As I sit down to write this post about St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a couple of things come to mind. One is that the story of Bishop John Timon may take over the post. I think that’s okay, because he plays such an integral part in this story. Another is that with the priest scandal in Buffalo, some people may not want to hear the history of this particular church. But I think that the history of this church is so rich with the history of Buffalo, that we won’t even need to discuss the ugliness of the scandal. And it is ugly. But that my friends, is for another time. And another writer.
So here goes.
Bishop John Timon
The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo was established in 1847, and John Timon was sent to Buffalo to become our first bishop. Now it’s important to understand the he was born to Irish immigrants. He spoke fluent Irish, and reportedly said often, “I was born in Pennsylvania, but conceived in Ireland.” Bishop Timon definitely did not attempt to hide his ethnicity.
When he arrived in Buffalo there were just three Catholic Churches here. St. Louis, which was the first Catholic congregation in the city, located at the corner of Main and Edward. It is still there, in a newer building. St. Patrick’s, at Broadway and Ellicott, which has been lost, and St. Mary’s on Broadway and Pine Street, also lost. St. Louis was the largest of the three, and seemed to be the best equipped to become the seat of the diocese.
Now the population of St. Louis Church was mainly German immigrants and they didn’t take kindly to an Irish bishop, to say the least.
In Assumption Church of Black Rock, I explain this attitude of Buffalo’s immigrant populations to an extent. What I cannot explain is human nature, and our tendency towards misdirected pride. The irony here is that a Frenchman, Louis Stephen LeCouteulx de Caumont, a land agent for the Holland Land Company, actually donated the land for St. Louis Church, and it was originally called Lamb of God Church. I wonder if the German population would have accepted a French bishop?
Suffice it to say that Bishop Timon was treated so poorly by the German population at St. Louis Church, that he ended up spending most of his time at St. Patrick’s. What I wonder however, is how did Timon treat the German population? One of those things we’ll never know for sure, I suppose.
I think we can all agree, that in Buffalo’s history, several ethnic groups have exhibited pride in a bad way. Progress towards true community has been lost along the way because of it. I think we’re better at this stuff now. At least I hope we are.
The Irish community in Buffalo, however, welcomed Bishop John Timon with open arms. Of course. He immediately set about planning for the construction of a grand cathedral. But when he got to know the community he realized that he would have to fund the building in, shall we say, a more creative way.
You see, in Buffalo, and in fact, throughout the country, the Irish held one of the lowest positions in society. Irish men found work in New York State building the Erie Canal, and later on the docks, in the grain mills and on the railroads here in Buffalo. These were all the industries that supported the shipping trade along the canal and Great Lakes. And all were positions that were very physical, back breaking work. Irish women were typically in service, to the wealthy and later to the upper middle class. Both the men and women were paid very poorly, and sometimes were treated worse than they were paid.
Buffalo’s Irish settled near the men’s jobs, in the First Ward near the Buffalo River. Speaking of proud, Buffalo’s Irish were proud of their heritage, proud of their work ethic, and proud of their ability to survive. Still are to a certain extent. Although I don’t think very many Buffalonians of Irish descent have any clue what our immigrant ancestors suffered through back in the 1800’s, in both Ireland and here in the States.
Getting Personal for a Second
Myself included. Because I am of Irish descent. If you read my series on Seven Churches, you know that my father’s family was from Poland. But my mother was mostly Irish. I don’t think anyone could ever call my mother a proud woman, she’s too sweet for that, but I also know that deep down inside she definitely carries a torch for the old Emerald Isle. Her family arrived around the turn of the 20th century. She was second generation, which makes me third. Too far removed to have a clue about how the Irish felt back in the Old First Ward in the 1800’s.
Timon Builds St. Joseph’s Cathedral
Timon purchased a piece of property on Washington Street to build his cathedral.
In 1849 he went to Rome to report on the newly formed diocese of Buffalo to Pope Pius IX. Timon fundraised for the cathedral while there, and secured $2,000 from the Pope himself, and many more thousands of dollars from other bishops and cardinals. He considered the trip a success.
While he was away, some property came available for a very good price, and without the time to write to Timon, his assistant purchased it. It was on Niagara Street at Swan, and extended west, down to Lake Erie. When Timon returned home and saw the property, he was happy with the assistant.
Timon hired Patrick Keely, an Irish American living in New York City, to design St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Ground was broken in 1851, and the church was dedicated in 1855. It was named for St. Joseph at the suggestion of Pope Pius IX. A good amount of labor was completed by the congregants themselves. What they lacked in money, they more than made up for with skill and a willingness to work. Make no mistake though, fundraising continued throughout the project, and at times work slowed due to lack of funds. Bishop Timon even embarked upon a fundraising trip to Mexico to raise more money.
One of My Favorite Buffalo Storm Stories
In Buffalo, we all love a good storm story, don’t we? It seems like whenever a storm gets brought into a conversation, we like to talk about the blizzard of ’77, or the one in 1985. How about the October surprise, or snowvember? Here’s one you may not have heard.
In the winter of 1853 Buffalo was racked by a lake effect snow storm. Go figure, a storm here in Buffalo. Many families living in very poor housing along the waterfront lost their homes. At this same time, the walls of the church and the roof were completed. Bishop Timon arranged for the families to live in the unfinished church in tents. He allowed them to stay until that summer when new homes could be built for them. St. Joseph’s Cathedral, transformed to a homeless shelter. Buffalo was the city of good neighbors even back then. Love this.
The Completed Church
The church itself is a Gothic design, made with limestone brought in on the Erie Canal from Lockport, NY. There are French influences which are evident in the rose window above the main entrance, and the triple gabled entrance doors on Niagara Street. There were to be two symmetric towers on either side of the church, but only one was ever completed. Money? Maybe. Note the statue of St. Joseph with Jesus above the center doorway.
The stained glass windows behind the altar were added in the early 1860’s. And they are stunning. Especially in the evening when the sun is setting in the west. The altar in this church has such a spacious, clean, bright look to it.
Timon Passes Away
Bishop John Timon passed away in 1867 at the age of 70. But not before he invited the Jesuits to Buffalo. He gifted them with his original piece of property on Washington Street. They built St. Michael’s Church on the property, and are still there today. They also founded Canisius College, and Canisius High School, both still thriving today. He also brought the Daughters of Charity (now the Sisters of Charity) to Buffalo and they opened Buffalo’s first hospital, and are also still here today.
Timon’s body lies in a crypt in the cathedral, along with two other Buffalo priests, Monsignor William Gleason and Bishop Stephen Ryan. This is something that I found incredible when I heard it several years ago now. I didn’t realize that this went on outside of Rome. You know, St. Peter and all that. But, these men are buried inside St. Joseph’s.
Speaking of Bishop Stephen Ryan, I should mention that he built the Lady Chapel at the back of the Church in 1873. It’s a lovely little chapel dedicated to the Blessed Mother. More about this in a little bit.
The “New” St. Joseph’s Cathedral
At the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo was booming. Between shipping and railroads, the waterfront and all the industries that supported these two giants was fast encroaching on the chiefly residential area where St. Joe’s stood. Along with it came the pollution and the crime. The waterfront in Buffalo had become known as the “most dangerous square mile” in the country.
Members of the congregation urged the Bishop at the time, Stephen Ryan, to move his residence north to a much more safe neighborhood, and to sell the church. Ryan did move to Delaware Avenue at West Utica, and immediately built Blessed Sacrament Chapel. In 1911, he began plans for construction of the “new” St. Joseph’s Cathedral. He did not, however, sell the “old” church.
Aristides Leonori, an Italian architect, designed the new church. That’s important to note, because it is generally accepted that Leonori didn’t understand the severity of Buffalo weather. You see, the church didn’t stand up to our weather very well, and it deteriorated quickly. By the 1970’s the church was beyond saving, and was demolished in 1976. It simply was not safe.
That, my friends is a very short life for a church.
I started going to mass at St. Joseph’s when I started working downtown many years ago on holy days etc. It’s a gorgeous church. So much so, that I admit to being distracted by the beauty around me during that first mass! I eventually became used to it, though occasionally it still happens.
The first time I went into the Lady Chapel, it happened quite by accident. I went in for a lunchtime mass, but it didn’t appear that one was going to happen. My friend and I noticed a few people walking through a side door to the left of the altar, and so we followed them. When we walked into the chapel, I felt like I had found a secret spot in the city. It was crowded with people, but I felt like I was alone. I spent the next 45 minutes in awe of that peaceful little place. I’ve been there several times since, and the feeling of peace it evokes always gets me right in the heart. It’s got to be the best meditation place I’ve ever experienced. It’s so simple and humble, and yet filled with an indescribable peace. Just as I picture Mary herself to be.
St. Joseph’s history seems to mirror Buffalo’s history. Humble beginnings rising to a beautiful, prosperous time. Suffered through tough times, only to rise again. St. Joseph’s Cathedral is located at 50 Franklin Street, at the foot of Swan. When our churches open up again, go see it, and take a few minutes to think about the history of our city and the evolution both this church, and our city have gone through to get where we are today.
And whatever you do, try not to let imperfect people, or beautiful buildings for that matter, get in between you and your God. There’s my two cents.
**All photos are mine, unless otherwise noted.