Last weekend, when I stopped by the WNY German-American Heritage Festival in Cheektowaga, one of the first things that caught my eye was a table spread with recent issues of the German Citizen. The Summer, 2013 issue has an article entitled, “Why Saving St. Ann’s Church and Shrine Matters,” by Martin Ederer. Martin Ederer is a professor of history at Buffalo State, and co-chair of the St. Ann’s Church and Shrine Revitalization Committee. A decade ago, he also wrote the great Buffalo’s Catholic Churches: Ethnic Communities and the Architectural Legacy, a go-to source for historic research.
It turns out that the German Citizen, “a newspaper serving the German-Americans of of Upstate New York,” is published by the organizer of the heritage festival, Herbert Schmidt III. I talked with Herbert Schmidt and his marketing director, Gregory Witul, and got permission to reprint Ederer’s article here, for which I’m grateful. I also found out that free copies of the German Citizen are distributed to all the public libraries in Buffalo, four times a year (also available by subscription). Schmidt and Witul also told me that they will soon be increasing their publishing frequency to every other month. See this fun Buzz item about the debut of the German Citizen, by Mary Kunz Goldman, whose grandparents, if I’m not mistaken, were married at St. Ann’s.
As the Buffalo Preservation Board considers St. Ann’s Church and Shrine for local landmark listing this very afternoon, this is a good opportunity to hear what someone who knows St. Ann’s Church, past and present, perhaps better than anyone else, has to say on behalf of its preservation, in his own words. The photos used here are not from the German Citizen, but from the 2012 St. Ann’s Church and Shrine calendar.
Why Saving St. Ann’s Church and Shrine Matters, by Martin Ederer
The Diocese of Buffalo recently presented us with the results of a structural analysis of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine. This came a year after we were informed–after our 2012 German Mass–that the church was too unsafe for any further activities inside. We continued to look after the place after we were no longer permitted to have Mass in the church. In November, we were forbidden from even doing that, except after going through a much more complicated formal procedure to gain entrance.
The recent structural analysis places repair costs at 8 to 12 million dollars. We have yet to fully digest and dissect what the Diocese has told us. Still, we’re talking a lot of money. That is perhaps reason enough to give up and resign ourselves to an imminent demolition of St. Ann’s Church. But speaking as co-chair of a committee of parishioners, friends, and volunteers that has worked seven years to avoid that fate, we have not given up. Stupid? Possibly. Especially since few, if any, our our committee or our faith community have actually seen even one million dollars.
Over the course of the last several years, numerous people we have welcomed into St. Ann’s Church have asked why we continue to advocate for St. Ann’s Church in what seems to be a losing struggle.
There are numerous reasons. Here’s the short list:
* St. Ann’s Church is a living monument to what German Buffalo was, to our area’s German immigrant heritage and to its hopes and ideals. It is also an important monument to Catholic evangelization efforts among Buffalo’s African-American community.
* Buffalo has recently rediscovered–an has begun to showcase, recover, and rebuild–its cultural and architectural heritage. We have been given stewardship of one of Buffalo’s finest churches. We have inherited a responsibility from poor donors who had nothing, but still gave all to build St. Ann’s Church. We should honor their memory and their sacrifices. If the church is about people, as we are frequently reminded, we must remember that real live people made sacrifices so that we have St. Ann’s Church.
* Culture matters. Architecture matters. Beauty matters. Buildings are never just bricks and mortar. They are always about people. They always say something about the people who build and maintain them. If we compare St. Ann’s Church to any average suburban church, we need to ponder who we have become. The average suburban church is usually a practical, uninspiring design that is surrounded by a vast parking lot. Have we become people who are so dominated by our automobiles and by comfort, ease, and pragmatism, that culturally we have become empty shells? Cars and comfort and practicality are all good things. But are they the only things?
Christianity–and most reputable religious and philosophical traditions–teach that we do not live by bread (or money or material comforts) alone. A place like St. Ann’s Church serves as a reminder that there are beings out there more powerful than us, and concerns more important than our own individual material existences. While a church building, strictly speaking, is not the heart of Christianity, most of us need physical reminders in our world. A church is a symbol of our faith: it gives us a sense of place. A splendid church reminds us of the splendor of God. We are not pure spirits. We have bodies. Some people come to their faith by reasoning their way to it; some need music; others need art and architecture. Why should Christians artificially limit the means of evangelization at their disposal? If we are believers, we take care of our bodies despite the knowledge that the life of the spirit is far more important. So how should the physical embodiment of a church community be different?
* We have been told that splendid churches are a luxury we can ill-afford when so many people have so many basic needs, especially in a neighborhood like that around St. Ann’s Church. That may be true. But what does it say when we have unilaterally decided for a troubled neighborhood that the people there deserve no beauty, that beauty should only be something permitted to those who have money?
* The Buffalo area has a long and lamentable record of the myopic destruction of its cultural monuments and its heritage. One need only mention the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Larkin Office Building. And then there is the long list of structures that we now celebrate as important pieces of our community heritage that were saved or restored only after long and exhausting battles: the Darwin Martin House, Shea’s Buffalo, King Urban Life Center, ECC City, Michigan Street Baptist Church, Corpus Christi Church. To be blunt, will we ever learn?
We face a cross roads at St. Ann’s Church, and we face it now. If we decide badly, future generations will condemn us for our lack of vision and for our barbarism in allowing our local cultural treasures to be plundered and destroyed. Or we could rally to this cause. In the 1870s, the German people of St. Ann–most of them poor–made an act of faith to build something splendid for God and for Buffalo.
In 2013 dollars, their project would have cost millions. But they did it. Now it is out turn, and we have a choice. What are we going to do, and what will that decision say about us? We can get this right, or we can recriminate ourselves–yet again–after it is too late.
Martin Ederer is professor of history at Buffalo State College. He co-chairs the St. Ann’s Church and Shrine Revitalization Committee.