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An Unorthodox Orthodox Mass Mob

Update: The “BuffaLovejoy” fundraiser to help this wonderful church repair its roof has been extended through October 21! Please see below for details.

Hidden away on a side-street in the Lovejoy neighborhood is a treasure I could scarcely believe existed a month ago. I had to go see with my own eyes. As I walked down one of Lovejoy’s loveliest residential streets, with an uninterrupted tree canopy overhead, I thought surely I must have the address wrong. But then, looming up chock-a-block between houses was one of the most simply elegant and beautiful churches I have seen in Buffalo.

I visited Sts. Peter and Paul Orthodox Church to learn more about this very special place that will host Buffalo Mass Mob XXIV next month. But before finding Father Volodymyr Zablotskyy I got to meet some of his smallest parishioners. Behind the parish hall was a group (gaggle? cackle?) of very fine-looking chickens. They are his wife’s, Father Vlad told me, which made me realize this will be the first Buffalo Mass Mob at a church with a married clergyman or woman. He also told me that, although his wife has given all the chickens names, he has his own for them them that she doesn’t like: Cacciatore, Kiev, etc., referring to notable chicken dishes.

The neighborhood kids also love the chickens, he told me – goodwill ambassadors, in a way. That’s helpful as relations between the church and the neighborhood were, at the time he arrived, “chilly.” Some in the neighborhood actually thought the church was closed. After some outreach, that notion was dispelled. Now, the neighborhood regularly sees a priest out and about. Kids on bikes greet him with, “hello, Father!” – an interaction that once played out daily in nearly every part of Buffalo.

Father Vlad

Father Vlad told me that being seen out and about is very important, but even more than being visible, he has made sure to be involved. The church has a food program that helps about a dozen needy families in the neighborhood, and they actively invite families and friends from the neighborhood – regardless of church affiliation – to join their community meal and coffee hour every Sunday after Divine Liturgy (the Orthodox equivalent of Eucharist).

Sts. Peter and Paul is not only the first Orthodox church in Buffalo, it is regarded as the first Orthodox church in New York and New Jersey. How did that come to be? In the 1880s Buffalo was home to a number of Russian immigrants, mainly of peasant stock looking for a better life. In Buffalo’s Lovejoy neighborhood, also known as Iron Island for being surrounded by railroad lines and rail yards, they could find employment “working on the railroad, all the livelong day.”

In 1894, eight of those immigrant families came together to form the parish. They found an ideal site to build a church, not just because it is – I’m not making this up – on Ideal Street, but because a woman named – I’m not making this up – “Churchyard” was willing to sell it to them cheap. In a woodframe church of their own construction they worshiped for years, and slowly grew. But until 1905, they shared a priest with Cleveland.

A hundred years ago this year, an event in Russia bolstered the church. Fleeing the ravages of the Russian Revolution, many émigrés found a home in America. As with other ethnic churches in Buffalo (as I wrote about St. Stanislaus, here, Sts. Peter and Paul served as a kind of settlement house, helping the new arrivals get acclimated and start a new life. Immigrants from other eastern European nations torn apart by the war with Slavic populations and Orthodox traditions also found their way to Buffalo and Sts. Peter and Paul Church.

The church still serves this function, although to a much smaller degree. Today, immigrants in the congregation come mainly from Russia and Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. One of the reasons they have a coffee hour every Sunday after Mass, Father Vlad told me, is to give immigrants, who can easily feel overwhelmed and isolated in a new country, the chance to fellowship with those with whom they share cultural ties. In fact, visiting during coffee hour, the first parishioner I encountered, with flaming red hair, smiled apologetically and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak English.”

With the influx of refugees, and post-war prosperity, by the late 1920s the church not only had the funds for a new building, but one that would be more in keeping with the kind of churches the newest arrivals had been accustomed to worshiping in back home. They turned to Polish architect Joseph Fronczak, who, in addition to religious architecture on Buffalo’s east side, was at the time also designing a Byzantine-rite church in Cleveland. That church, in many ways an architectural sibling to Sts. Peter and Paul, fell into ruin after its congregation moved to the suburbs – a cautionary tale.

Muscovite style
Pendentives

The church Fronczak designed is beautiful, and all the more amazing for having been built in the midst of the Great Depression. At the time, many parishioners were unemployed, and were hired by their own church to build their own church.

According to Houses of Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York by James Napora, “The domes are indicative of the Muscovite tradition with their rather restrained lines. This is in sharp contrast to the Petrograd Style of bulbous or onion domes.” (learn more)

While Byzantine influences are not uncommon in Buffalo church architecture, this church has a faithful Greek-cross plan. Inside it has all the Byzantine and Orthodox elements you would expect, from pendentives to iconography to a full iconostasis, the decorative screen separating the sanctuary from the congregation found in Orthodox churches. According to Napora,

Nicholas Zadorozhny, a Russian artist, is responsible for the fresco of the Holy Trinity in the semidome of the apse and for the murals depicting the four evangelists on the pendentives of the dome. These murals are executed in the style of the 19th century Russian artists Nesterov and Vaznetsov.

Parish Hall

The congregation had another growth spurt after World War II, due to immigration from war-devastated eastern Europe. In the 1960s they added a parish hall. But by the 1970s and 80s, the same factors that hit all the city churches, especially ethnic ones, took their toll: suburbanization, decreasing family size, and industrial layoffs causing residents to move elsewhere, and potential newcomers to seek other, greener pastures. Second and third-generation drifting away from ethnic identity conspired with a general decline of religiousity and church attendance.

By the 1990s, the dwindling congregation recognized the need to reach out for help to preserve their church. They got the church landmarked in the hopes of garnering grant funding, and had some renovation work done on the interior.

 

Dome repairs

But unfortunately, years of deferred maintenance have taken their toll on this beautiful church. Now, Father Vlad and the congregation are discussing restoration work with Swiatek Studios, starting at the top – literally. Repairing the roof and the dome have to come before any other repairs, Father Vlad told me, because leaks are affecting the plaster inside. Some of them were quite obvious as he toured me around the interior.

Water damage

There is an active fundraising campaign to support the repairs, and that is where you can help the church that has helped so many for so many generations be here to serve future generations. Check out this video about the repairs, and how you can help:

The Buffalo Mass Mob has sold t-shirts before to benefit Mass Mob host churches, and earlier this year helped raise funds for a new roof at St. Lawrence Church. This time, the Mass Mob is trying a little of both, selling fine “BuffalLovejoy” t-shirts to help this fine Lovejoy institution make fine its roof. Find out how to get yours at the link below.

Get connected:

Sts. Peter and Paul Church

“BuffaLovejoy” T-Shirt Fundraiser (sale has been extended)

Buffalo Mass Mob XXIV at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, October 15, 10AM

Note: Orthodox Divine Liturgy does not meet Roman Catholic weekly obligation. Roman Catholics attending Buffalo Mass Mob XXIV should also attend weekend Mass at their own parish or another of our urban parishes.

Written by RaChaCha

RaChaCha

RaChaCha is a Garbage Plate™ kid making his way in a Chicken Wing world. Since 2008, he's put over a hundred articles on here, and he asked us to be sure to thank you for reading. So, thank you for reading. You may also have seen his freelance byline in Artvoice, where he writes under the name his daddy gave him [Ed: Send me a check, and I might reveal what that is]. When he's not writing, RaChaCha is an urban planner, a rehabber of houses, and a community builder. He co-founded the Buffalo Mass Mob, and would love to see you at the next one. He represents Buffalo Young Preservationists on the Trico roundtable. If you try to demolish a historic building, he might have something to say about that. He is a proud AmeriCorps alum.

Things you may not know about RaChaCha (unless you read this before): "Ra Cha Cha" is a nickname of his hometown. (Didn't you know that? Do you live under a rock?) He's a political junkie (he once worked for the president of the Monroe County Legislature), but we don't really let him write about politics on here. He helped create a major greenway in the Genesee Valley, and worked on early planning for the Canalway Trail. He hopes you enjoy biking and hiking on those because that's what he put in all that work for. He was a ringleader of the legendary "Chill the Fill" campaign to save Rochester's old downtown subway tunnel. In fact, he comes from a long line of troublemakers. An ancestor fought at Bunker Hill, and a relative led the Bear Flag Revolt in California. We advise you to remember this before messing with him in the comments. He worked on planning the Rochester ARTWalk, and thinks Buffalo should have one of those, too (write your congressman).

You can also find RaChaCha (all too often, we frequently nag him) on the Twitters at @HeyRaChaCha. Which is what some people here yell when they see him on the street. You know who you are.

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