On the last block of Dewitt Street, just south of Forest Avenue, after years of seeing the neighborhood slowly decline around it, Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church (Coronation, for short) now finds itself in a changing landscape. Literally. Opposite the end of Dewitt, a new development is rising on the site of a closed pharmaceutical plant. A couple of blocks away, on Niagara Street, the Crescendo recently opened and other adaptive reuse projects are in the works. In the other direction, Grant Street is seeing a reversal of decades of disinvestment. Not far away, the Hotel Henry recently opened to great fanfare. Not far away in the other direction, the Railyard Lofts project will soon be getting underway.
In preparation for this Sunday’s Buffalo Mass Mob at Coronation church, after years of walking past and wanting to stop in, I recently visited a Mass there. The church was surrounded by cars. A few men were outside talking. Inside, I was surprised by the large crowd — unexpected for a Catholic church on a sleepy urban side street. For a moment I thought I had gotten the wrong weekend, and was walking in on the Buffalo Mass Mob in progress. But clearly that wasn’t the case — the Buffalo Mass Mob service will be the 9:00 AM English Mass. What I was seeing was the only regular Mass in Vietnamese in the Diocese of Buffalo, and the many Vietnamese-American families from all over the Diocese who regularly attend.
Other foreign-language Masses I’ve attended were in a language from the Indo-European family, so I could at least follow along, but in this case I was completely lost. The only thing I recognized was the final blessing. Even the bulletin for the Vietnamese Mass was entirely in Vietnamese, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Still, I could recognized that it as a well-done bulletin. The parish’s priest, Father Peter Hai Nguyen (Reader: note this article on the name Nguyen), told me that he produces the Vietnamese bulletin himself.
I caught up with Father Nguyen after one of his daily 8AM Masses. I asked him about growing up Catholic in Vietnam, where Christianity is tolerated though not embraced by the communist government. Because of the government’s stance, he told me, he wasn’t able to study for the priesthood in his home country. Initially, he was even denied permission to study for it abroad. But after a couple of years of persistence, and help from family friends in the government, he was allowed to leave to attend seminary. These roadblocks to Vietnamese Catholics studying for the priesthood are not uncommon: another Diocesan priest from Vietnam, Father Joseph Nguyen, has a not dissimilar story of a difficult path to fulfilling his calling.
Father Nguyen was able to give me a picture of the history of the parish, by filling in some of the gaps that I missed in my own research.
Coronation parish got its start a decade before most Americans had heard of Vietnam. Created in 1950 from parts of Annunciation and Nativity parishes, Coronation was the last new parish created in the City of Buffalo. This was at the city’s population peak, when the post-war baby boom was bursting the seams of all the city’s churches. Originally the parish served mainly Irish-American families, joined by Polish-American families, and then by Italian-American families. At mid-century, moving to the upper west side was like moving to the suburbs, away from the sights, sounds, and smells of the densely packed ethnic and industrial enclaves.
Until they could raise enough money to get construction underway, the church met at the Ellen Terry Theater on Grant Street at Potomac (demolished in 2001). The entire campus was designed by Mortimer Murphy, who, as diocesan architect, designed many of the mid-century churches in the Diocese. In this case, Murphy and his family were also parishioners. Because of springing from the same hand, the Coronation campus has an architectural consistency and integrity not found on most Catholic parish campuses that evolved over time and architectural eras. For the same reason, the stained-glass windows also show a strong coherence among the windows, and with the architecture of the church.
Murphy characterized the architecture of the church as “Tudor Gothic.” Interestingly, his original rendering, unveiled in 1952, shows the church and school swapped from their present positions. Groundbreaking was held on May 8, 1955. Construction crews wasted no time, having the school ready for classes in the fall of the following year, and the church ready to house its first Mass on Christmas Eve.
Coronation’s early years are closely associated with Rev. Bernard McLaughlin, who later became Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo. At the time of his death in 2015, was the second-oldest Catholic bishop in the US. As a young priest, McLaughlin was founding pastor of Coronation parish. Two decades later, when he was appointed bishop, the congregation gave him a gift of a beautiful, ornate cathedra, or bishop’s chair (the root for the word cathedral). When McLaughlin retired as a bishop, he returned the chair to Coronation, where it remains on display on the altar platform. Perhaps reflecting the Irish ethnic complexion of Coronation parish in the early years, Father McLaughlin was followed as priest by Father David Herlihy.
It was the tenure of the next priest, Father Radon, halfway through the parish’s life, would prove to be a pivotal one for Coronation. A letter writer to the Buffalo News said of Father Radon, “his wisdom and foresight . . . made this parish financially sound.” He led a successful effort to retire the parish’s debt, in the process embracing a new payment method. Yes, Coronation church took plastic. News stories of the time claimed they were the first church to do so, anywhere.
An interesting episode in the church’s history occurred during Father Radon’s time as priest. George Richardson was a one-armed, bearded man who lived next to the church. According to the church’s silvery anniversary history (written in 1975), “In spite of the fact that he was an avowed agnostic, he became our guardian angel.” The parishioners affectionately called him “Whiskers.” From the beginning, Whiskers assisted with odd jobs, and kept an eye on the church. When he died in 1973, he left his house to the parish, which is now the church rectory. The house was run down, but the parishioners pitched in to fix it up with donated labor and materials. I interviewed Father Nguyen there, and can attest that it now looks nothing like the “before” pictures on display just inside the door, along with a photo of Mr. Richardson and his eponymous whiskers.
Father Radon also helped secure the parish’s future in another critical way. It he, Father Nguyen told me, who was principally responsible for inviting the Vietnamese to form a Catholic community at Coronation. This was during the period of peak Vietnamese immigration, in the two decades after the United States’ withdrawal. According to a Buffalo News article from 2008, “Most of the older immigrant parishioners came from Vietnam in the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975, and many were ‘boat people,’ who survived horrific conditions as they fled.” In this effort, Radon had the support of Bishop Mansell, who also supported the creation of another ethnic parish primarily for Korean-American families. At Father Radon’s death in 2008, the parishioners gave a magnificent send-off to this man who had helped them build a new life in America.
The parish that gave the Vietnamese immigrants a helping hand was, in turn, rescued by them. As Father Nguyen told me, and as was elaborated in a 2008 Buffalo News article, Vietnamese immigrants help save parish – Coronation church on upper West Side thrives. At the time of the article, attendance at the Vietnamese-language Mass was 400, where the English Masses were drawing around 50. Yet there was no sign of resentment by these mainly older parishioners toward the Vietnamese. Those quoted in the article were grateful for the families that were keeping the parish vital. As of the last round of parish restructurings — the so-called “Journey of Faith and Grace” — all of the Catholic Churches on Buffalo’s west side have either closed, merged, consolidated, or been placed in the care of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious order. Except one: Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the only parish that remains a “free-standing” parish.
But how long will that last? What is the future for Coronation Parish? While Father Nguyen doesn’t have a crystal ball, he is very aware of the trends and his eyes are wide open. Despite the church’s efforts, detailed in the 2008 Buffalo News article, to instill the Catholic faith in the next generation while also passing along traditional Vietnamese culture. But in immigrant communities in America, there is often a precipitous falloff of both cultural identification and religious affiliation in the third generation. And Vietnamese-Americans are not immune to the pull of suburbanization. Most of his parishioners now live outside the city, especially in Cheektowaga.
As the forces of aging and suburbanization have continued. That suburban pull, compounded by aging, has severely dwindled the original parish family. There is now just one English Mass on Sunday, typically with a handful of parishioners. The day before I interviewed Father Nguyen, he had given the funeral Mass for an elderly, Italian-American parishioner. Because there are so few left, every time one passes away they feel the loss very keenly, he told me.
Yet he also sees hopeful trends. At the end of the block, construction crews were busy on a collegiate village on the day I visited. To the west and east, adaptive reuse and new construction is bringing new residents to the neighborhood. Father Nguyen is hoping that some of them will become parishioners. Another hopeful sign in strengthening Western New York’s bonds with the Vietnamese community is the effort by Niagara University’s President, Father James Maher, to boost educational opportunities here for Vietnamese students. This and other bi-national initiatives, which come amid a relaxation of governmental controls of religion and culture in Vietnam, aim to strengthen ties between our region and the next generation of Vietnamese.
Father Nguyen would also love to welcome you to experience a Mass at his lovely, tight-knit parish. What better opportunity to “find” this “hidden” west side gem?
For more good readage on Sunday’s Mass Mob and Coronation church, see Thursday’s post by fellow Mass Mob co-founder Danielle Huber.