It’s that time of year when no one is far from a crèche (or manger scene, as my family called it when I was growing up). This year I helped set up the crèche at my parish, using hefty plaster figurines that have “crèched” for so many decades that even our encyclopaedic parish historian doesn’t know how old they are.
Most crèches include shepherds, angels, wise men (or kings), and lots of the kind of animals one might expect to find in a stable. Most also include sheep, apparently on the assumption that good, yeomanlike shepherds wouldn’t leave their sheep behind, but rather would herd them along when they went into town to see what the angels had proclaimed to them.
Setting up this year, I tried to place a ram and ewe smooching, but they were rearranged (can’t give the kids any ideas, I guess). And at the center of every crèche is the Holy Family: Baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph. As a kid, I often wondered: where were the grandparents? Perhaps it was because Mary and Joseph were out of town at the time, that Mary’s parents, Saint Ann and Saint Joachim, weren’t there. I’ve never seen them included in any crèche.
But Saint Ann was not to be forgotten this Christmas season. In the week leading up to Christmas, Buffalo saw a rapid-fire chain of events involving her namesake church and shrine in Buffalo’s Broadway/Fillmore neighborhood, shuttered by the Diocese of Buffalo three years ago. While the question of Saint Ann’s intervention would be a matter of personal faith, what we know is that an anonymous letter was recently sent to Buffalo’s Common Council about the condition and placement of the fencing around the church. The fencing was first installed three years ago when the church was closed. Many consider it unnecessary — a scare tactic, perhaps, and visual bolster to the claim that the condition of the tower masonry makes the church unsafe to enter. While it’s hard to know for sure, it doesn’t seem that any masonry has fallen, despite perhaps the two most brutal back-to-back winters in Buffalo’s recent history, and no shortage of high-wind events.
Common Council’s president, Darius Pridgen, has been bird-dogging the Saint Ann’s issue since the closing, and that concern overcame Council’s normal reticence to address anonymous letters. Council put the concerns about the fencing on the agenda of their Community Development Committee. On less than a day’s notice, the Saint Ann’s Revitalization Committee turned out about a dozen supporters, many dressed in green “We Are St. Ann” t-shirts (like the ones worn at this press conference. The ever-alert Sue Schulman, who covers City Hall for the Buffalo News, looked into the matter, and the News ran a story the next day.
According to the story, Council President Darius Pridgen said, “The building needs to be taken care of. It’s a gem in our community. To just leave it sitting, I know what’s going to happen: The roof will start leaking. Things will be stolen.” Also according to the story, Former Council President David Franczyk added that “the diocese should repair and reopen the majestic church for city residents and suburbanites who would welcome a chance to return there for Mass and other events.” “Be on the right side of history – be enlightened,” said Franczyk said, as if addressing the diocese. “Look at what’s happening. Larkinville is not far away. There was a big story in the newspaper (about Bangladeshi immigrants moving into the community). Property values are going up. We are on the cusp of a metamorphosis and positive change.”
If you remember the Trico landmarking debate at Common Council, where Pridgen and Franczyk didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, it’s refreshing to see them both strongly on the same side. According to Schulman, there’s been a lot of that lately between them at City Hall. Her City Hallways blog the next day included this item.
Pridgen on Pridgen on Franczyk:A few times now, when the Council dealt with preservation issues, I’ve heard Council President Darius Pridgen talk about how Fillmore Councilman Dave Franczyk helped him understand the value of old buildings in Buffalo. It happened again earlier this week when the Council was discussing St. Ann’s Church on Broadway, a 19th century neo-Gothic structure that is shuttered, and, in the past, threatened with demolition.“I give him credit,” Pridgen said of Francyzk, “for being able to understand the value of preservation.”“When I got to the Council,” Pridgen continued, “I wanted neon lights on everything. Modernizataion. He helped me to understand.”
A few days later, the News joined the fray with an editorial supporting preservation of Saint Ann’s.
Although a solid editorial, their opinion that either Saint Ann’s must be sold or must stand bereft strikes me as just the kind of false dichotomy we often see in Buffalo preservation issues. Why couldn’t another option, like allowing occasional use of the church, be entertained? After all, Saint Ann’s is not just a church, but is also a recognized shrine. That means people will come to visit, if permitted. Even in the absence of a regular weekly Mass, people would want to be married and eulogized there, perhaps because of family connections to the parish. Allowing some kind of use would also open the door for community fundraising to stabilize the building and begin a phased, prioritized repair process. Without the Diocese being on the hook for all the costs.
We should be advocating for open-minded, outside-the-box, third-way solutions to break out of the impasse of appeals and counter-appeals.
But the Buffalo News was not done with Saint Ann’s. Later that day Bob McCarthy posted a story online that “Masten Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. gained approval of a resolution calling for a city task force to study just what to do with long-abandoned and crumbling churches.” The task force will “convene Council members, the city Preservation Board, the Office of Strategic Planning, Department of Permit and Inspection Services, the Mayor’s Impact Team and the Law Department to discuss future use of…churches.”
It was a heartwarming week, and a nice Christmas gift, to see this issue get so solidly back in the spotlight. If you’ve been following Buffalo issues for some time, you’ll recall that this issue was hot back in 2008, after some high-profile church losses, and the closure of St. Girard’s. The Campaign for Greater Buffalo hosted a “Save Our Churches” forum at Babeville, and the Diocese of Buffalo named a committee to address closed churches. But except for rallying around individual causes, the collective heat has since died down.
Let’s hope this task force will get the issue of preserving Buffalo’s sacred spaces back on track. And keep it on track, this time. So we won’t need another nudge in the right direction from Saint Ann.
What can you do to help Saint Ann’s this holiday season?
Get a copy of the 2016 Saint Ann’s Church and Shrine calendar, one of the most beautiful calendars you can buy.
Also, join the Saint Ann’s Revitalization Committee in praying the Rosary at 7PM on New Year’s Eve, in front of Saint Ann’s Church.