Later that year, I returned to Buffalo on a Sunday morning for my first "member's only" tour of the Central Terminal. Deciding to walk there from downtown to see some of the east side firsthand, I passed by St. Ann's, and was delighted to find the doors open and welcoming a steady stream of parishioners. Venturing inside, I saw that not only were the stained glass windows still in place, but they were of outstanding quality. (And in great shape, having received, as I now know, an extra measure of protection from the plexiglass coverings put in place by a protective congregant in the 1970s). And also, a vibrant congregation proud of their building, their continued strong presence in the neighborhood, and their multi-ethnic makeup.
Since moving to Buffalo, I've stopped in to St. Ann's occasionally, and been impressed by their efforts to remain active and relevant in a neighborhood that is clearly not what it was several decades ago. I've felt that even in an era of closing churches, especially on the east side, its ultimate fate was hopeful.
The church has been under threat of closure by the Diocese of Buffalo for some years -- see this article posted by Steel in 2007 -- yet to date had managed to keep the people and funds necessary to remain open for at least one Mass per week. In fact, the closure threat had served as something of a rallying cry for current parishioners and Catholics elsewhere in the Diocese with heritage ties to St. Ann's, who have reached out to the community and raised funds. The congregation publicizes Masses and other special events via Broadway-Fillmore Alive and social media -- see their website, FB, and Twitter accounts. I attended their annual German Mass just last weekend, and the church was packed. Indeed, my friend, fellow writer, and member of St. Ann's restoration committee, Brian Castner, told me that the church's finances are better than they have been in a long time.
Christian tradition holds that St. Ann was the mother of Mary, who was the mother of Jesus. Congregants have been fond of pointing out to visitors that St. Ann was the grandmother of Jesus, and "you're always welcome at grandma's house!" And when you hear them say it, you feel it.
So it came as a shock to me and nearly everyone else involved that the Diocese ordered -- in a Thursday letter to Father Roy Herberger -- that activity at St. Ann's be suspended after Sunday's Mass. Father Herberger read the statement from the Diocese to the stunned congregation, only some of whom has gotten word ahead of time. (Broadway-Fillmore Alive broke the story on Saturday).
According to the Diocese,
The bishop said a 126-page report assessing the structural integrity of the building "was more alarming than I had anticipated, and it reveals severe deterioration of the exterior of the structure. Structural damage is now so serious that it presents a safety threat."
All activities at the church have been suspended as of April 30 while a long-term solution is sought. Protective fencing has been installed outside an area in front of the church. [A congregant pointed out (and I've seen personally) that the protective fencing has been in place since March.]
Close inspection of the building revealed a number of structural issues: the northwest tower of the church has been compromised; stones are loose and out of plane; buttresses are pulling away from the tower and many of the stones are broken and are in danger of falling off the face of the church.
A structural engineering study is now needed to determine the exact condition of the church, the extent of damage and what type of lasting repairs need to be made.
Bishop Kmiec is encouraging St. Ann's worshipers to attend Mass at SS. Columba-Brigid, the congregation with which the Diocese originally intended to merge St. Ann's. According to the Buffalo News, SS. Columba-Brigid meets in a building constructed in 2006.
But the Diocese isn't going so far as to say that Sunday's Mass was St. Ann's last. Spokesman Kevin Keenan told WGRZ, "I think it's too early to tell because we really have to get a good look at the extent of the deterioration, but I don't think it would be accurate to say that that was the last mass celebrated at St. Ann's."
Parishioner Martin Ederer, who is co-chair of the church's restoration committee, and has organized the annual German Masses for the past several years, told WIVB, "It's an amazing group of people, very highly motivated, and we'd like to stay. We'd like to preserve the building, we'd like to preserve the heritage, and see where things go from there."
And Ederer told The Buffalo News, "the clock will continue to deliver accurate time to its East Side neighbors, and the bells of St. Ann will continue to toll, until someone orders them stopped."
What may be the fate of this magnificent Gothic Revival church building? Although lacking in exterior ornament, it is considered by Buffalo churches historian James Napora, "perhaps the most European of all the religious buildings in the city." Its interior decoration is among the richest in the city, with an outstanding collection of stained glass windows, and retaining its corbel statuary in the nave and intricately carved wooden pulpit. It retains its exterior impact despite the removal of the steeples (seen below) following windstorm damage in 1964.
But can such ornateness, significant physical presence on Broadway -- halfway between downtown and Broadway/Fillmore -- and a smaller-but-very-active congregation seeking to maintain a vital and historic parish be enough to preserve St. Ann's? Although there have been discussions with the Buffalo Religious Arts Center for several years, there are currently no plans for BRAC to acquire the church. And hanging over all is the $7+M figure cited by the Diocese for repairs to the church. Presumably, the upcoming structural engineering study to which the Diocese referred will confirm that figure, and determine how much of that would need to be spent immediately to assure safety for regular use.
Spokesman Keenan told WNED/WBFO, as broadcast Monday morning, that the Diocese wouldn't expect a congregation to handle such a large burden on its own, and that the Diocese will be closely involved with what happens there. Could that mean that the Diocese will assist the congregation with stabilization and repair of St. Ann's? Or that the Diocese may be planning some difficult steps regarding closing of the parish, and ultimate disposition of the building?