St. Louis – Buffalo’s Oldest Catholic Church
In the past few weeks, St. Louis Church has come up in conversation several times. Also, I’ve run into it while doing research on other posts, such as St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and Assumption Church. So it feels right to be writing this today.
When our kids were little we used to drive past St. Louis once a week or so in the summer on our way to the Peace Bridge and Canada. On these drives, the kids would call out certain landmarks along the way. St. Louis Church was one of them. My husband, Tim, would tell the story of how his grandparents first met at the corner of Main and Edward, right in front of the church. He would tell us this story every single week. But the kids liked it, soooo.
We decided to take them to mass there to see the inside. Wow. We were not disappointed. It’s bright, spacious and stunning all at the same time. I can still picture our son Paul, who was about 7, looking up at the ceiling with his mouth gaping open, taking in the view. He takes after me, because this is what I do when I come across something that instantly transforms me into a tourist in my own city. Me? I loved the windows.
Our weekly conversations changed after that to the construction of big buildings, and how exactly structures like St. Louis are designed and built.
Early Days at St. Louis Church
So, St. Louis Church was Buffalo’s first Catholic congregation, founded in January of 1829. In fact, it was the first Catholic church in all of Western New York. The land for the church was donated by Louis Stephen LeCouteulx de Caumont, an agent for the Holland Land Company. At the time, all of New York State fell under the direction of one bishop (one diocese). The diocese of Buffalo was not founded until 1847, when Bishop John Timon arrived. Buffalo didn’t warrant their own diocese in 1829, there simply were not enough Catholics here.
But, being a Catholic himself, LeCouteulx foresaw the need for a church. He presented the Bishop of New York, Jean Dubois with the land on New Year’s Day, 1829. This was not uncommon back then. While LeCourtulx did see the need for a church, it was also good business to donate land expressly to be used for this reason. You see, with an established church, people were more likely to come to Buffalo and stay. And people who stayed, bought land. It was a win win situation for both the church and for business.
Buffalo’s First Catholic Priest
Things moved along much slower at this time, and a priest didn’t arrive until 1831. Rev. John Nicolas Mertz was Buffalo’s first resident Catholic priest. At this time, the congregation was mostly made up of French, German and Irish immigrants.
Mertz immediately began arrangements for the building of a church and school. He had brought with him from Europe a tabernacle door that depicted the Lamb of God, and so he named the church “Lamb of God” Church. The first church was built of logs from trees on the property and from the nearby woods. Funny to think of the corner of Main and Edward as being a wooded area!
A New Church for St. Louis
In 1837, the Irish of the parish had become so numerous that they warranted their own church. They moved to St. Patrick’s, on the corner of Washington and Clinton. It was closer to where the Irish were settling near the waterfront, and was probably more convenient as far as language and traditions as well. (See my commentary on this in my post about Assumption Parish.)
By 1840 the pastor, Rev. Alexander Pax recognized the need for a more permanent structure. He built a brick church on the site of the old log building. Fr. Pax dedicated the new church in 1843 to St. Louis IX, the patron saint of Louis LeCouteulx. And so, Lamb of God Church became St. Louis Church.
A Bit of Catholic Trivia for You
Here’s an interesting little tidbit. Shortly after the new church was built, there was arguing between rival factions in the church. And there were disagreements with Bishop John Hughes of NYC. It became such a problem, that the church was placed in ‘Interdict’.
Now, my understanding of an interdict as it applies to the Catholic church is that restrictions are placed on a parish or group, and they can no longer celebrate certain rites, including mass. It lasted one year. Wow.
Almost unbelievably, it happened again after the Diocese of Buffalo was founded. This time the arguing took place between the trustees and Bishop John Timon! This was in the late 1840’s and St. Louis was in interdict until 1855!
Wish I could get the full story here. I mean, sometimes history is, shall we say, altered to glaze over the ugly truth. I bet John Timon had a journal or a diary, where he recorded at least some of what really went on. But then, we’d only have his side. Perhaps it’s just as well. (Time travel could satiate all my questions here. Just saying.)
Either way, now you know what an interdict is, if you didn’t already. I didn’t.
In March of 1885, the newly built German American Music Hall on the other side of Edward Street (current site of the Cyclorama Building) burned and sadly the flames jumped the street to St. Louis. The church burned and was beyond saving.
Immediately, plans were begun for the present Gothic church we know today. This was thanks in part to sizable donations made by the Reverend Joseph Sorg, and Gerhard Lang, owner of Buffalo’s largest brewery. The church was completed by 1889 and is built of red Medina sandstone. And how about that spire? At 245 feet tall, it’s the highest opened laced spire in the United States. I think it’s on par in recognizability as the Electric Tower, or the Rand Building. It is certainly very prominent in Buffalo’s skyline.
The Sandwich Program
I have to tell you about St. Louis’s Sandwich program. I became aware of it when I worked for a very short time in the Cyclorama Building across Edward Street from St. Louis. I was working on a project in front of a window that looked out on the rectory at St. Louis. I kept seeing people walk up to the door and walk away only seconds later with little packages.
After nosing around a little, I learned about the Sandwich Program. The director prepares and hands out roughly 40 sandwiches every Monday – Friday, between the hours of 9am – 11am. Some of the people are homeless, but all are given a sandwich no matter what their situation. No questions asked.
That’s somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000 sandwiches per year! This is awesome, isn’t it?!
The program was started by Msgr. William Schwinger, who was the pastor between 1979-1995. It was developed in the spirit of St. Louis IX, the church’s namesake, who was the King of France. King Louis not only gave money to the poor, he shared his table with them on a daily basis, where he served them, and took care of their needs. What a great example he was to wealthy people everywhere. And what a great tribute to someone who did simple things, with great love.
A school was run at St. Louis Church from as early as the 1830’s. In 1850 a school was built on the property, and was run until 1959, when it closed. In 1986, the school was declared a hazard and was demolished. Today, the parish school is considered the Catholic Academy of West Buffalo on Delaware Avenue.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music at St. Louis. Back on that day when our son was awestruck by the building, my husband and I were awestruck by the music. For two reasons. The acoustics in this church are astounding, and the organist/choir director is Frank Scinta, an obviously very talented cousin of the Buffalo born music and comedy group The Scintas (originally The Scinta Brothers).
No matter the reasons, whenever I go to St. Louis, I’m struck again by the quality of the music produced in this building. Once the churches reopen – and we’re getting close – I’m heading over to St. Louis for mass, and that music! It’s on the corner of Main and Edward, you know, right where Tim’s grandparents met. 😉
**Lead image photo credit to Wikipedia