My favorite fun fact about genealogy is that all those of us of European descent can trace our ancestry to Charlemagne. So in that sense at least, many of us can claim to be of European noble blood. (Is that you, cousin? Thanks for reading!) But you might be surprised to learn that a local priest is much closer to nobility: Father Joseph Wolf, priest of the linked parishes of St. Margaret’s and Holy Spirit, is the great-grandson of an Italian countess. That’s not information he puts on his business card, or drops at cocktail parties, mind you. He mentioned it in his homily at last Sunday’s Mass as an illustration of how titles and possessions don’t matter to God — no more than his Italian great-grandmother’s title mattered to anyone after she came to America.
With Buffalo Mass Mob XVII coming this Sunday to St. Margaret’s Church, I caught up with Father Joe after a morning Mass this week. As in most Catholic churches, weekday Masses are much shorter, and tend to be sparsely attended these days, yet Father Joe gave a thoughtful homily — again, with a personal connection. It happened to be the feast day of St. John Vianney — a figure very important to priests — and a stained-glass window of the saint himself looked down upon the altar. The lesson was that although Vianney was bounced out of seminary several times, and told he couldn’t hack it, he kept coming back. Never giving up, he went on to priesthood, and the man who was initially dismissed went on to sainthood. Father Joe told me that he personally appreciates that irony, and that as Christians we should take a lesson from it. He invariably looks for ways to make his homilies personal, Father Joe told me when I mentioned that I’ve heard many Catholic homilies that seemed to be read from a book, or “theoretical.” The question “how do we experience God in day-to-day life?” is personal, not theoretical, to him.
2012: A Year of Trauma
Father Joe arrived at St. Margaret’s when their longtime priest, Father Kelly — who had served St. Margaret’s for so long that he was the only priest many parishioners could remember — hit mandatory retirement age. Father Joe was already priest of the nearby Holy Spirit parish (off Hertel, near Delaware), and the two parishes became linked, meaning they would be sharing a priest. In the last four years, Father Joe and St. Margaret’s have been through a lot together, weathering in quick succession many of the downsizing events that North American Catholics — especially urban Catholics — have forced to deal with in recent decades.
The menu of Catholic downsizing offered up to North American churches in recent decades includes many difficult-to-digest dishes: closings and consolidations of convents, friaries, schools, and parishes. Loss of the priests and religious orders who once kept parish life running around the clock. Loss of congregants to age, suburbanization, and migration — with fewer new children and new family formation to replenish their numbers. Cutbacks in programs and Mass times, which in turn further affect attendance and begin a downward spiral.
A couple of St. Margaret’s parishioners I had the privilege to sit down with told me about having to consume many items from that menu, all in the same year. The retirement of their longtime priest, becoming a linked parish (sharing a priest for the first time in the parish’s history), the closing of their school, and the challenge of a $100,000 debt. As we sat in SPoT Coffee, with the view of St. Margaret’s filling the front windows, one of the parishioners described it as a “year of trauma.” The parish St. Margaret’s is linked to, Holy Spirit, survived their own year of trauma a decade ago. So the parishes now share not only a priest, but also a toughness of survivors. “North Buffalo Catholics, Beyond Thunderdome?” I suggested to the parishioners, with apologies for the sardonic sense of humor. They didn’t disagree.
Yet thankfully, during the recent round of downsizings the Diocese dubbed “The Journey of Faith and Grace,” when the vicariate overseeing the eastern parishes of North Buffalo was given the mandate to prepare for church closings, St. Margaret’s Father Kelly and others instead paired several of the churches. The arrangement was that when the priest of one of the paired churches retired, the churches would become “linked parishes”: sharing a priest, yet independent in all other ways. The parishes thus paired have since become thus linked, and, as of now at least, no church closings are planned. This is in contrast to other parts of the city, where parishes have merged, often setting the stage for church closings.
A Surprising History
It may surprise you to learn that Father Joe is only the fifth priest to oversee St. Margaret’s — a parish that, next month, will begin celebrating its centennial year. (More about that celebration below.) The first three priests each served a quarter century, and, in a time before mandatory retirement, the term of each lasted until they were carried out by pall bearers. The two parishioners I talked with each have lifelong and generational ties to the church. Sacristan Carol Wittig has attended St. Margaret’s all her life, since before ground was broken for the current church in 1956, and attended the school, as well. Michael Lauricella is a recently married young professional and Eucharistic Minister at the church. They also reflect two parts of the ethnic mix most common to both St. Margaret’s and Holy Spirit parishes: German and Italian.
Jordan Then of The North Buffalo Organization, Inc. told me about the German heritage in North Buffalo, both Catholic and Lutheran, much of which has moved on to the suburbs. Carol Wittig told me that when she was a girl, there was also a large Jewish presence in the neighborhood. “At holiday time, we used to joke that it was easier to visit seven synagogues than seven churches,” she told me. Also, that the priests and the rabbis worked together to meet the needs of the community. In the early 20th Century, as heavy industry set up along the Belt Line in North Buffalo, many Italian families from the Lower West Side, especially St. Anthony’s and Holy Cross parishes, began to relocate to North Buffalo, especially Holy Spirit and St. Margaret’s parishes. Michael Lauricella told me that two of his grandparents had, unbeknownst to each other at the time, relocated with their families from the same street on the Lower West Side to the same street in North Buffalo. Father Joe told me that he has some family roots in the Lower West Side, as well. At both Holy Spirit and St. Margaret’s parishes, it isn’t uncommon to hear Italian spoken. In addition to German and Italian, St. Margaret’s also has had an Irish flavor. Margaret is a Celtic saint, and prior to Father Joe, all the priests at St. Margaret’s were Irish. The bulletin is headlined with an Irish font.
There is still a lot of Father Kelly at St. Margaret’s. He considered the church to be the “Heart of North Buffalo,” and had the sign made that still stands behind the church today. And it’s hard to argue that. Across the street from the iconic North Park theater, St. Margaret’s also fills the view from the front windows of SPoT Coffee.
SPoT’s mural, read left-to-right, originates with St. Margaret’s.
A Church Both Old and New
Just sixty years ago — an eye-blink in church years — ground was broken for St. Margaret’s. That makes it one of the youngest church buildings to ever host a Buffalo Mass Mob. It is a relative rarity for Buffalo Catholics to attend Mass in a church building younger than them, but common at St. Margaret’s .
Parishioner Michael Lauricella (who, I should note, is much younger than the building) told me he loves the mix of old and new in the church building. Its architectural elements tend to be more streamlined, and it lacks the century-old mechanical systems that present a maintenance challenge in old churches. Yet it retains the classic features one would expect in an “old” church, built by craftsmen before WWII. He also showed me on Google Maps how the church forms a perfect cross.
Credit for St. Margaret’s design goes to…well, I haven’t been able to determine. A brochure on the church’s history credits architect Mortimer J. Murphy, but a photo of the church in Father Joe’s office indicates William T. Spann. What isn’t in dispute is that Joseph Mazur — a well-known name in Buffalo religious art — designed the stained-glass windows. These windows are a special point of pride for the church. Sacristan Carol Wittig told me that she has given stained-glass tours including, she jokes, one that was ill-timed after a Saturday-afternoon Mass in the winter, when they realized it was too dark out! As I discovered — as will you, if you attend this Sunday’s Mass Mob — the east-facing windows are especially spectacular in the morning light. At morning Mass, the rising sun was positioned just right to spotlight radiant figures of Christ in several of the windows — a magnificent juxtaposition I’ve only seen once before, with a Tiffany window in St. Paul’s Episcopal cathedral downtown.
Fellow Mass Mob co-founder Danielle Huber produced this excellent video of the church.
At St. Margaret’s, the church is actually the youngest of the buildings on its campus, and some of those other structures didn’t fare so well during the years of growing debt and shrinking congregations. Longtime readers of Buffalo Rising will recall that the cloister between school and convent was torn down several years ago when the church couldn’t afford needed repairs. At that point, the convent had been unoccupied for years, and time was not kind to it, either. Carol Wittig told me that, even when the nuns still lived there, it was deteriorating, but the nuns never complained. Recently, when the former school was sold to Iskalo for residential conversion, it was decided the convent was past the point of reuse. Sadly, it was torn down this year.
That heritage loss notwithstanding, the Iskalo project brings new hope of new life to the St. Margaret’s campus. Carol Wittig is happy with the church’s relationship with the developer, and hopeful about the project, underway now. Buffalo Rising’s Tim Scanlon posted about the project here.
St. Margaret’s — the Next Century
With St. Margaret’s about to begin its centennial celebration after four years of wrenching change, it seems natural to ask whether there will be a St. Margaret’s church a century from now? If so, what will it look like, what population will it serve, and what changes will the neighborhood have seen? Despite being at the heart of an ever-more vibrant Hertel Avenue, how many people out and about on Hertel today really take note of St. Margaret’s? For how many is it part of their life? These are some questions on the minds of parishioners as they approach both the centennial year of their parish, and the 60th anniversary of the groundbreaking on their present church.
Such questions also weigh heavily on the mind of Father Joe, I discovered in our conversation. An avid cyclist, he hates seeing closed churches when he’s out on rides. He also hates the way we so readily tear things down in North America, noting that, in Rome, buildings and monuments are more often repurposed — or even built around. It’s astonishing to Father Joe, he told me, that churches often built by immigrants who arrived here with little to nothing yet who gave their all, are being walked away from by the descendants of those immigrants in an age of abundance. Why are we throwing away and abandoning so many things today — whether those things are trash, churches, neighborhoods, or the most vulnerable among us? Amid these trends and pressures of modern life, how do churches and the Church remain relevant? Since co-founding the Buffalo Mass Mob, I have had many conversations with priests and parishioners about these questions, and think about them regularly. I considered some of them in this article about St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy.
What do you think?
In addition to visiting St. Margaret’s for this Sunday’s Buffalo Mass Mob, the parishioners of St. Margaret’s would be delighted to have you join them for a special Saturday afternoon Mass at 5:30PM on September 24, to kick off their centennial year commemorations. It will be followed by a wine and cheese reception and a fun display of 100 years of fashion. In 2017, the centennial year will close out with another Saturday Mass in September, followed by a banquet.
And this exciting news: the next Buffalo Mass Mob, in October, will be the first Buffalo Mass Mob to visit a Protestant church. Stay tuned for details.
Get connected: Details on Buffalo Mass Mob XVII, including address and driving directions.