By the time you read this, the Diocese of Buffalo will have shut down its credit cards, perhaps a sign it will follow the Diocese of Rochester down the road to bankruptcy. This is just one of the extraordinary repercussions of a shocking series of developments over the last year involving the Diocese’ handling of clergy sex abuse cases.
With a drastic, even existential impact on local Catholics and Catholicism in the last year, the crisis in the diocese has come to dominate thoughts, conversations, and prayers, and can’t be overlooked even in writing a piece about a this Sunday’s Mass Mob at St. Bernard’s Church in Kaisertown.
While overwhelming, thankfully the crisis has not excluded all else. Despite the temporal upheaval, churches somehow manage to not only keep performing their mission, but even plan for the future. Earlier this month, I revisited the church that hosted last January’s Mass Mob, Blessed Sacrament, where parishioner Michael Pitek has been leading coffee discussions to consider the future of the parish and how it can be more relevant to the under-churched Elmwood Village community. The active, thoughtful participation in those discussions was a welcome sign to me that, although many have stopped attending and perhaps even more have stopped contributing, most Catholics are still keeping the faith and trying, best they can, to continue the work of the Church.
The Mass Mob, as well, keeps on mobbing churches in need of a boost, in a time when suddenly every church needs a boost. Mass Mobs continue not only in Buffalo but several other cities, mainly in the midwest. The most active has been Detroit where, unlike Buffalo, the bishop embraced the concept, even recording a video welcome message for the very first Mob. The Detroit Mass Mob was featured this week in the Wall Street Journal, along with a shout-out to Buffalo for initiating the concept and a plug for this weekend’s Mass Mob in Kaisertown.
Kaisertown, at the eastern edge of Buffalo adjoining West Seneca, is a neighborhood that could be a poster child for the idea of keeping on keeping on. Kaisertown native and urban planner Craig Spangler considers it a “middle neighborhood”, one of those places that together may make up half of a city but often go overlooked for lacking the latest “it” places on the one hand and lacking a critical mass of problems to need high-profile reinvestment efforts on the other.
While no city neighborhood should be overlooked – especially not this one – that forgotten quality has a certain appeal to me, as visiting Kaisertown in some ways is like opening an urban time capsule sealed up generations ago. Once, while running in Kaisertown on a crisp, fall, Sunday afternoon I could follow the Bills game play-by-play as the sound spilled out from open windows and doorways on every street. And the last time I visited Kaisertown, I came across the storefront office of former State Senator William Stachowski, empty for years but still set up as if Kaisertown native son “Stack” would be coming back. And years ago, while running out to the “Oxbow” habitat restoration site in West Seneca for a work party, I stopped in a Kaisertown bar to use the restroom and get a pop. Inside I found a single bartender and a single customer on a barstool who looked as if they had been in their current positions for decades.
Like the rest of its city, Kaisertown was hit hard by de-industrialization and suburban sprawl, its peak coinciding with the construction of the present St. Bernard’s Church in the mid 1950s. This was among the last Catholic churches to be constructed in the city, and, like St. Margaret’s on Hertel (as I wrote at the time of the Buffalo Mass Mob there) was among the last in the Diocese of Buffalo to be designed in a traditional eclesiastical style by architect Mortimer Murphy.
The history of St. Bernard’s Church is not atypical, beginning over a century ago as one ethnic group (in this case, German-Americans) wanted a church of their own where they could celebrate Mass in their own language, without having to travel a long distance in the pre-automotive era. Beginning with a combined church/school building, after the dual shocks of the Great Depression and World War II the congregation built the present stand-alone church. A brief history, by James Napora, is here.
In recent decades, the church has experienced most of the same pressures as most city parishes: closing of the school, loss of the religious orders, family downsizing, and perpetual worries over mergers and closings. In 2011 there were rumblings about the church closing and the parish merging with St. Casimir’s, but that didn’t happen.
Today, like many urban parishes, St. Bernard’s keeps on keeping on. Under the leadership of Father Marcin Porada, it remains an active parish serving its parishioners and community despite reductions in numbers of Masses on Sunday and during the week. Its ultimate fate could be tied – as from the beginning – to the fortunes of its neighborhood, Kaisertown. In recent years, those fortunes have been looking up as a new generation, priced out of other neighborhoods, discovers what it has to offer: a small-town feel, a walkable commercial street, the Clinton-Bailey Market, nature trails along the Buffalo River, and still-affordable housing.
As bad as the current diocesan crisis may be, apparently including once-unthinkable bankruptcy, it seems unlikely that it will lead to an utter collapse of Catholic infrastructure in Buffalo. If churches like St. Bernard’s can hang on through the storm, in brighter times they could see a long-term boost from new families of every imaginable description who may come to make a home in Kaisertown and the neighborhood parish.
For now, the Buffalo Mass Mob invites you to give the church and its neighborhood a boost with your presence this Sunday.
Note: this Sunday’s Mass Mob will be followed by a defeat of the New England Patriots.