Saint Ann’s Church at Broadway and Emslie on Buffalo’s East Side celebrates its 150th anniversary in August of 2008 and then it will be promptly closed down by the Catholic Diocese. “Dear patrons thank you for your patronage you can find your heritage in the trash as you leave.”
This story is the second in a bittersweet series documenting my recent one-day tour through the city’s ravaged East Side. St. Ann’s was actually the last stop on my tour. After having attended portions of at least six Sunday masses I headed over to St. Ann’s at the advice of my father. He said that the interior is not to be missed. I had actually long thought that this church was already closed down. It is in an area of the city that had experienced major demographic shifts away from a predominantly Catholic population many generations ago (as opposed to some areas of the city which have only experienced this shift within the last generation). Its windows are covered with dense yellowed fiberglass sheets for protection, which makes them appear to be boarded up. For many years I had passed this magnificent edifice wondering if anything would ever be done with it, never realizing that it was still home to an active congregation.
A few facts about the church. It is named after a legendary saint who is said to be the grandmother of Jesus. It was founded by German speaking immigrants from Bavaria, Bohemia, and Austria. The congregation is now mostly composed of African Americans and new immigrants from Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, and Sudan. The church cornerstone was laid in May 1886. The six tower bells range in weight between 500 and 7,800 pounds and the clock still runs striking the bells once every hour. The church is designed in a very restrained, though still highly detailed gothic style, laid out in a classic cruciform plan.
When I pulled up to the church there appeared to be no activity. Unfortunately I had missed the final mass of the day and realized that I would have to be satisfied with exterior pictures only (not a shabby compromise). The grey stone detailing of the shear cliff-like walls is somber and refined. You get a real sense of the disciplined Bavarian heritage in this building. After circling the massive building snapping the shutter wildly I headed back to take pictures of the hulking (and now closed) church school in the back. (Interesting side note: The church school was once the largest private school in the country with over 2000 students) As I photographed the school building I was approached by a man named Dick Joya who, It turns out, is a member of the congregation and volunteer custodian. He of course had the keys and promptly invited me in.
WOW! ! !
Nothing prepares you for the affect of entering this building. The windows, so hidden from view on the outside, literally burst from the walls with color as you enter the darkened space. Dick kindly toured me though the church and turned on all the lights. After your brain has absorbed “some” of the beauty of the windows you can begin to take in even more of the extraordinary architecture which makes up the interior. Plaster, stone, and wood carvings abound. I was instantly drawn to the carved wood altar, a magnificent creation that is beyond description. The fine tracery is equal to the best I have ever seen with a density of detail equaled in few places. Leaving this place I could not help but wonder what is in store for this historic and beautiful place. I was exhilarated by my experience and saddened with the knowledge of what has happened to other churches closed down in the past.
After a recent post of mine highlighting two buildings directly across the street from St. Ann’s I was contacted by another member of the congregation, Brian Castner, who filled me in on current events at the church and what this place means to him and others like him. They are not ready to give up on the building and are making plans to sustain it beyond its closing as a church sanctioned by the Diocese. For longer term they have started ‘Friends of Saint Ann’s’ to do fundraising, outreach, raise public awareness, and conduct special events as part of the 150th Anniversary Year celebration and beyond. The long-term goal for the church is to keep it as a religious and spiritual place for the entire Buffalo community, regardless of whether there are still weekly masses, and no matter how the parish restructuring turns out. There are a number of capital projects that must be done to keep the stained glass windows and paintings intact, including a major roof repair, gutter replacement, and stabilization of the towers and stonework. The fundraising goal is $1 million. Though this is a large sum of money they believe it to be realistic and achievable.
Brian relayed to me an amazing story about his own family history with the church:
My great-great grandfather was part of the German immigrant influx in the mid-nineteenth century and helped build Saint Ann’s, and my grandfather was a City of Buffalo fireman who helped save Saint Ann’s from fire. There was a great windstorm in the mid-60’s, a possible fire in the main tower, and the steeples were torn off, throwing debris around the neighborhood. My grandfather was part of the engine company that responded, and when they pulled out the battering ram to knock down the door to gain entrance, my grandfather rushed up and pulled the door key from his pocket. He was an usher – of course he always carried a key. He was able to save the original doors as well as the church as a whole. With that kind of history, the least I can do is help ensure Saint Ann’s is there for my three boys the way it was there for me.
If the rest of Buffalo cherished its heritage in this way, Buffalo would be a very different place. These kinds of personal links to history are what make a place special. Once they are gone they don’t ever come back. Take a look at these images and check out many more of my images at this site. Can you imagine this all being tossed off as worthless? It can happen and has happened at other irreplaceable churches around Buffalo. Perhaps some day you will be able to enjoy this church as part of a trendy eatery or wine bar in Texas or North Carolina. Let’s hope not! The pictures don’t do this place justice. I suggest taking a look in person. Check out a Sunday mass or a scheduled concert. You can catch the next concert Sunday December 16 featuring Buffalo’s Schwaben Choir singing German Christmas Carols.
See part one of the series Houses of the Holy here. See more St Ann’s here.