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 and board member Gary Szakmary wrote and led the tour of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. Here, he provides us with the histories of the Polish immigrant community in the Black Rock neighborhood and Assumption Church, plus a virtual tour of the building.
In the 1880s, hundreds of Polish immigrants began moving from Buffalo’s East Side into a newly-forming neighborhood where Grant and Amherst Streets meet – just north of Scajaquada Creek. These immigrants were looking for jobs – jobs that were made possible by the opening of the Belt Line Railroad in 1883.
In those days, before the arrival of motor transport, the Belt Line made it possible – even easy – to get (literally) around Buffalo’s “outer reaches.” With the availability of cheap land and easy transport, factories began springing up along the Line, including many on Tonawanda Street, close to the Grant-Amherst intersection. There was even a Grant Street Station on the Line, at Tonawanda St.
In addition to jobs and homes, the new arrivals needed a place to worship.
In addition to jobs and homes, the new arrivals needed a place to worship. As Catholics, many of them speaking only or primarily Polish, they longed to have their own Polish Catholic church – such as they had back on the East Side – where they could center their religious and social lives.
So, with the permission and support of Buffalo’s then-Bishop Stephen Ryan, these Poles raised money, purchased some land, and built a small church and school at the corner of Peter and Amherst Streets, adjacent to Scajaquada Creek. Construction began in 1888, and the new Church was dedicated in 1889. It was to be known as Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church.
Both the neighborhood and Assumption parish grew very rapidly. Soon, the congregation needed more room – so they decided to “go big.” In 1913, they raised more money, hired a noted local architect, and began building a large and striking new church adjacent to the old one. The architect (Carl Schmill, Sr.) died before construction was very far along, but the project was taken over by his son (Carl Schmill, Jr.), who had joined his father’s firm that year. The new church building, designed in Romanesque Revival style, was completed in 1914 – just as the First World War was breaking out in Europe.
When it opened, the new Assumption Church was one of the largest in Buffalo – seating nearly 1,600 people. It was a splendid creation, both inside and out. The building employs semi-circular, or Roman, arches over all windows and doors – thus giving it the “Romanesque” style The exterior consists of Norman brick (which is more elongated and variously shaded than the familiar “standard” brick), and a Spanish-tiled roof, with “burnt” tiles mixed in, to add architectural interest. The twin bell towers rise 170 feet over the main entrance – making the church, even today, visible for miles. On entering their church, parishioners are greeted by the words of the “Hail Mary,” inscribed in Latin over the triple-portal front entryway.
The allure of Assumption Church continues inside.
Among its notable features are three identical “rose-wheel” windows – one over the main entry, and the other two at either end of the transept (the crossing aisleway that helps form the shape of a crucifix in the floorplan of the church). The main aisle is flanked by two arcaded side aisles, each displaying 11 masterfully designed stained-glass windows.
While records of the windows’ origins have been lost, they are fabricated in the “Munich Pictorial” style of painted glass, and are believed to originate from either Austria or Germany – common sources of stained-glass windows in America’s oldest Catholic churches. The windows on the West Aisle depict scenes from the Life of Christ, while those on the East Aisle commemorate an eclectic set of saints and Biblical figures.Dedications at the base of each window, most written in Polish, denote the social club or family that sponsored it.
A special window at the front of the church is dedicated in memory of the original architect, Carl Schmill, Sr., and depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven.
Even the pulpit is a striking work of art. Carved in oak, it depicts Jesus and the four Evangelists – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Church ceiling consists of painted and stenciled oak and fruitwoods.
Assumption Church has seen many renovations and notable milestones over the years. Among these are the addition, in 1961, of a series of sgraffiti (“paintings” formed from layers of colored plaster) over the main altar. Created by the Polish artist Josef Slawinski, these depict life events and liturgical symbols of the Blessed Virgin (See Photos 14, 15, and 16).
In 1969, Assumption was visited by an obscure Polish bishop, Karol Wojtyla of Krakow – who later became the beloved Pope John Paul II, and was eventually canonized as a Saint.
This visit is memorialized in a striking side-altar statue.
Were the founders of Assumption Parish to return to Buffalo today, they would be shocked at how much has changed. But their monumental church, towering over its neighborhood and the adjacent Scajaquada Parkway, still stands as striking testimony to the ardent faith and impact of one of Buffalo’s largest and most important immigrant groups of a bygone era.
Photo credit: Chuck LaChiusa/BuffaloAH.com
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