The King Urban Life Center at 938 Genesee Street, formerly the St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church, still stands. It still stands because a small group of people were determined that it not be thoughtlessly destroyed just because the Catholic Church no longer wanted to use it. The decline of the church’s congregation and its church building is a familiar story. The surrounding neighborhood transitioned to a poor African-American demographic and the mostly white Catholic parishioners fled to the suburbs or died off. By the 1980’s the congregation that once numbered in the 1000’s had swindled to just 120 families. Investment in routine building maintenance had been reduced to little or none as the congregation’s resources dried up. The Catholic Church leadership decided that the only course of action was to close and demolish the building because of its poor condition and declining use. Luckily, people with a bit more foresight envisioned other options for the church building and began to lobby for saving it. Because of this effort by preservationists the City of Buffalo Landmark and Preservation Board designated the church as a local landmark in 1986. This gave it some protection against demolition. It is unique among Buffalo’s many grand churches with its magnificent conical tower and curved entry stepping along Genesee. Its loss would have been tragic.
After landmark designation a “Blue Ribbon” committee was established to study the building condition, determine possible new uses and, find financial resources for its repairs. This committee ultimately became the first board of directors for the fledgling King Urban Life Center. From the Center’s web site this description:
The King Urban Life Center opened its doors to the children and families of Buffalo’s inner city over twenty years ago. What began as a mission to save a spectacular building and create a safe haven for its neighborhood residents has grown into a community center with locally and nationally recognized educational programs serving over 250 children and families each year in an award-winning building that is a model of reuse and revitalization.
The project budget (1980’s dollars) was somewhere around $2M. It turns out the structure was actually in quite sound condition. Major work was performed on the roof and new interior office, meeting and, teaching spaces. These new uses were created within the building without destroying the integrity of the gorgeous Romanesque sanctuary. While the new interior fit-out may be a bit dated to our modern eyes it was an award-winning solution that retained one of the most beautiful interior spaces in the country and showed a realistic path to reuse of these difficult but amazing church buildings. Of course, history shows us that Buffalo and the Catholic Church did not pay much attention to this success story. These amazing churches continue to be closed and abandoned and threatened with demolition at an alarming rate. Saving St. Mary of Sorrows proved that these church buildings can be great community resources but, the force of our throw-away society is very powerful. It is easier to toss something off than to do the hard work of figuring out how to repurposed them as an asset for a surrounding community all too often in desperate need.
Church buildings like St. Mary’s are unquestionably magnificent and would standout as major landmarks in any neighborhood of any city. But here on Buffalo’s devastated East SIde they are particularly important. A building like this may be the only exposure a poor East Side child gets to something other than decrepitude and decline. Magnificence and beauty should not be reserved for Buffalo’s privileged neighborhoods. These landmark buildings with all their history of many generations and the craft of their creation can be powerful tools to inspire people who otherwise only know poverty and divestment. Demolition is what the Catholic Church offered the neighborhood at St. Mary of Sorrows. They offered demolition instead of the community resource that is there now. Demolition is what they now offer in place of St. Ann’s just a few blocks away. They had more than 20 years time and the precedent of St Mary’s to figure out something better than demolition for St. Ann’s. Demolition is what they came up with again. When St. Ann’s is gone it will be gone for good. Demolition is an opportunity for a shovel ready site, they tell us. I ask, does the East Side need another shovel ready site?
In 1886 ground was broken for construction of St Mary of Sorrows. Its hard-working immigrant parishioners contributed their meager savings and hard labor to construct the building. It is a glorious building that became the center of their community. For 100 years the building served generation after generation as they marked the most important things in their lives. This building now still stands as a beautiful and distinctive part of Buffalo, a testament to those past generations. It is in a part of Buffalo where there is very little of anything else that is special. The people who saved St. Mary of Sorrows knew the power of special places and Buffalo still benefits from that power because of their efforts. Don’t allow expedient and wasteful short-sighted thinking to continue to remove the power of Buffalo’s cultural heritage. St. Ann’s must be saved.
More history, essays and photos of St. Mary of Sorrows can be seen at Buffalo, as an Architectural Museum. The opening image and William Koch images are taken from that site. Karl Josker has a magnificent photo collection nearly all of WNY’s churches here and some of the spectacular interiors here. The King Urban Life Center also has a great history of St. Mary’s and the organization here.