Welcome to the sixth of seven “church visits” 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 individual church posts at the end of this article.
Today we’ll be talking about St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy Church. And we’re back in Old Polonia for this one. Albeit on the outskirts…
Early Life at St. Luke’s
The history of St. Luke’s Parish is one that is familiar in this series. Overcrowding in already established parishes. Too far to travel to church and/or school. In June of 1908, several families gathered in a home that would eventually become the site for their church, to organize and petition the diocese for a new parish.
They immediately found themselves to be 150 families strong and the bishop appointed Rev. Leopold Stein as their first pastor. On July 19, only one month later, they laid the cornerstone for a temporary church building. It was dedicated just ten days after that! This congregation did not mess around! The building doubled as a school during construction of a new, larger structure that was a combination church and school. The larger structure was complete by early 1909.
Fr. Stein left St. Luke’s in 1913, and was replaced by Fr. Stanislaus Fimowicz, who within a few short years, realized that the combination church/school would not accommodate the congregation too much longer. The parish continued to grow. In the 1920’s, with roughly 1200 families, Fr. Fimowicz began in earnest the plans for the new church. The parish acquired more land to do so.
Fr. Fimowicz worked with the architectural firm of Chester Oakley, with Joseph Fronczak serving as project supervisor. In October, 1927, construction began. The completed church was dedicated in May of 1930.
When I first read that St. Luke’s took this long to build, I thought “Why so long?”. Then I remembered the inside and how beautiful it is. Not only the murals, but the tile work, the floor, the ceiling! This church is truly a work of art!
It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times
The parish thrived after the church was completed. The population of the area continued to grow as did the parish. Until, of course, the second half of the 20th century when people moved in droves to the suburbs. Attendance declined slowly but surely. It’s that old familiar story we’ve heard time and again in this series.
The surrounding neighborhood deteriorated. Badly. Worse than any of the other churches we’ve covered in this series.
The school closed in 1985, and the church was closed by the diocese in 1993. This was the final nail in the coffin of the surrounding neighborhood.
Or was it?
Enter Amy Betros and Norm Paolini
You would think that would have been the end of it. But after the closing of the church, the diocese put it and all of St. Luke’s outbuildings up for sale. Two very unlikely people, Amy Betros and Norm Paolini, bought it all and started a true grassroots outreach program. It would become one of the most important not-for-profit organizations in the city.
Who are These Two?
Amy was the owner of a very successful restaurant. She visited Medjugorje in 1990, where she had a major conversion, and found a new devotion to the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. She came home on fire for the Lord. Her restaurant became the place to go for a free meal because word got around that no one was ever turned away. She also opened her beautiful suburban home to people who needed shelter. Anyone. Hookers, the mentally ill, addicts. Anyone.
Norm was a cancer research scientist at Roswell Park. He took part in the music ministry at his parish, and ran a prayer group that welcomed anyone. Basically, Norm would minister to whomever crossed his path and seemed to need something. He gave of his own money freely to anyone who needed it.
The two met on a pilgrimage to Fatima, Portugal in 1992. They both somehow knew it was right that they work together. When they returned home, they began ministering together. To the poor, afflicted, or anyone who needed help. But in 1993, Bishop Edward Grosz, who was a friend of Amy’s, told them about St. Luke’s Church going on the market, and suggested they buy it. Most people would have laughed and said something to the effect of, “Oh, sure! I’ll sell everything I’ve worked for and buy a church!” But Amy and Norm took it seriously, and prayed about it.
Of course you know by now that they did buy it. Amy sold her restaurant, Norm took an early retirement from his job, and together with a very generous benefactor, bought the entire complex. Very brave. And huge amounts of faith.
There were long hard days ahead for Amy and Norm, as they began their mission in perhaps one of the worst areas of the city. Poverty, mental issues, addiction, this neighborhood had (and has) it all. But now there is help for anyone who needs it.
I first became aware of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in the late 90’s when one of my son’s classes went there for a retreat. I could not have been more impressed. With the retreat itself, but with the two who gave up all their worldly possessions to live here among the poorest and neediest of our city.
Admit it, and I will too, that since the Covid-19 lockdown began we have all felt a little sting of inconvenience. I consider it divine intervention that when I scribbled out a list of seven churches to write about this week, St. Luke’s was among them. Writing this puts things in perspective. That Amy and Norm were willing to give up so much, to help others is beyond amazing.
What is Going on at St. Luke’s Today?
The mission has grown exponentially. From feeding the hungry, to clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned (if you stay at St. Luke’s, and go to prison, they will visit you, send you care packages etc.), burying the dead, and all around loving all of God’s people. No matter who you are, you are welcomed and taken care of here. I cannot even begin to explain to you all that they do at St. Luke’s on a daily basis. This post would have to be a book in order to do that.
I can however refer you to their website to learn more about them. Take a little bit of time (it’s Holy Week!) to really look at it and see for yourself the incredible things they do. Amy and Norm’s stories are there too.
I will also mention that St. Luke’s is still open during the Covid-19 lockdown. Following all the rules, but still ministering to all who need it. Their dining room is closed, but they are handing out sandwiches daily; packing and giving out bags of food to families in need weekly; cooking, packing and sending over 80 hot meals to the Flickinger Center for the homeless men staying there. All precautions are being taken for the safety of all who volunteer, and for all who are served. Check the website for pick up times etc.
And this is a no questions asked service. Whoever you are, you will be served with love, and without judgement.
Speaking of Norm…
St. Luke’s website also announces the death of Norm, almost two years ago now, on April 30, 2018. The website proclaims, “God is good and Norm is singing with the saints.” They profess no sadness, just celebration of Norm’s life, and happiness that he is home with his Lord.
My Impressions of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy Church
If there is anyone out there who did not already know about St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, I would imagine you were surprised to find out where the fate of this church ended up. It’s an absolutely beautiful church! With absolutely beautiful people running the mission that it has become.
I’d like to say that there is one other person I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s Dave Topor. He’s been working and living at St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy for at least 20 years or so. Dave was a member of our parish when our sons were active in CYO and Dave ran our youth group. He gave up a good job with U.S. Border Protection in Niagara Falls to move into St. Luke’s to work alongside Amy and Norm.
Dave was extremely popular with the youth of our parish, and we were sad to see him leave, but how could we complain about the little sting of inconvenience he caused when he left, in comparison with what he has done these past twenty years, knowing the amount of people he has helped?
On a side note, Dave would probably never tell anyone what I just wrote, and I kept his photo small-ish for the same reason. He’s very humble. I have great respect and admiration for him.
When all is said and done it’s my humble opinion that St. Luke’s Church, having ended up as St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, has fared well throughout Buffalo’s history. If you look closely, the church itself is not in perfect shape. But we have to ask ourselves, does that really matter in this case, when you think of all the good being done there?
Where is it?
St. Luke’s is located at 325 Walden Avenue, but the main entrance to the church is on Sycamore at Oberlin Avenue. There is no list of masses on their website, other than the mention that masses are cancelled temporarily due to the Covid-19 guidelines. Hopefully, we can all visit soon.
Join us tomorrow, Holy Thursday, for our final church ‘visit’ when we will be at Corpus Christi Church.
I hope you are enjoying these posts, and I sincerely hope that you are all well in mind, body and soul. Peace be with you.
**Lead image photo credit: ExploringUpstate .com