This week I’ve chosen to do a post about Assumption Church in the Black Rock neighborhood of Buffalo, at the suggestion of a reader. Actually, it was on my radar, but receiving the suggestion pushed it from the ‘wish list of things to write about’, to the actual schedule.
I’ve only been in this church twice in my life, and was unable to return to get photos for this post for obvious reasons. I’m hoping that soon all the churches will reopen and I can get some of the shots I’ve been wanting to get. The indoor ones anyway. I am fully aware that if this is the worst of my problems at this time, I’m doing alright, and I’m grateful for it.
The first time I was in Assumption Church was at the First Communion / Confirmation of a friend at the Easter Vigil Mass in 2013. I had seen the church many times from the outside, both from Amherst Street and from the 198. (It’s that church off to the north near the Grant Street exit.) It’s a particularly pretty example of Romanesque Revival design, nicer I think, than most others from the outside. There are a lot of the same architectural details here as say, Corpus Christi Church over on the East Side. But here, the exterior is more attractive in my opinion.
When I went in I got that feeling again, that the outside of the church, while beautiful in it’s own right, is only harboring the true, amazing beauty within. Because, like so many other Buffalo churches, it is gorgeous inside.
Polish Immigrants in Black Rock / Immigrants in General
As it turns out, the East Side of Buffalo was not the only settling ground for Polish immigrants in Buffalo. With the East Side quickly becoming one of the most densely populated areas of the city, many Polish moved into the Black Rock area. Obviously, attending St. Stanislaus and the other newer Polish churches was not an option due to the distance involved. They did, however, travel to St. Michael’s on Washington Street, St. Louis on Main and St. Francis Xavier Parish on East Street. These churches were mostly built and supported by Buffalo’s heavy German population in that area, at that time.
On a Side Note
For those of you who take issue with Buffalo’s ethnic neighborhoods, hear me out.
It can sometimes be difficult in a modern global society to understand how badly these immigrants wanted to worship with and live near people of their own ethnicity. It’s important to remember that these new Buffalonians had just arrived in the U.S. from various countries around the world. They didn’t, in many cases, know anyone. They were lucky to have arrived with their families. Many were alone. And so they quite naturally gravitated toward people who could speak their language, who ate the same types of food, who followed the same traditions. People who were at least familiar.
Yes, not all were open to learning other cultures. Not all wished to try new and different foods. But think about it, these new immigrants were so busy trying to communicate with the person who might be willing to hire them, trying to find a place to live and trying to purchase food. Not to mention trying to learn the language as well. It must have been a great comfort to them to be able to live among people from their home countries. And to worship with them as well.
So Keep This in Mind
Keep all of that in mind when you hear about Buffalo’s ‘German neighborhoods’, our ‘Polish neighborhoods’, our ‘Hispanic neighborhoods’ etc. Even today, we still flock to the East Side to celebrate Dyngus Day with our fellow Poles, or to the St. Patrick’s Day festivities with our Irish brothers and sisters and (fill in the blank with any nationality and their particular celebration, we’ve got it all here in Buffalo!). Why do we still do it? Why do our newest immigrants still do it? Same reason our immigrant ancestors created ‘neighborhoods’. Human beings want to feel like they belong.
So, without even getting into the amount of information readily available to us that they never had, try and cut Buffalo’s immigrants some slack with how they seemed to cling to people of their own ethnicity at the turn of the 20th century.
Also remember, just like today, not all Buffalo immigrants were closed minded and refused to branch out and learn and see new things, meet new people etc.
Early Life at Assumption Parish
So, it’s 1888, and about thirty Polish families got together and petitioned Bishop Stephen Ryan for a new, Polish parish in Black Rock. Seeing the growing trend of Polish immigrants spreading north of the city into Black Rock, he readily agreed, and sent Rev. Theophil Kozlowski to see to the spiritual needs and to provide a new church for the Polish of Black Rock.
Fr. Kozlowski purchased the land at the corner of Amherst and Peter Streets and in September of 1888, the cornerstone for a combination church and school was laid. The school was on the first floor, the church on the second. Made of brick, it was a pretty substantial building for a ‘first church’.
In 1903, two Felician Sisters were sent to teach at the school which had 147 students enrolled at the time. The Sisters commuted daily to the school from St. Stanislaus parish, which would be easy nowadays, but wasn’t so easy back in the day. When a third sister was sent in 1904, the three moved into a newly built convent on the grounds of the church. After that, the school grew so quickly that it eventually took over the whole school/church building, leaving the congregation to celebrate masses in the school. Must have been a crowded, messy affair.
A New, Permanent Church for Assumption Parish
It appears that masses were celebrated in the ‘school’ for several years. The registrations of the parish at that time reached 9,000. Having begun a fundraising campaign around this time, the pastor, Fr. Louis Chodacki, oversaw the hiring of the architectural firm, Schmill and Gould, and the approval of the plans. But Fr. Chodacki left the parish before the church was completed. The new pastor, Fr. Ladislaus Hordych, undertook the completion of the building Fr. Chodacki had begun.
The cornerstone was laid in August of 1914, and the church was dedicated in August of 1915. It holds 1,560 people, making it one of Buffalo’s largest churches. It is also one of Buffalo’s most beautiful churches, in my opinion.
Assumption Parish Continues to Grow
By 1923 the school had grown to almost 1,000 students and another 250 were on a waiting list. A new school was imminent. Fr. Hordych moved the convent over to Germain Street and ground was broken for the school where the convent used to sit. The new, modern school was completed in 1925, and enrollment quickly grew to just over 1,200. This is the building now known as Our Lady of Black Rock School.
In 1927, now under the leadership of Fr. Ladislaus Brejski, the school reached it’s peak of just under 1,500 students. Fr. Brejski led the parish through the tough years of the depression, and stayed at Assumption until his death in 1961. It should be mentioned that during his leadership, 18 young men from the parish entered the seminary to became priests, and many, many young girls from the parish entered the convent to become sisters.
Upkeep and Renovations
The first round of substantial renovations were overseen in the 1960’s by new pastor Monsignor Maximillian T. Bogacki. He concentrated on the cleaning and restoration of existing art both outside and inside the church. Painting of the interior was a must. It was at this time that Msgr. Bogacki hired Józef Slawinski, who was a sgraffito mural artist, born in Poland in 1905.
What is sgraffito you ask? So did I. According to the dictionary, sgraffito is a form of art made by scraping through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting color, typically done in cement or stucco on walls, or on ceramics before firing. In this case it was on the walls, in the sanctuary of Assumption Church on Amherst Street, in the Black Rock neighborhood of Buffalo. And it is absolutely stunning.
It should be noted that this application is normally done in two layers, or colors. The work done in Assumption Church contains as many as four layers, and from what I’ve read, it may be the most complex example of sgraffito in the country.
Here’s a Fun Fact About Józef Slawinski and His Work Here at Assumption
In 1960 the Marine Trust Bank gifted the bank branch building on the southwest corner of Amherst and Germain Streets to Assumption Parish. When Slawinski was working at the church, he lived in an apartment inside the building. Fr. Richard Jedrzejewski, a member of Assumption parish since childhood, remembers seeing large easels in the apartment, with charcoal drawings done by Slawinski. They were apparently rough drawings of the murals he ultimately did in the church.
And More Renovations
More renovations were done throughout the 70’s and 80’s. But major restoration work was undertaken again in 2010-11. The brickwork was repaired as was the roof at this time.
Swiatek Studios, Inc. was engaged to do most of the interior work, which included a general return to the 1920’s decorative theme inside the church. Additional borders around the stained glass windows were designed to compliment the borders of Slawinski’s murals in the sanctuary. The Swiatek family had worked in the church two times prior to this, during more minor renovations in the 70’s and 80’s. From what I can see at this church, they are a very talented and gifted family. A Buffalo family owned business. Love it that there are local people who can do this caliber of work.
Assumption Church did fall on somewhat hard times during the latter half of the last century when people all over the country left the crowded cities and moved out to the suburbs. Fr. Jedrzejewski facilitated the merging of Assumption with three other churches, St. Elizabeth’s, St. John the Baptist and St. Francis Xavier. From what I’ve read, under the guidance of Fr. Jedrzejewski, Assumption Parish Community seems to be holding up as well as the beautiful church it is housed in. It seems that people here care. Perhaps having a pastor that was born and raised helps?
To date, the church appears to my untrained eye to be in incredible shape. As I’ve spoken about in other posts, my father taught me how to really look at a place. To see how well it was built, how well it has been maintained. Not judging by any stretch of the imagination, merely looking for curiosity’s sake. This church has been well maintained and beautified. Without being ostentatious.
When I first walked into Assumption Church, it was one of those times where I became a tourist in my own city. I was awestruck by the old world charm of the painted ceiling, and those sanctuary murals! The lighting adds to the feel, by being just a little bit muted somehow. I felt like I was in Europe, and that this church was centuries old. So unexpected!
And it helped that the occasion was such a happy one. You see, my friend Lori had just finished the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program at Assumption. It was her father’s church, who by the way, was of Polish descent. She decided as an adult to come into full communion with her Catholic faith. If you’ve never been to an Easter Vigil Mass at a Catholic church, you should try go to one. Whether you’re Catholic or not, they’re beautiful!
The second time I went to Assumption church was for Lori’s father’s funeral, whom she lost very suddenly. Not a happy occasion, but in Lori’s own words, “It’s part of life. Not the part we like, but part of it just the same.” Very brave words that speak to the character and faith of my friend. Aside from those words, what I remember most about that day was the parishioners from Assumption who greeted us upon entering, and showed a great amount of love for everyone who celebrated with Lori and her family that day.
And that, my friends, is what makes Assumption Church thrive. As much as we appreciate the buildings, it’s the loving people who use them and maintain them that matter most. I’m looking forward to heading over there for a mass when the churches reopen, hopefully soon.
*RIP Ron Mroz
p.s. When our friends over at Buffalo Mass Mob visited Assumption Church back in 2014, over 1,000 people attended!
**Lead image photo credit to Buffalo Mass Mob