Explore Buffalo’s Sacred Spaces tour series began in January of 2020. Supported by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Legacy Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, these tours offered an in depth look at many of Buffalo’s extraordinary houses of worship. Explore Buffalo docent Ron George wrote and led the tour of St. Anthony of Padua Church. Here, he provides us with the history of St. Anthony’s connection to Buffalo’s Italian/American population and a virtual tour of the building.
In the shadow of the City of Buffalo’s Art Deco City Hall at the beginning of Court Street you will find an impressive symbol of the past and present heritage of the Italian/American community in Buffalo and WNY.
Surrounded by modern buildings and parking lots is St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church ‘The Mother Church of the Italian American Community”. St. Anthony of Padua was founded and staffed by the missionaries of St. Charles Barromo (Scalabrini Fathers), a religious order established for the care of migrants and refugees around the world.
Located on Court St. at S. Elmwood (SW), the Parish was founded 18 November, 1888. The church’s original design had a central steeple which was an octagonal cupola topped by a bronze dome. This was relocated from the center of the building to its current location at the northwest corner. The first floor originally was designed as a school and in December of 1891 the first bilingual school for the Italian community was opened serving 374 students from the neighborhood.
In 1891, the first bilingual school for the Italian community was opened serving 374 students from the neighborhood.
The exterior of the building (see Exterior photo) is Romanesque style, while the interior is a baroque Roman basilica style. The building as designed by architect Michael Sheehan originally had two floors. The ground floor was the school and the worship area was on the second floor. The Romanesque style building is constructed of brick with details of Ohio sandstone. A stone base marks the line between the original school portion of the building and the second floor sanctuary. It is well noted for its Italian Renaissance interior detailing and its collection of religious statuary.
History of the Congregation
During the 1870’s, large numbers of Italian immigrants began to settle in the city, arriving here in search of work in the industries that sprang up as a result of the city’s positioning as the terminus of the Erie Canal. The locations of such employment opportunities resulted in a heavy concentration of Italians in the waterfront area and along the Erie Canal. Consequently, the Lower West side became home to a large majority of these people. The Canal District slowly died as trade along the canal was replaced by railroads. Industry and immigration began to change the landscape of the area. The sailors and canal businesses moved out of the area and sought work elsewhere. The vacant buildings were taken over by immigrants.
The Canal District made way to what was called the Italian Quarter, due to the influx of Italian immigrants. Between 1900 and 1920, the Italian population of Buffalo increased from 6,000 to 16,000 (Buffalo’s total population in 1920 was 506,775). The Italian community separated in Buffalo based on the territories and villages of their homeland – each settling into different parts of the City of Buffalo. The Italians who settled in the Canal District were coming mainly from Sicily and immigrated to escape a famine and high taxes.
The Italians who settled in the Canal District were coming mainly from Sicily and immigrated to escape a famine and high taxes.
Seeking a place where they could worship in their native tongue, in 1883, a number of Italian immigrants approached Bishop Stephen Ryan, intent upon his organizing a church to serve them. He granted the group permission to use the chapel of St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Franklin Street until which time the appropriate arrangements for a permanent parish could be undertaken. On 18 November, 1888 the Bishop appointed Rev. James Quigley to head a committee to raise funds for an Italian church.
Through his efforts, the Italian community organized to found the Saint Anthony of Padua Church Society on 10 July, 1891, making the Church of St. Anthony a reality. They next secured the site on Court street, finding it to be most centrally located amongst the city’s current Italian population. The following month, on 2 August, Bishop Ryan placed the cornerstone for the church building. A capsule containing a history of Buffalo’s Italian /American community, names of contemporary religious and civic leaders and 100 pennies were placed in the cornerstone. Four months later, on 20 December, 1891 the congregation celebrated their first mass in the first Italian Catholic church in Western New York. The parish quickly became the social and religious center of the of the city’s Italian population.
The church was renovated according to plans by architect Albert A. Post.
In 1904, as the size of the congregation had grown tremendously, it became necessary to enlarge the church. At that time, the school space on the first floor of the building was relocated and the dividing floor removed to allow the sanctuary to occupy the entire building. The church was renovated according to plans by architect Albert A. Post.
A virtual tour of the church
(Note: Some of the links will take you to a slideshow. You may need to click pause or the back button to focus on particular statues).
As we tour the interior, we pass through the extended vestibule which holds numerous statues and plaques honoring patron saints of the parish and the community. The vestibule was expanded during the last renovation in 1991 by removing the oak doors and opening up that space.
In the vestibule is a Lindenwood statue of St. Anthony of Padua preaching by Heinrich Schmitt of Buffalo, which was originally carved for St. Mary of Sorrows, Main St. Buffalo. Also located in the vestibule is Our Lady of Miracles by L.Avoglio (1947) and various statues made in Buffalo by Tuscan artists Antonio Pellegrini, Our Lady of Loreto by Isaia Pieri, St. Francis of Assisi receiving the Stigmata (which is a copy of the work of Muillo), and statues by I. Siani, and Marco Silvestri.
Statues at one time lined both walls of the interior of the church. The Diocese of Buffalo ordered them removed as a safety measure. Two statues remain and they are two of the statues of saints that are very significant to the parish.
On the left facing the altar is St. Gemma Galgani. Gemma is “Jewel” in Italian. She was a pious young woman who developed Tuberculosis at an early age. Although she was cured by St. Gabriel, a Passionist father, she was rejected for admittance to all six convents she applied to as a novitiate. She lived with a family that befriended her after her family members died of TB. She received the stigmata, a rare divine favor whereby the wounds of Christ are imprinted on her hands, feet and side. She died of TB in 1903 and in death was admitted to the Sisters of the Passionist Order, one of the convents that rejected her.
On the other wall is the statue of St. Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo, Sicily. She devoted herself to a life of penance, prayer and sacrifices. She lived in a cave as a hermit and died at an early age. When a plague struck Palermo in 1624, she appeared to a hunter who told him where her remains were buried. They collected her remains and paraded them through the streets of the city and the plague was lifted.
As we proceed down the nave, we can observe the works E. & J. Lannen who did the masonry work and Charles Metz who executed the woodwork. The simple stained-glass windows were donated by the earliest Italian societies and professional people in Buffalo. Prominent members of the Italian /American community were also honored with windows including Principal Ryan of Public-School No. 2 who was an early advocate of the Italian /American community.
Renovations extended the sanctuary, and niches for statues of parish patron saints were added. The plaster ceiling with recessed caissons and rosette is the work of Cesare Antozzi, an ecclesiastical decorator, who completed the painting of the walls and ceiling and the marble work of the altar.
Beneath the ceiling, a painted fascia depicts symbols of early Italian religious, social and labor organizations in Buffalo. Above the sanctuary arches are paintings of spiritual mothers St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (who visited the church in 1892 and was the founder of The Daughters of the Sacred Heart who taught at the school and he first American saint) and St. Catherine McCauley (Founder of the Sisters of Mercy) and Spiritual fathers Blessed John Baptist Scalabrini (founder of the Scalabrini Fathers) and Bishop James Edward Quigley who ministered to the Italian community before the parish was formed.
In the sanctuary above the main alter is a statue of St. Anthony of Padua by the famous Art School of Faenza, Italy (1892 – lead image). Over the right altar is a linden wood statue of Our Lady of The Rosary, carved in Palermo, Italy in 1898. Over the left altar is a plaster statue of the seated Madonna di Piemo attributed to R. Forni (1886). The stations of the cross are by the DaPrato Company (1916).
Above the vestibule is the choir loft which contains the pipe organ built by Hook & Hastings of Boston, MA and was formerly housed in Plymouth Methodist Church in Buffalo. It was installed in St. Anthony’s in 1911 and is widely regarded as one of the most historic and important organs in WNY.
The real treat begins with a trip to the basement of the church. Down a flight of stairs brings you to a museum of the parish history and a look at life in the Canal District and the West Side. There are photographs from the parishes beginning, festivals and a journey through the stories and reflections of the parishioners who made this an enriching community. There are vestments, sacred vessels and maps of where the community came from, along with a model of the church after its renovation and the banners and flags of the societies that were an important part of parish life.
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Slideshow photos by Friends of St. Anthony’s
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