designed to get people comfortable with the new realities often had the opposite effect on people who were not willing to sacrifice their children's educations to social experimentation. They got out.
Many of the blacks, many poor, especially as the local economy cooled off, also suffered from the same social upheavals in the same neighborhoods. But they had to stay, and what was a rather informal - but rigid - Buffalo ethnic neighborhood self-segregation system now had racial dimensions superimposed upon it. Meanwhile, the growing illegal drug culture and sexual revolution created new types of havoc, or otherwise loosened social restrictions: the crime rate rose, and fears multiplied exponentially as television - increasingly in full color - brought those realities into everyone's living rooms.
Urban renewal barracks and high-rises replaced single or double-family homes in some neighborhoods. The projects, designed to save the city, often had quite the opposite effect, attributable in part to a strong middle-American aversion to apartment-dwelling. Heavily Italian neighborhoods which succumbed to urban-renewal apartments dispersed, since apartment-dwelling precluded the possibility of any real gardening. Other factors were strictly local. As the construction of the Kensington Expressway chewed its way - at a seemingly interminable pace - through prime East Side neighborhoods, bringing prolonged noise and mess with it, "For Sale" signs went up, and people left. Finally, the housing stock, some not terribly well-built to begin with, had begun to reach the end of its useful life unless it underwent extensive renovation. Given the overall situation, few decided that option was worth it. They got out. As property values plummeted, unsold houses were rented out both by people and to people often little interested in maintenance.
By the late 1970s and the early 1980s the population exodus became a hemorrhage brought about by a combination of factors, only one of which was the pull of the suburbs and the push of urban changes. The local economy bogged down as manufacturing jobs moved to parts of the country - or points abroad - with cheaper labor and less regulation. Now many who left the city kept going and left the entire Western New York area.
All of these changes that presented new challenges to Buffalo's people and its leadership also created difficult new challenges for Buffalo's Catholic parishes. Numbers in parish registers - both demographic and financial - steadily declined as primarily Protestant Blacks moved into neighborhoods - especially on the East Side - that were previously heavily Catholic. But non-Catholics moving into Catholic settlements represented only part of the problem. Remaining Catholics became less inclined to participate in the life of their local parishes as the same cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that redefined urban and social realities also redefined believers' relationships to their church communities. That redefinition was exacerbated by changes in the church itself, a shocking proposition to numerous Catholics, long beleaguered by an ambient and often hostile Protestant culture in America, who had come to believe that the Catholic Church's disciplines and liturgical practices were as unchangeable as its doctrines.|
Stained glass window detail in St. Louis Church
The Second Vatican Council, which convened from 1962-1965, sought to define the place of the Catholic Church in a modern world dominated by new technologies and radical new social ideals, and a world that had to include and respect non-European peoples, many of whom were now Catholic. In many respects, the council was already charting a course for the next millennium, and many Catholics, both clergy and laity alike, were not yet ready for what Vatican 1I was proposing.
The result was confusion. Some clergy and laity grumbled that the church had become too liberal and had lost its mission - and its mind. Others, basing their understanding of the council on what was discussed - but rejected - assumed wrongly that the Church had "cleaned house" doctrinally, and basic church teachings - especially on basic moral principles and sexual ethics - and all liturgical propriety, had been scrapped. These misunderstandings made their way back to the parishes and made church attendance simply too challenging, and often enough, too upsetting. To many youth taken up in earnest with the cultural revolution and frequently turning onto the sexual revolution that accompanied it, a confused local church simply wasn't relevant or worth the effort. To many of the older people, a church - often defined by strange events at the local parish far beyond anything Vatican II authorized - was no longer worthy of respect. If people ever needed excuses to leave the church, they now found plenty.
As a result of often tenuous understandings of what the Council was about, many parishes began to renovate their churches to bring them into conformity with the liturgical changes that emerged from Vatican II. Often the result was far more renovation than was necessary, and tragically inartistic renovation at that.
All of these challenges to Buffalo's parishes, complicated by a looming priest shortage by the 1990s, led to the inevitable as parish membership figures dwindled in parishes that maintained a presence in neighborhoods long after their congregations had evaporated. Parishes would have to merge and close their schools, share priests, merge parishes, or close down altogether. Statistics tell the story: from the founding of the diocese in 1847 to 1970, seven churches were closed in Buffalo. From 1970 to 2000, 19 churches were closed, first mainly German, and then in the 1990s several Polish.
Demographics explain the realities. Buffalo grew from 1847 on through the 1950s, and during this time parishes were closed primarily as the result of reorganization or relocation of congregations. By the 1960s, Buffalo's population began to shrink, a fundamentally different challenge to Buffalo's parishes. Buffalo's 2000 census indicated that Buffalo's population had shrunk to 1880s levels, when Buffalo's Catholic community needed fewer churches (there were 28 functioning parishes by 1889). The obvious result is a very real threat to an important part of Buffalo's architectural and cultural heritage and to the fabric of Buffalo's neighborhoods.
Recent developments paint a rather gloomy picture for the future of many of Buffalo's parishes and their architectural legacy. As the frequency and number of church closings have increased, especially among the many fine churches built in one-time working-class East Side neighborhoods, the community has not grown any more comfortable with them. Closings have remained controversial, and to a city facing one punch after another, the elimination of parishes symbolizes the final, definitive abandonment in which God Himself seems to be giving upon Buffalo. As controversial as church closings invariably are, the problems leading to the closings are equally as real. The city has shrunk, and much of the city's Catholic population has moved elsewhere, with little inclination to spend time in the old neighborhood or in the old parish. The priest shortage is growing. Many huge city churches, beautiful, but monstrously expensive to maintain, are more empty than full, while essentially cardboard suburban box churches are bursting at the seams.
Architecturally splendid churches are wonderful, but their primary purpose is to be churches, and if they are empty, so too is their primary reason to exist. But still they are not merely "bricks and mortar." They are symbols of the faith of poor immigrant communities who sacrificed much to build them. They beautify the skyline; they remind us that religion, that truth, that everything that is good matters. In short, these churches are symbols, but their power as symbols depends equally on a continuing commitment among the Catholic community to the buildings, to the parish communities and above all, to the Catholic Faith they represent.
Still, the news is not all bad, and signs of hope are often sometimes the strongest where things appear the most hopeless. Parishes in North Buffalo and South Buffalo are generally holding steady. Hispanic Catholics on the West Side are helping to fill one-time Italian and Irish parishes there, and Catholic Sudanese and Vietnamese enclaves on the West Side also show promise. Some of the old German parishes, especially St. Ann, Blessed Trinity and St. Mary of Sorrows (now meeting in the large rectory) have managed to attract parishioner bases among those neighborhoods' African-Americans - who have longer family histories in America than many of the German-American families they replaced there.
In 2000, Buffalo's first new church in more than thirty years, St. Martin de Porres, was completed, a modest, affordable, pleasant structure. While the parish has no formal ethnic designation, it is nonetheless a primarily Black parish, and claims a much younger demographic than most other Buffalo parishes. And finally, all of Buffalo's parishes, wherever their location, continue to render yeoman service tending to Buffalo's spiritual and social needs under increasingly difficult circumstances.
What follows is the story of Buffalo's parishes, a "biography" of every Catholic parish that has ever existed in Buffalo, a story that for too long has only been told in pieces, or not at all, but one that needs to be told. It is a remarkable story, both inspiring and painfully human, and reflects both the heights to which faith can inspire human action and sometimes also the depths to which human frailty can lead - a humbling reminder that the Catholic Church is very much a church of sinners struggling toward sanctity. Buffalo's parishes all played - and play still - an important role in that struggle. This is a story of Buffalo's own "branch office" of the 2000-year-old Church of Peter, a story about Buffalo's ethnically diverse Catholic communities and the visible symbols of their devotion to their faith.