Not long after the Buffalo Mass Mob began, an official of the Diocese of Buffalo, who later said he had been quoted out of context, questioned whether the Mass Mob was a “tourist’s contribution for a pretty church.” Yet priests and parishioners from “mobbed” churches quoted in the article found the Mass Mob to be much more than that. Other priests and parishioners clearly agreed, as the Mass Mob has now been invited to over twenty-five churches and shrines in the Diocese of Buffalo — and to hundreds of others in cities that have adopted the idea.
Now, the Buffalo Mass Mob will be visiting the church led by a priest who was an early fan and supporter of the Mass Mob: Saints Columba-Brigid, just east of downtown Buffalo, now overseen by Franciscan Friar Father Jud Weiksnar.
As far as Ss. Columba-Brigid being a “pretty church” or a tourist destination, with its stripped-down, modern architecture, it’s the kind of church building you might expect to find in the suburbs. But what happens inside the church, week in and week out, is beautiful. And if the architecture leaves you cold, you’ll quickly warm up to this wonderful parish from the moment you walk in the door.
Ss. Columba-Brigid is one of the few bi-racial congregations in the Diocese of Buffalo (another was St. Ann’s, which the Diocese misguidedly closed). The old saying that the most segregated day in America is Sunday is perhaps never more true than for a place like Buffalo, where the east-west segregation is still a thing even the other six days of the week. But not at this church. This is one of those churches, like Corpus Christi in Rochester, which I visited at the invitation of Catholic friends before I was Catholic, where the Sign of Peace doesn’t seem to end until everyone has exchanged the sign of peace with everyone else. This is one of those churches where everyone — everyone — holds hands during the saying of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s also a church where the music is a mix of traditional hymns and gospel.
If you’ve never experienced any of that, that’s unfortunate, but this Sunday, with the Buffalo Mass Mob visiting Ss. Columba-Brigid, is as good an opportunity as you’ll find.
This warm, welcoming, accepting environment has given the parish an opportunity to catch Catholics at risk of falling out of the church, whether due to church closings, bad experiences, or not fitting in at other parishes that may be more about going through the motions than ministry. I discovered this during the winter, when Father Jud invited me to attend the RCIA sessions he was leading. Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults is the church’s rite of including those who are not “cradle Catholics,” so didn’t receive the sacraments of baptism, communion, and confirmation as children. While I had already participated in RCIA several years ago, I was interested in Father Jud’s sessions because braided Catholic social teaching with doctrine. I found the approach — which he believes is unique — intriguing and helpful.
But equally intriguing to me were the stories the two dozen participants told about their faith journey to date, and why they ended up at Ss. Columba-Brigid. In one way or another, it always came down to the parish’s warm, accepting environment. This environment is thriving under Father Jud, but in a way reflects the personality and approach of the previous priest, Father Roy Herberger, who retired last year.
I’ll say more about the recent controversy involving the now-retired Father Roy after some observations about his priesthood. First, Father Roy was exactly what you would want in a priest. He accepted anyone, talked to everyone, and you always had the sense that he would give you the shirt off his back. That may even be literally true: Father Roy once told me that in the 1970s, when he was a priest at Our Lady of Lourdes on Main Street, it wasn’t unusual for him to open the front door of the church in the morning and find someone sleeping in the doorway. Whoever it was, he would invite the person in, find out what they needed, and sometimes even make them breakfast. Father Roy was the kind of priest who was there for people.
Father Roy was there for the congregation in 2004 when fire destroyed the historic church, and they had to build new. Father Roy was a good friend of Sister Karen Klimczak, whose murder shocked the conscience of the city. He preached her funeral Mass at St. Ann’s Church. There is a memorial to Sister Karen on the grounds of Ss. Columba-Brigid.
He was there for the parishioners of St. Ann’s Church after the Diocese merged their parish with Ss. Columba-Brigid. When the Diocese closed St. Ann’s, he stood with the parishioners as they appealed the closure, and even as they defied the Diocese by continuing to conduct Mass on the property. In 2016, Father Roy stood up to the Diocese again, as they imposed a hefty fundraising goal on the church in the Upon This Rock campaign. Father Roy told the Diocese their goal was unrealistic for his poor, inner-city congregation, and in good conscience he couldn’t ask them for so much money. Auxiliary Bishop Grosz told Father Roy to make the ask or submit his resignation. So he made the ask in classic Father Roy fashion, by telling his congregation openly, at Mass, exactly what had transpired.
But outside the church, Father Roy is best known to most for his extensive crèche (or nativity scene) collection, from all over the world. They are displayed every Christmas season at Ss. Columba-Brigid, and the church hopes to create a permanent display space.
As you may have heard, in the recent accusations against priests in the Buffalo Diocese, Father Roy was accused of an incident many years ago. Father Roy responded vigorously and publicly to the accusation. While the process plays out, and will hopefully arrive at the truth one way or the other, most who know Father Roy are standing with him.
The last year has been one of transition with the retirement of Father Roy and the assumption of priestly care for the parish by the local Franciscan order. Around the time of Father Roy’s retirement, St. Patrick’s Friary, where the Franciscans lived, went up for sale. Ss. Columba-Brigid now hosts the friary, and Franciscan Friar Father Jud Weiksnar is the new parish priest.
The parish is hardly new to Father Jud, however. As he told the Nichols School alumni newsletter,
During my junior and senior years at Nichols, I belonged to the Tutoring Committee. We would tutor students after school once a week, at St. Columba School. My office is in one of the buildings where I used to tutor students over 40 years ago. [And another Nichols tie] . . . among my parishioners is Daisy Anderson, mother of my classmate Sheila Anderson.
It’s hard to imagine a better successor to Father Roy than Father Jud. Although not the bear of a man that Father Roy is, Father Jud has embraced the parish, and they have embraced him back. In the RCIA session mentioned earlier, I was impressed with the way he led a large, diverse, occasionally opinionated group confidently through a series of topics that challenged not only how they saw their faith, but how they saw their world.
Father Jud has also quietly, unintentionally become something of an ambassador for the Diocese and the Catholic faith in Buffalo’s unchurched circles, by visibly embracing the social and environmental causes that have made Pope Francis such a breath of fresh air both in the church and outside. In community discussions of one of the most important environmental and social issue in Buffalo in recent years, the future of the Outer Harbor, Father Jud was engaged in a way I saw from no one else in the clergy. In his Franciscan habit, he has been an unmistakable presence at Slow Roll events. He took it a step further by hosting the “Holy Roll” — a wheeled variation on the Catholic tradition of visiting other churches at Easter Vigil that appeals to hipsters and millennials.
Father Jud was also an early supporter of the Buffalo Mass Mob, has attended several, and has to say about this Sunday’s Mass Mob:
You could say that Mass Mob fits right into what we are proposing for a new parish mission statement: “We the church of Ss. Columba-Brigid are a welcoming, inclusive, multicultural Catholic community inspired by the Holy Spirit to celebrate the Risen Christ in how we worship, how we serve others, and how we work for justice.” And we’re thrilled to be hosting Mass Mob.
As if the day-to-day responsibilities for administrative and spiritual care for his new congregation were not enough, Father Jud found also himself faced with another leadership challenge: St. Ann’s. Because of the merged parishes, when the Diocese, last fall, won their appeal at the Vatican to allow St. Ann’s Church and Shrine to be closed, the responsibility to safeguard the future of that most beautiful and historic church has fallen heavily on the shoulders of Father Jud and his Ss. Columba-Brigid trustees. Although St. Ann’s is a Diocesan church, Ss. Columba-Brigid must sign off on major decisions. It’s not hard to imagine, then, the pressure that would be brought to bear on them by a bottom-line oriented diocesan administration that sees St. Ann’s as nothing but a liability and unproductive asset. So much so, that just five years ago they threatened to knock it down.
While no such threats are currently being made, there are difficult decisions to be made about the building. This time around, unlike five years ago, there seems to be a recognition that there needs to be good stewardship of the church. No small amount of credit for that goes to Father Jud, who strives to maintain not only a good relationship with the community but also with the diocesan leadership. Also a factor, certainly, is that at a time when the Diocese seems to be reeling from one punch after another, the last thing they need is another public relations black eye. While developers have shown interest in the St. Ann’s complex of buildings, many of which lend themselves to adaptive reuse, there aren’t many viable, financially realistic models to follow for reusing a church the interior of which is every bit as much of a treasure — if not more so — than the exterior.
Thankfully, Father Jud is involved. While it’s not certain at the moment exactly what will be the fate of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine, or exactly what someone who cares can do to help, supporting Father Jud and Ss. Columba-Brigid Church is one option and not a bad one.
This Sunday’s Buffalo Mass Mob at Ss. Columba-Brigid is a good opportunity to show that support. Bring something for their food pantry. Bring something to drop in the offering plate. But most of all, bring yourself and see firsthand what’s going on there.