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Art at the Intersection of Culture and Spirituality: The Buffalo Religious Arts Center

Author: Nicole Murray

In the same way that western music has its roots in religious tradition, the interconnectedness between religion and art has been symbiotic; both evolving codependently to reflect social, cultural, and technological changes over time. Though the study of religion is mostly accomplished through text, the aesthetic qualities of religious artwork have remained integral as a connection between the soul and the interpretation of these texts. Classical examples of this can be seen in the artwork of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, and modern artists such as the sculptor Tanavoli, and the street artist El Seed, are once again turning to spirituality as a source of inspiration for their work. This global movement has seen echoes here in Buffalo with artists and arts organizations focusing their work around spiritual themes and messages.

[An] incredible hub of religious artwork that represents different cultures can be found at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center in Buffalo’s Black Rock neighborhood. Founder Mary Holland has made it her life’s work to preserve religious art from sculptures to stained glass that were destined to either be sold or lost when a number of churches and other houses of worship closed their doors back in the early 2000’s. The works that she has curated are done largely by artists who had immigrated to the United States and their work reflects their culture alongside traditional religious iconography.

In 2008, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo announced the closing of over 70 churches, bringing the number from 275 to to 198, through a strategic plan known as the “Journey of Faith and Grace,” according to a WIVB article. This was a tumultuous time with many church-goers displaced and disheartened by the loss of their lifelong parishes. 

As churches were forced to close their doors, Buffalo-born retired architect Mary Holland had a different question on her mind: “What is going to happen to all of the artwork and relics housed in these churches?” Mary’s experience as an Engineer Research Librarian made her swiftly adept at recognizing this important and unique opportunity and she and a few volunteers quickly mobilized to begin rescuing art from as many sources as possible and this is how the Buffalo Religious Art Center began.

The next priority for Mary was to repurpose one of the architecturally significant churches that was slated for closure to house all of these pieces. She found the perfect location at the former St. Francis Xavier Church at 157 East Street in the Black Rock District in Buffalo. The church, constructed between 1911 and 1912 by the Buffalo architect Max G. Beierl, features a unique set of Munich style stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross and made by F.X. Zettler. 

Another gem in the stained glass collection of the center is by Otto F. Andrle whose stained glass work is featured at the Our Lady of Victory Basilica in South Buffalo. The Andrle work that the Center owns is not made of stained glass but is a cartoon, a picture drawn in black and white that is used to guide the eventual glass laying. According to Mary, “They are very hard to find because they were always thrown away because they were just a drawing. We are very lucky to have Andrle’s from St. Gerard’s church [formerly on East Delavan Street in Buffalo] even though the windows themselves went to Atlanta, Georgia so there’s none of them left.” The Art Center has stained glass including works by F. X. Zettler, Frohe, Anderle, Nincheri and Pike Studios dating from 1908 to the 1920’s.

Much like these stained glass windows, the artwork featured in the Buffalo Religious Art Center features the work of immigrants to the United States and that is one of the main themes running throughout the gallery. The works themselves stretch across many mediums including original architectural drawings, statues, oil paintings, and murals and each are a treasure to behold for both their artistic value and unique story.

One of Mary’s favorite pieces was actually found in a total surprise. A phone call came to her from a man who had a wood carving that he wanted to show her which turned out to be an intricately designed baldachin made of Balsa wood from 1896. The work (see photo inset) is constructed from hundreds of pieces of wood that have been constructed into this beautiful canopy.

Although much of what the Buffalo Religious Art Center owns are from Catholic churches, they accept items from any denomination. They have a number of Judaic pieces from when Temple Beth El merged with Temple Shaarey Zedek to form Temple Beth Tzedek in 2008.

If you would like to visit the Buffalo Religious Art Center, the best way would be to book a tour which can be done by calling (716) 481-2350, visiting or their Facebook page. There is ample parking available in the school parking lot and an accessible entrance in the rear of the lot.

Lead image courtesy Buffalo Religious Art Center

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