Welcome to the seventh and final “church visit” in my series about the Holy Thursday Tradition of Visiting Seven Churches. If you missed my introduction post explaining all about the tradition and my interest in it, you can access it here. I’ll list the links to the other six individual church posts at the end of this article.
We have come full circle and are back in the very heart of Old Polonia, where we began just seven days ago with a post about St. Stanislaus Church. Which is, in fact, only a half a mile away from today’s church, Corpus Christi. Or as my kids used to call it, the Broadway Market Church, because whenever we went to the market, we’d make a stop at Corpus Christi.
Corpus Christi – the Early Years
The history of Corpus Christi is a bit different from the other Polonia churches in Buffalo. In this series, we have heard the stories of families banning together to petition for a church, for overcrowding reasons, for distance reasons, for safety from the railroads etc. But, by 1898, Bishop James Quigley knew that a second church was needed right in the heart of Old Polonia, very close to St. Stan’s. It was, after all, one of the most densely populated areas of the city. The diocese had built several new churches north, south and east of St. Stan’s. But the very core of the neighborhood remained in need of another parish.
Bishop Quigley invited Fr. Hyacinth Fudzinski, a Franciscan Friar, to Buffalo from Syracuse, to found the parish. Fr. Hyacinth was born in Czarnkow, Poland. The bishop felt he would fit right in to the heavily Polish neighborhood. Several lots and homes were purchased at the corner of Clark and Kent Streets. (Forgive me, but I still get a very childish kick out of this.) One of the homes was used for church services, with a capacity of only 300. It was, of course, to be temporary.
The First Church is Built
In August of 1898, construction began on a combination church/school/parish hall. The first floor church had a capacity of 1000. In the first year alone, the brand new parish registered 650 families.
The Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph taught at the school. This is also different from other churches in the area. Most of the other parishes had Felicians teaching in their schools. The Franciscan Sisters were a relatively new order, and since Fr. Hyacinth was a Franciscan Friar it seemed only natural to him. A rectory was built in 1900, and five years later a convent was added for the Sisters.
A New Church for Corpus Christi Parish
The new parish thrived. Another, larger church was required. In 1907, the cornerstone for the Romanesque Revival Church we know today, was laid. It’s built of Onondaga limestone, and faced with red Medina sandstone. It was dedicated in 1909.
Here’s a really fun fact. Letters written to God, by the schoolchildren, were stuffed into the crosses that top the towers of the new church. Sweet! Wouldn’t you love to read them?
In my opinion, these Romanesque Revival churches in the area are cover for what lies inside. Looking at them from outside, you would never be able to guess the beauty within. And Corpus Christi is beautiful. Gorgeous in fact. The sanctuary contains a reproduction of ‘Disputa’ by Raphael Santi. It’s breathtaking.
The Ensuing Years
Each pastor of Corpus Christi took on some form of addition to the church, the complex, or added interior decoration in some form. The murals were added. The Stations of the Cross were framed, the organ was added. In addition, the murals were redone by artist M.M. Rzeznik. The mural on the back wall above the inside entrance along with the smaller paintings of saints above the arches inside were new additions by Rzeznik.
The church flourished and was the center of life for most of it’s parishioners. There were clubs for just about everything you can imagine, needlework, sewing, baseball and basketball teams, dramatic societies, bowling and more. You heard that right. I said bowling. Until a few years ago, I thought my parish was the only one in Buffalo that had a bowling alley!
In 1929, earlier than most parishes, registrations at Corpus Christi fell from 2,000 to 1,750 families. This is largely because of the building of the Central Terminal, only blocks away. 300 homes were demolished to build it.
Still 1,750 families are plenty to sustain a parish. And they did. For several more decades Corpus Christi remained the center of the Polish neighborhood it serviced.
Here’s Another Fun Fact
Beginning in 1931, Fr. Justin Figas, founder of St. Francis High School in Athol Springs, began broadcasting his ‘Fr. Justin’s Rosary Hour’ radio program from the sanctuary of Corpus Christi. It was the oldest continuing hour-long religious network program in the Polish language in the world. Cool.
You Know Where This is Going – But Do You?
The school remained open until 1988, when enrollments fell to the point of no return. The school was torn down and replaced with a parking lot.
In 2003, the Franciscan Friars announced they would be leaving Corpus Christi, and that the church would most likely close by the end of that year. It seemed that Corpus Christi would go the way of so many other Catholic Churches in Buffalo. Parishioners enlisted the help of Msgr. Matthew Kopacz of St. Casimir’s Parish. Msgr. Kopacz contacted the Pauline Fathers and Brothers, and after seeing the complex, they decided to take over the church and it’s grounds. The Pauline Fathers and Brothers assumed control in January, 2004.
This seemed to breathe new life into the parish. Reportedly, some older parishioners have rejoined, and new ones have come. There is a real, genuine effort to keep the church alive. And it seems to be working. Renovations inside the church took place only a couple of years ago. This is a good sign.
I hope and pray that this church makes it. It is too important a treasure to let go.
Corpus Christi was always one of the churches we’d go to with my Dad on those church tours I spoke about in the introduction to this series. Because of that, it was one that I always took my kids to. When we started doing the Lenten mass mobs that I also mentioned in the introduction, we decided to go to Corpus Christi’s Polish mass. This had to be 2009 or 2010. Several members of our family and friends joined us that morning in the church, including my husband’s Uncle Jim, who told us that he was baptized at Corpus Christi. Nice!
I Do Not Speak Polish
We were all thankful that their missals were in both Polish and English, on pages facing each other. We felt it would be easier to follow along. Now, I don’t speak Polish. I mean I know a few words. Grandma. Grandpa. Thank you. I love you. Names of specific foods. Cheers. Cold beer. You know, the necessities for life in Buffalo.
But as mass began, I found I didn’t need the book. Everything, and everybody around me fell away. I understood it all. And I didn’t, at the same time. But I knew where we were in the mass the whole time. I felt warm and welcome, and I felt a connection. I don’t know how else to describe it.
At the end of the mass the priest did a litany along with the Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be. In Polish. But I knew each saint he invoked, and which prayers he said. Now, there was not one word of English the entire hour. I still cannot explain it to this day, other than how I’ve just described it to you. It wasn’t life changing, but it was a pretty cool experience. Whenever I think of Corpus Christi, I think of that one mass.
Update: September 22, 2020
Two days ago, I was lucky enough to attend mass at Corpus Christi for their Harvest Mass. It was the 41st Annual, and due to Covid-19, the usual festival with traditional Polish food, drink and music were cancelled.
But what a mass! I am happy to share photos of the day. I hope you enjoy them.
The first is a photo of the woman who made the harvest decorations. They are made in the Polish tradition that she learned in Poland before she came to America. She is now teaching the process to other members of the parish so the tradition may be continued, and passed on to the next generation. She grows the wheat and most of the flowers herself! What a beautiful tradition!
Where is It?
Corpus Christi Church is located at 199 Clark Street, at the corner of Kent Street. Do not miss this one. It is truly a Buffalo treasure. And if you’re of Polish descent, try the Polish mass. When the churches reopen of course.
I’ve decided to add one more post at the end of this series. It’ll be about the Polish tradition of having our Easter baskets blessed on Holy Saturday. It’s another tradition we will all miss this year. I’ll be publishing it Saturday morning.
My Final Thoughts on This Series
I would like to take a moment to thank each of you who have been following this series. Your comments and kind words are much appreciated! I’d also like to send a special shout-out to Christopher Byrd over at Broadway Fillmore Alive and Buffalo Mass Mob, and to Judith Felski over at Buffalo Sacred Sites for sharing the heck out of these posts. Many churches and individuals shared and re-posted as well. For all of this I am both grateful and humbled.
I wrote this series because i knew that I would miss our Holy Thursday Tradition. And it occurred to me that I would not be the only one. I thought that by writing these posts and getting them out there to as many people as possible, maybe I could make this Holy Week just a little bit better for all of us. All of you, have made my Easter 2020. Dziekuje. Thank you.
I hope you have enjoyed this series, and I sincerely hope that you are all well in mind, body and spirit. May we all know peace this Easter.
**Lead Image Photo Credit: Corpus Christi website
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