Blessed Trinity Church has been on my list of things to write about for quite some time. And recently, I’ve received several emails asking me to write about it. Because I love this church so much and because it’s one of Buffalo’s greatest treasures, how could I refuse?
It was my husband’s Grandmother’s church when they lived around the block on Kensington Avenue. I knew Grammy Z, as we called her, for many years before she passed away. She wasn’t an easy person to get to know, didn’t open up very often. But she did talk to me about her years at Blessed Trinity. She didn’t give me very many details, (it simply wasn’t her way) but I got the idea she was comfortable there. So that made me want to see it.
When my husband and I decided to visit a different church every Sunday during lent, based on the tradition to visit seven churches on Holy Thursday, Blessed Trinity went on the list.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Early History of Blessed Trinity
In June of 1906, Bishop Charles Colton established Blessed Trinity Parish in the mostly German and Irish neighborhood on the East Side. The first pastor was Father John Pfluger. The first mass was held on the third floor of a building at 175 Dewey, at the corner of Sanford. The building also housed a grocery store and apartments on the first two floors.
A very humble beginning when you think of the magnificent church that was to come.
The church was legally incorporated by the end of 1907 and had acquired land on Leroy Avenue. A combination of church, school, and social hall was erected. The basement walls were built from the stone that had to be excavated in order to build. Also, the architects didn’t wire the building because it was thought that power would never be brought this far out of the city.
It was very common back in the day to have this combination type of building as a ‘starter’ church while a congregation grew. That way, if the congregation didn’t grow, not too much money was lost on an elaborate church building.
Well, Blessed Trinity grew. There were 60 people in attendance at that first mass. By sometime in 1908, the Sisters of St. Joseph began teaching in the school on the second floor. By 1911, there were 400 families. Two years after that, a rectory was built. The growth continued.
Fr. Albert Fritton
In 1914, Father Albert Fritton came to Blessed Trinity as the new pastor. He concentrated his efforts on growing the school. By 1919 there were over 300 students in attendance. Pretty crowded for a second-floor school in a combination building! The need for a new church became apparent and Fr. Fritton began to make plans.
He knew what he wanted, and told the congregation it “will be one of the finest in Buffalo. We shall be proud of it, the city will be proud of it, and God will be proud of it.”
By 1923, the architectural firm of Oakley and Schallmo had completed the plans and building commenced. It took five long years to build, and more than double the budget to complete. In the end, the final cost was $513,000, or just about $7.5 million today. The parish would not pay off the debt until 1953!
Let’s Take a Minute Here
I just want to take a minute to discuss the cost involved in building a church of this kind. I try to imagine how the congregation of my current church would react to the pastor asking for even half of $7.5 million.
In 1925 the average weekly income in the U.S. was $36.37. Remember that most households at the time had just that one income. For the people of Blessed Trinity’s parish to raise enough money to pay off a $513,000 debt was astronomical.
It happened all over the city though. At all the churches. Of all denominations. Maybe not to this extent, but these people made sacrifices to finance the great churches we admire today. Do you think these early Buffalonians understood what they were doing for us when they committed their hard-earned dollars to finance Buffalo’s churches?
More than likely, some did and some didn’t. Some gave freely, some reluctantly. Some gave for the glory of God, some for the glory of the architecture. Still, others gave to make themselves feel good, some did it to impress others.
For whatever reason, I am certainly glad they did! We have been blessed through their efforts.
Getting Back to Blessed Trinity
Let’s get into discussing the church itself. The design is Lombard-Romanesque, rarely seen outside of Italy. Buffalo’s own Jozef Mazur painted the murals in the dome, transept and choir loft. And they are fantastic! Many, many other artists and craftsmen contributed as well. The entire inside of the church is adorned with paintings, mosaics, sculptures, statues, reliefs, wood carvings, stained glass and tile work. It’s impossible to describe with words.
The outside of the building is unique as well. The structure is made of Harvard brick, which is a medieval brick-making process that does not use molds to form the bricks themselves. The bricks here were made in New Hampshire by French immigrants who used antiquated tools and methods to create each brick by hand. The result is the appearance of a much older, rudimentary design. The process was used in more “modern” design as a handmade, artisan brick. They’re stronger than our more modern bricks, and the mortar adheres to them better.
It completely fascinated me when I saw it for the first time. It still does. I kept trying to figure out the pattern. I didn’t realize at the time, there was no pattern, and that’s the genius of it. That someone could use these bricks and create a level, precise, true building. And yet, this building is as straight and true and they come.
The Terra Cotta!
I’ve read that the terra cotta on this church contains the most colorful use of terra cotta in the country. I should also mention that it holds over 2,000 symbols of Christianity. Two thousand. There are the Ten Commandments, the Blessed Trinity, the Our Father, the Apostles Creed, and many more. The symbolism was designed by Father Thomas Plassman, who was the President of St. Bonaventure University and also happened to be a good friend of Fr. Fritton. The two were seminarians together in Austria and traveled to northern Italy where they learned about Lombard Romanesque design.
What a stroke of luck for us that these two priests ended up here in the Buffalo area.
Blessed Trinity Through the Years
Blessed Trinity thrived as a parish through the 1950s, but went the way of most of Buffalo’s churches in the 60s and 70s. Attendance fell off, pews were empty and the school suffered. The Sisters of St. Joseph announced in June of 1975 that they could no longer staff the school. It closed in 1976.
Fr. Walter Kern, who had become the pastor in 1974, researched and wrote an illustrated handbook about the church which attracted the attention of the Buffalo Preservation Board. The board recognized the building as a City Landmark. Two years later the church was accepted onto the National Record of Historic Places. It’s only right. This place is exceptional in every way.
The church is open now with Covid-19 limitations, like all churches in NY State. They continue as a close-knit community, small in numbers, but large in enthusiasm and faith.
One Last Thing
Current event at the church. From Blessed Trinity’s Facebook page:
“On Tuesday night, July 28, the recently rebuilt plaza in front of Blessed Trinity Church sustained substantial damage when a driver heading west on Leroy lost control of his vehicle and crashed through the retaining wall on the east (ramp) side of the church. The car became airborne, landing on its roof in the center of the plaza near the street-level stairs. By the grace of God, the driver and passenger were able to walk away and the church itself does not appear to have been damaged. The accident has been reported to the driver’s insurance carrier, and [the] masons who performed earlier work will be returning to estimate the time and cost involved in restoring the area once again.”
Blessed Trinity Church is such an impressive building. I cannot stress this enough. You could literally (or I could anyway) spend hours just looking at all the details that are everywhere inside and outside this place.
But on that day when I first experienced it, at a Lenten mass all those years ago, what impressed me the most was the friendliness of the congregation. We were obviously not parishioners. There were only about 30 other people in attendance, besides our little group. At both the sign of peace, and after the mass itself, people approached us and welcomed us with open arms. They asked about our home parish, talked openly about the neighborhood, and the church itself. One woman even took me into the sanctuary to show me a particularly beautiful icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I can tell you this. I don’t think Grammy Z felt the grandeur of Blessed Trinity was necessary. When we spoke of the church, she only talked about a couple of priests she particularly liked, and one or two friends she made there. Never mentioned the architecture. That’s why I was so blown away when I went there for the first time. This incredible masterpiece and she never mentioned it. Only a few people who made a difference to her. Keeps it all in perspective, doesn’t it?
Go see this church. If you don’t go to any other, go see this one. You will be as amazed as I was. Blessed Trinity offers tours by volunteer docents. Just call the rectory, or contact them through their website. You’ll love it!
This week, I’ve decided to write about St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. In my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful churches in Buffalo. It’s been here a long, long time, since 1851, and it is a true Buffalo treasure.
The congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal incorporated as a church in 1817 and it’s the second oldest religious congregation in the city. First Presbyterian was the first (1812) and interestingly enough, St. Paul’s founders were First Pres congregants. It’s not that they were unhappy where they were, but there was nowhere else for these early Episcopalians to worship but with the Presbyterian church.
After incorporating, the first couple of years were lean. Lacking funds, St. Paul’s congregation worshiped in various spaces in the city, including taverns. They eventually appealed to the Holland Land Company, who donated the land the church still sits on today. It just so happened that the plot of land was right across the street from First Pres. The first structure built was a wooden church, completed in 1819. As the congregation grew, they added on to that original church twice.
Reverend William Shelton
The Reverend William Shelton came to St. Paul’s in 1829, and he would stay until 1881. Impressive, especially since he almost didn’t stay in Buffalo at all. You see, Shelton passed through Buffalo in 1827 on his way to Canada. The congregation asked him to stay on at St. Paul’s. Shelton refused and went on his way. Two years later, they extended the invitation again. This time, Shelton agreed and he came to Buffalo to stay.
Rev. William Shelton was an interesting person. He gave the sermon at President Millard Fillmore’s funeral service. You heard that right. President Millard Fillmore was a member of St. Paul’s and was laid in state in the church before being buried out of it, in Forest Lawn.
Shelton was an imposing figure in early Buffalo. He took great interest in all that went on here. He kept St. Paul’s focused on its mission of helping the poor among us. He was also very popular. So popular in fact, that people referred to the area around the church as Shelton Square. In true Buffalo form, the name stuck and lasted until the 1970s.
Shelton also presided over the building of the permanent church we know today. Let’s get into that now.
St. Paul’s & Buffalo
The history of St. Paul’s parallels the history of Buffalo somewhat. You could say they grew up together.
The building of the Erie Canal began in 1817, the same year St. Paul’s congregation was started. In 1819, the first wooden structure of St. Paul’s was built. It was consecrated in 1821. The Erie Canal opened in 1825, with its terminus here in Buffalo. After that, Buffalo grew by leaps and bounds. So did St. Paul’s.
By 1849, the waterfront was booming, burgeoning with commerce. And St. Paul’s was burgeoning with congregants. They needed a new, larger church to accommodate their growing numbers.
A New Church
Well known architect Richard Upjohn was engaged to design St. Paul’s. Upjohn was perhaps the greatest Gothic church designer in America at the time. He’s best remembered for designing Trinity Church in New York City. But I’ve read that he considered St. Paul’s Episcopal his best work. Of course, here in Buffalo, we agree with that notion.
Built on a triangular piece of property, no matter what side of the building you look at, it looks as though you’re seeing the front of the building, or the main entrance if you will. The style is English Gothic, evidenced by its pointed arches, lancet windows (tall, narrow, pointed at the top), and asymmetrical design. The spires show English influence as well. If you compare St. Joseph’s Cathedral (which is just around the block) you can see the clear difference between its French Gothic design and the English Gothic style of St. Paul’s.
Here’s an interesting little tidbit. St. Paul’s holds the only flying buttress in the city of Buffalo. It’s above the main entrance on Pearl Street.
St. Paul’s is built of Red Medina sandstone, from a quarry purchased by the congregation for a mere $272. The quarry was some 40 miles northeast of the city, in a small town called Medina. The stone was cut and sent to the site via the Erie Canal, making it a very economical option. Construction began in 1849; the church was consecrated in 1851. But the spires weren’t completed until 1870.
Fire at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral!
As we’ve talked about in many other blog posts, Buffalo has experienced the tragedy of fire on many, many occasions. Unfortunately, St. Paul’s was not able to escape that fate.
In 1888 a gas explosion in the basement of the church took place. The roof and the entire inside of the building were destroyed by the ensuing fire. But the red Medina sandstone walls stood strong. The congregation decided that very day to rebuild.
Richard Upjohn, having passed in 1878, was not an option for the re-design. The church engaged Robert Gibson, who was also known for his English Gothic church designs. He, for the most part, worked off of Upjohn’s design but did change a few things.
The roof was changed to include the hammer-beam ceiling, and the clerestory windows (which are beautiful!). Gibson also added transept like extensions on the sides. Transepts are the extensions on either side of altars that give some churches their cross-shaped floor plan. In this case, the extensions are not quite full, meaning they don’t project out enough to give the full cruciform shape. The whole effect of the changes gives the appearance of a tall, wide-open space. It’s gorgeous.
St. Paul’s Interior, Now…
Off to the left as you face the altar, is a Tiffany stained glass window depicting ‘Christ on His Way to Emmaus’. It’s absolutely stunning.
To the right of the altar there is a painting by Jan Pollack, ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, that dates to the 15th century. Spectacular. It’s been said that this is one of the most valuable works of art in the city. And here it is out on display for all to see in a public building. Love it.
In Cathedral Park, just outside the church, is a sculpture entitled ‘Homeless Jesus’. It was placed in 2015, and to me, it embodies exactly what St. Paul’s congregation stands for, and indeed Buffalo as a whole as well. The sculpture was offered to many cities around the world (I believe there were 12 available altogether) and was turned down by a lot of them because it is (still) considered controversial. Some people view it as blasphemy to depict Jesus as a homeless man. Others believe that all people, even the homeless and downtrodden, when encountered, should be greeted as if you were greeting Jesus Christ himself.
Suffice it to say that St. Paul’s accepted, no, they embraced the sculpture. Taking care of the homeless and people in need has been part of their mission all along.
Well, in true Buffalo form, people started leaving articles of clothing on the statue for their needy neighbors. Instead of being annoyed, St. Paul’s gathered the items up each day and donated them to people in need. At one point, they also added a sign to the sculpture stating, “Take what you need.” And people do. I’ve also noticed that people don’t take more than what they need. That’s Buffalo.
They say a church is really the people, not the building. I’m not a member of St. Paul’s church, but I worked in close proximity for many years. I’ve admired it from the outside as well as the inside. I’ve spent time in Cathedral Park, eating lunch with friends, or just reading a book alone. It’s where I’ve witnessed people not taking more than they need from the Homeless Jesus sculpture. It’s a very peaceful spot.
So too is the inside of the church. On occasion, I’ve gone in to just sit and take in the peace. I guess I’ve always found churches to be peaceful, quiet places to think, or just be. And being so close to St. Paul’s for so many years made it a perfect place to just go in and get away from the stresses of the day for a few minutes.
Whenever I’ve encountered a parishioner, which has been quite a few times, I’ve always experienced kindness and friendliness. I’ll share just one of those encounters.
Once I was inside with some friends from out of town. We were admiring the “Adoration of the Magi” painting. A woman approached and simply said, “Hello.” We said hello back, and she smiled and invited us to stay for their service which, she said, was due to start in 5 minutes’ time. We politely declined, but understood it was her kind way of telling us there was a service beginning and that if we didn’t want to stay for it, we’d better hit the road! Haha. She was so sweet about it!
The Bicentennial of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
In 2017, the congregation of St. Paul’s celebrated its bicentennial year as an incorporated church. I love that they celebrated it with a street party that was free for all to attend, closing off Pearl Street between Swan and Church Streets. They gave tours of the historic church. They held a chicken bbq, the proceeds of which went to fund Hurricanes Harvey & Irma relief. I love it. They could have easily turned their bicentennial into a giant fundraiser for themselves, but instead chose to include everyone, and charge a nominal fee ($10) for a great meal, and donated the proceeds to charity.
That, to me, is what a church should be.
Next time you’re in the area, take a second look at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral. If you can, go inside and feel the peace.
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.
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!
Welcome to the fifth 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.
So, today we are ‘visiting’ St. Casimir Church in Kaisertown. Not really considered Old Polonia, but very Polish nonetheless.
Early Life at St. Casimir
The history at St. Casimir is unique when compared to the churches we’ve ‘visited’ so far.
As discussed in our other visits the late 1800’s brought an onslaught of European immigrants to Buffalo. The number of Polish immigrants increased significantly with the opening of St. Stanislaus Parish in 1873. But as we talked about in more than one of these posts, St. Stan’s grew so fast that by the 1880’s, more churches were needed to accommodate the growing population on Buffalo’s East Side.
Polish immigrants were also settling east of ‘Old Polonia’ because they found work further outside the crowded area most of Buffalo’s Polish were living. A group of Catholic Poles who found work just east of the Clinton/Bailey area, and who lived in the vicinity of Cable and Casimir Streets, petitioned to then bishop Stephen Ryan for the formation of a new Polish Church for Buffalo. There were roughly forty families representing just over 250 people involved at the very beginning. This was in the mid-1880’s.
These families appear to have planned very well for the needs of their new parish. From the start, they came together to see to all the needs of new immigrant families in the area. They understood the need for basic food, shelter and clothing, but they also understood that spiritual needs must be met in order to live peacefully together. Hence, their petition.
The Bishop’s Response
Instead of giving permission to form a new parish immediately, Bishop Ryan sent a series of priests to come on Sundays to provide weekly masses for the faithful, and emergency services in a crisis. I would imagine that would have included administering last rites, funeral masses and support during such events. Some of the priests who rotated Sundays with this congregation are familiar to this series, Fr. John Pitass of St. Stanislaus and Fr. Thomas Flaczek of both St. Adalbert’s and St. John Kanty parishes.
I found this response to be interesting. Maybe the initial 40 families weren’t enough? Maybe the diocese felt unsure about the area this group settled? I mean, at a time where churches seemed to be popping up on every third or fourth block, why the hesitation? We may never know.
But here’s something even more interesting. The congregation, by all accounts only expressed gratitude to the bishop at that time. Of course, it’s entirely possible that they knew something that we don’t.
Persistance Pays Off
In 1890, Bishop Ryan assigned Rev. Rajmund Wieder to help form the parish. The congregants worked well with Fr. Wieder to build a combination church/school/parish hall. It was affectionately referred to as “Noah’s Ark” because of it’s general appearance. The land for the building was donated by Buffalo City Judge Daniel Kenefick. It stood at the corner of Casimir and Weimar Streets.
Noah’s Ark, aka St. Casimir’s Church, was dedicated in November of 1890. Fr. Wieder was transferred in 1891, and a succession of temporary pastors took his place for the next several years. In the meantime, the parish grew exponentially.
Rev. Francis Kasprzak Arrives at St. Casimir
In 1900, Rev. Francis Kasprzak arrived at St. Casimir’s as the new pastor. His youth and enthusiasm was catchy and the parishioners embraced the next ten years under his leadership, during which many good things happened for the parish. Fr. Kasprzak oversaw the extension of the church building to accommodate the now 1200 parishioners, about 250 families, and also the building of a residence for the priests. The diocese noticed the growth and sent an associate priest to the parish around 1903.
The school had grown to 93 students and it was Fr. Kasprzak who brought in the Felician Sisters to teach in the school. The Sisters commuted from the motherhouse until the new rectory was completed in 1905, when the first priest’s residence was converted to a convent for the Sisters.
With the parishioner count increasing all the time, Fr. Kasprzak turned his attention to the construction of a new combination building, to house a church on the first floor, a school on the second and a church hall on the third. The building was dedicated in November 1908.
After 11 years at St. Casimir’s, Fr. Kasprzak was transferred to another parish within the diocese. His spirit of enthusiasm lived on and St. Casimir Parish continued to flourish long after he left.
The Rev. Anthony Majewski Years
Several priests followed Fr. Kasprzak, but only temporarily.
In 1915, the bishop appointed Rev. Anthony Majewski to the parish. He would stay at St. Casimir’s for 40 years.
The first thing Fr. Majewski did was contact the right people with the city and ensured the paving of Weimar, Cable and Casimir Streets so that the parishioners had easy access to all of the parish buildings. He also had the old church building partially removed because it had seen better days; sold the wood from it to parishioners, making enough money to renovate the rest of the structure into four additional classrooms for the school.
Fr. Majewski then embarked upon a parish beautification project. He had the grounds landscaped, put in gardens and sidewalks and had dead trees removed, giving the children of the parish a place to play. Once the beautification project was completed, he tackled the much needed repairs of the parish school, painting of the interior of both the school and the church, and had sewers installed. Fr. Majewski also started a church/school library and instituted Regents Exams for the school.
The school itself continued to grow, and part of the parish hall was utilized to add more classrooms. In 1924 a new convent was built to accommodate the now 20 Felician Sisters who lived at the parish and taught at the school.
At this point Fr. Majewski again had the streets in the area improved, including having the original three repaved. He was also instrumental in instituting the flood control program for the Buffalo River, where several children had drowned.
A New Church
The diocese took notice of all of this growth. In 1926, they suggested to Fr. Majewski that he look into building a permanent church for the parish. Having traveled to both Poland and the near east, Fr. Majewski already knew he wanted something that Buffalo had never seen before. He worked with Joseph Fronczak, a young associate with the Chester Oakley architectural firm, to come up with the design for the building we now know as St. Casimir Church. The use of color on the terra cotta on the exterior is spectacular! The interior is even more exquisite!
The new church was dedicated in May 1929. Even the depression didn’t deter the parishioners in their quest to complete the church and a new modern school as well. It’s kind of amazing that at that point in our nations history, that this local church was able to accomplish so much.
St. John Paul Visits St. Casimir’s
Certainly one of the highlights of St. Casimir’s history was the visit of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, at the time archbishop of Kraków, Poland. He traveled with other bishops to the bicentennial Eucharistic Congress in Philidelphia in 1976. They then toured several Polonia centers in the US and Canada. He presided over two solemn masses at St. Casimir’s and stayed in the rectory while in town. To show his gratitude, Cardinal Wojtyla gifted the parish with an authentic oil painting of the crowned Black Madonna. He of course went on to become Pope John Paul II and eventually St. John Paul.
In 2011, St. Casimir’s was named an oratory and the parishioners were to merge with Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish in Cheektowaga. Fr. Czeslaw Krysa became the rector at that time. Through his work at the parish, one year later the status was changed to a church of particular use, providing for the care of the faithful, particularly those of Polish descent. This is a new one on me. A church of particular use means that an ecclesiastical community that will protect certain traditions of a church. I believe in this case, that means Polish Catholic Traditions.
When you have time, take a look at the St. Casimir Blog. It is obvious that they are keeping the Polish Catholic traditions alive!
The first time I went to St. Casimir Church was one of those Lenten ‘mass mobs’ I mentioned in the Introduction to this series. It was on Palm Sunday. I was awestruck by the interior of the church. If you read my blog regularly, you know that occasionally I see something that instantly transforms me into a tourist in my own city. The interior of St. Casimir’s is definitely one of those places. It’s uncommon though, that it became such a spiritual experience for me.
The air was thick with incense. The procession of palms was long and exuberant. The priest at the end of the procession was smiling and laughing with congregants. I think he tapped his huge palm leaves on every single child in the church before the procession ended! I’ve only been completely swept away at mass a handful of times in my life. But this was one of those times. The mass was just under two hours and I didn’t even realize it until the end.
I walked out of there that Palm Sunday, ready to move to Kaisertown and register at St. Casimir.
But alas, my husband loves our house and I kind of like him, so we stayed put. But I will never forget St. Casimir. This series of ‘church visits’ has renewed my desire to visit other churches more regularly. When this crisis is over that is.
Where is it?
St. Casimir’s Parish is located at 160 Cable Street in Kaisertown. Visit their website for mass times. This is the church we visited when we found Lucky’s on Clinton. Been going there ever since. As a matter of fact, it’s how I’ll get my husband to go to mass at Casimir’s soon. 😉
Join me tomorrow when we will be moving a couple of miles north to ‘visit’ St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy.
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: St. Casimir’s website
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