Look up from your laptop screen at Sweet_ness 7 and peer out the window at that huge Gothic Revival church. Our Lady of Hope, originally Annunciation Church, is the site of this Sunday’s Buffalo Mass Mob XXVI.
The church provides a dramatic backdrop for the destination intersection, where many live and many more visit Sweet_ness 7, Guercio’s, and festivals such as Peace, Love, and Grant Street. With its 170-foot tower, it holds its own against other structures on Lafayette, a street of powerful architecture. Its red sandstone glows in the sunsets seen from Colonial Circle. Built to be the church for the upper west side, it’s visible from all parts of it.
But despite that ubiquity, you may never have been inside this stunning church. This Sunday’s Mass Mob provides a welcoming opportunity to do just that.
Since its inception in 2013, the Mass Mob has helped fill the pews at twenty-five churches in and around Buffalo. Often people feel blessed to see their church at or near capacity. Priests often remark that a full church is the way it ought to be, and pull out all the stops with homilies that seem almost elevated by the energy of all the souls present.
But this Mass Mob may play out somewhat differently, I expect. Thanks to hundreds of recent arrivals whom the church has a primary mission to serve, Our Lady of Hope already has a well-attended, dynamic Sunday Mass. They will show how Masses were “mobbed” long before the advent of social media. I found visiting a Mass there inspiring, and believe you will, too.
Mass at Our Lady of Hope provides weekly inspiration for Dennis Mahaney, a parishioner who is also Director of Evangelization and Parish Life for the Diocese of Buffalo. His responsibility is helping churches stay dynamic and relevant in an era of diminishing church attendance and religious affiliation – not an easy job. When I talked with him after Mass, he spoke glowingly of the dynamism of the parish and the services. Mass tends to go an hour and a half, which is unusual, he told me. “At many churches, after fifty minutes you would start to lose people. Here, no one leaves early.”
Scripture readings often alternate between English and the native languages spoken by parishioners. With many parishioners from Africa and southeast Asia, the languages are many. So Masses also incorporate plays and songs by children, and even dances, to communicate. Father Gregory Gallagher of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order based at Holy Angels (see my profile here) that oversees Our Lady of Hope, told me that this is in a long tradition of the church teaching through the arts, for example through stained-glass windows and Stations of the Cross.
From Annunciation to Hope
The history of Our Lady of Hope, from origin to present, is a story of settlement patterns in Buffalo and ethnic migration. In the 1880s, as Buffalo continued to expand north from downtown and east from the river and canal, the area around Grant Street and Lafayette (then Bouck) Avenue began to be developed. But for Catholics who came to live there, it was a long trek by horse (or shank’s mare) to the nearest churches, Holy Angels on Porter or St. John the Baptist on Hertel. So residents petitioned the Bishop for a parish of their own.
According to a brief history by James Napora, Bishop Ryan put Father Kelly of St. John the Baptist in charge of creating Annunciation Parish. A site was purchased on Lafayette at the corner of Glenwood (then Emily) Street. A frame church was erected, and dedicated by the Bishop. Father Kelly must have been quite energetic, as all this took place in a single year, 1885.
Napora continues the story,
The establishment of a Catholic presence in that part of the city acted as a magnet for settlement. Within a few years, Irish families began moving into the area. Many came from the Old First Ward neighborhood as the character of the area was quickly changing from residential to industrial. They moved north in the city seeking a cleaner, healthier place to live. With the influx of residents to the area, the need for a larger house of worship was imminent.
The church must have grown quickly, and been prosperous, because the present church was built just over fifteen years later. According to Napora it went from planning, to its dedication by Bishop Quigley, in just three years. The cost? $45,000. The church was designed by Canadian architect Albert Asa Post, who designed a number of churches in Ontario and western New York. He designed the church not long after moving his architectural firm from Toronto to Buffalo.
Annunciation has some intriguing connections to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Medina, also designed by Post shortly after Annunciation. The Orleans County church appears to be a mirror image of Annunciation. Both churches are constructed of the same stone. Amazingly, St. Mary’s Church is now home to a pipe organ that was removed from Annunciation.
For the first half of the 20th Century, Annunciation church grew, primarily under the leadership of two priests. Father Biden had been a priest for 43 years at the time he began winding down his leadership of Annunciation in 1925, taking a three-month holy year pilgrimage to Rome, where he was honored by Pope Pius XI and witnessed the canonization of Peter Canisius and the Thirty Martyrs.
In 1926, four beautiful, detailed murals were added to the church, painted by an Italian artist named Reggi who had recently painted murals for Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.
Father O’Brien arrived about that time and led the church for over three decades. In 1960, when he celebrated the 65th anniversary of his ordination he was, at 98, the oldest active priest in the Diocese – perhaps even in the nation. According to the Buffalo Evening News, he still celebrated daily Mass and when asked about his retirement plans replied, “When the Lord calls me, I’ll have to retire.”
One of his earliest projects was construction of a new school. He said something about how that seemed just like yesterday. Old one converted into a parish hall and clubhouse.
In 1960, Annunciation Parish served two thousand families. Today, it’s more like 350 to 400. Around the turn of the century, with parish attendance falling off and the need for space dwindling, and adaptive reuse not yet taken hold in Buffalo, the church had the upper floors of the old school removed. The “new” school continued as the Lafayette campus for West Buffalo Catholic Academy, but closed in 2005. It was converted to housing by architect and developer Karl Frizlen.
Ten years ago this September, Annunciation Church became Our Lady of Hope, from the merger of three parishes. For the last decade, it has been the principal Catholic church serving the upper west side, and perhaps the top church in the Diocese for embracing our most recent immigrant and refugee populations.
The last ten years have seen major changes in the neighborhood, as well. The single largest, few would question, was Prish’s project at the corner, most notably the opening of Sweet_ness 7 Cafe, where you may be reading this post. Queenseyes’ original articles (here, here, here). She is another lady who has brought hope to Grant Street, and who even posts an occasional homily of sorts.
But Grant Street has received an even bigger boost from the major resettlement of immigrants and refugees on the west side. Many languages are heard on the street, and found written, too. The West Side Bazaar is a microcosm of what is happening up and down the street.
And that is why the church is exactly where Father Gallagher and his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, want to be, and want to serve. The mission of the order’s founder (or charism, in Catholic terms) was to reach the poor and those he found who were under-served by the church. As a priest, he even worked on the docks, and conducted Mass there.
A young Buffalo was just the place for such a charism. One of the busiest ports in the nation created one of the most notorious districts in the nation – a place at which many of Buffalo’s churches wagged fingers, but few visited. The Oblates first arrived in Buffalo in the 1850s when their order’s founder was still alive. They established a presence at Holy Angels, in walking distance of the waterfront. They are still there today, because although immigrants no longer arrive by boat, and no longer find work on the waterfront, they have similar needs and face similar challenges to those of a century and a half ago.
They have also boosted the church, transforming Annunciation Church into Our Lady of Hope. Father Gallagher told me that the ranks of decades-long parishioners, and those with family ties to the church – often now living in the suburbs – have dwindled. They often attend the Saturday evening or early Sunday Mass. As with Coronation Church, the largely Vietnamese church the Mass Mob visited last spring, new arrivals and our city churches can have a symbiotic relationship: each can help the other survive and thrive.
An interesting profile of Buffalo’s Burmese immigrants (link here and photos shown above) featured the church and its role in the community’s life. Many other immigrant populations, including from Africa, have also found a spiritual home there.
Our Lady of Hope welcomes all – whether you’ve recently arrived in America from overseas, or whether you’ve seen the towering church from the windows of Sweet_ness 7 and always wondered what it was like to experience a Mass there. Come and see.