The Buffalo Mass Mob turned 40 over the weekend. But, y’know, as they say, 40 (XL in Roman numerals) is just a number, right? And in this case that’s actually true, as this was the 40th mobbing committed by the Buffalo Mass Mob since its uncertain beginning in 2013 at St. Adalbert’s Basilica. Then the concept was so new that the priest called it a “mob Mass” and had been initially concerned that an actual angry mob was going to descend on his service.
But although the mob has descended two score times, it has been a joyful, not an angry mob. And Sunday’s Mass Mob, at Our Lady of Hope on Buffalo’s dense and diverse west side, may have been the most joyful yet.
Psalm 100 begins, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.” Our Lady of Hope is a church that takes that charge to heart.
There was singing, and lots of it. And drumming. Many parts of the Mass that are normally spoken or chanted are instead sung at Our Lady of Hope. The choir is very talented – lingering after Mass the Sunday before I got to hear them rehearse and was astonished.
As for “all ye lands,” Our Lady of Hope has that covered, too. The church draws parishioners from every continent except Antarctica and (perhaps) Australia, all worshiping together in joy and a peace that sadly, many of them refugees, didn’t find in their homelands. (The Mass prayer included this: “Help those in Ukraine, Myanmar, and elsewhere who are suffering from the evil takeover of their governments.” The church was full of those who know all too well just what that means.)
And as for making a “joyful noise” – I’d include the noise associated with dozens of kids, all full of the kid energy and kid cuteness that transcends ethnicity or national origin. Many declining churches are shockingly, sadly devoid of kids. But not Our Lady of Hope. The kids are invited to participate in the Mass, not just sit and watch while the adults do church.
The storyteller at work
Buffalo News Metro Columnist Sean Kirst, sitting next to me at Mass and taking this all in, leaned over and asked me, “Do you think there is another church like this in the Diocese?” “I wonder if there is another church like this in all of upstate,” I replied. “This must be what church was like in the 1920s,” he said. Then hastened to add, “But more joyful.”
How did I end up at Mass with Sean Kirst? Sean has been a fan of the Mass Mob from the beginning. Before I moved to Buffalo I did some budget work for Onondaga County when Sean was the metro columnist for the Syracuse Post-Standard. Every morning on getting into Syracuse I would grab a copy of the paper and anything by Sean Kirst would be my first read. When I wanted to spout off about a preservation issue (like I do on here) in Syracuse, Sean helped me get an op-ed published. We stayed in touch afterward, first by email and later on Twitter (@SeanKirst).
When the Mass Mob began in Buffalo, I sent information to Sean in case he found anyone in Syracuse interested in starting one there. He loved the concept but didn’t have a potential organizer. I talked with the Syracuse bishop myself when he was visiting Buffalo, but he had no more interest in the Mass Mob than Buffalo’s former bishop did. But about Sean Kirst he said, “I read his column religiously.”
And he wasn’t the only one. I began to learn on social media just how much impact Sean’s work was having even outside of Syracuse. Jimmy Vielkind of the Capitol press corps in Albany called him the best metro columnist upstate and who could disagree?
But it wasn’t until Bruce Andriatch lured Sean out of his short-lived retirement to be the new metro columnist at the Buffalo News that I learned of Sean’s Buffalo connections, about which he has written poignantly. And when we finally got the chance to meet up, after being in touch for so many years, I learned of his stints at the Niagara Gazette, where he met Bruce on his first day, and at Rochester’s City Newspaper, where he wrote an in-depth story on the old subway tunnel under downtown that I helped save from destruction a decade and a half ago.
Few know upstate – and upstaters – as well as Sean Kirst.
Once Sean was at the Buffalo News, I started inviting him to Mass Mobs, thinking he’d enjoy one and hoping he’d write about it, too. But as Buffalo Rising writers know, even on a slow week you find so many stories in Buffalo you’d like to write about, but there’s only so much time. That goes triple for the metro columnist covering an entire region. Several times we came close, but then would come, “Sorry, just can’t do this one. But don’t give up. Keep me in the loop on the next one. We’ll make this happen.”
And with Buffalo Mass Mob XL, it did.
When I told Sean the church and the date, he shot back: “That church? Pah. Means nothing to me, except that my parents lived nearby and were married there 80 years to the month – almost to the day – of the event.”
And that was it. We had him. He brought along the great Buffalo News Photographer John Hickey, who loved the experience so much he came back for the Mass Mob – sans camera – with his wife.
In his Sunday article, Sean expanded more on that personal connection:
Now, a confession, though not in the strict sense: While working on this column, impossible coincidence – or whatever you choose to call it – quickly amplified the connection. My late mother and father spent their teen years and 20s on the West Side of Buffalo, and it was not until I returned to Western New York to do this job that I learned, through a little digging, where they were married.
My dad, who spent much of his childhood at Father Baker’s orphanage, ended up on West Delavan Avenue, a few blocks from the church. He was living there when he met my mother, orphaned daughter of Scottish immigrants, who was staying with an older brother on Perkins Place. She soon converted to Catholicism, and they took their vows at Annunciation on May 2, 1942.
That means Sunday’s Mass at Our Lady of Hope, picked by chance by the Mass Mob, is exactly one day short of the 80th anniversary of my parents’ wedding in that same church. The parish was also central to the hardest passage of their lives: When my sister Sharon died as a toddler in 1944, she was buried out of Annunciation.
So, yeah. I felt it when I walked in there to learn a truth I know would matter to my folks: The church that was a pivot in their lives does not represent some sad song about past Buffalo glory and used-to-be.
Let that last sentence sink in, because therein lies the key to Sean’s story and, in a way, the key to the Mass Mob. And perhaps even the “Church on Fire – Stay With Us!” lecture series on church reform that we’ve been covering here.
How so? After visiting most of the churches in Buffalo with the Mass Mob, and writing about many of them, it has become sadly clear that some of them are limping along on life support – like a beloved family pet that no one can bear to part with, so you try to keep alive even as you know its days are numbered. In fact, the centennial celebration of one of the Mass Mob churches I attended several years ago resembled nothing so much as – heaven help me – a funeral.
A church reborn
But other churches we’ve visited have worked hard to stay relevant, and perhaps Our Lady of Hope most of all (although I’ve also been very impressed with the smart efforts at Blessed Sacrament Church). And in doing so it draws, consciously or unconsciously, from its history: this church has always been about the immigrant and refugee experience.
In that way, every couple of generations, it has become a church reborn.
If you look carefully, you can find that story all around you at Our Lady of Hope. I recounted a bit of it in my article about the first Mass Mob there four years ago. It is even embedded in the fabric of the building. Looking at the stained-glass windows and their dedications, you find largely Irish names, a clue to the way the church first acted as a magnet for Irish-American families – founded by some of our nation’s earliest immigrants and refugees – looking to leave the Old First Ward.
Generations later, the parish attracted Italian-American families looking to leave the waterfront district where they had concentrated. Many names in the Mass intentions (usually for deceased loved ones) and in the prayer list are Italian.
Today, according to the church bulletin, “Here at Our Lady of Hope there are over sixteen languages spoken yet people find a community as they gather to celebrate the Eucharist.” Today, the clergy and lay leaders have names such as Nyambe, Pham, Miranda, Thaler, Sturmer, Noh, and Tabu. America has always been a nation of immigrants and refugees, and not only are there no signs of that slowing down, in a world of dirty climates and dirty wars it is likely to accelerate. Our Lady of Hope may be an apparition of our future.
And lest there be a reader who is unsettled at the thought of such a multicultural and multi-ethnic future, let Our Lady of Hope put your mind at ease. What we saw at Mass and the reception after was an extraordinary display of cooperation, organization, and wisdom – all done with great joy.
Making a joyful noise
The hour-and-a-half Mass was a choreography of moving parts and shifting groups of participants, incorporating elements from multiple cultures and languages. The experience of forty Mass Mobs around the Diocese tells me that the wisdom and leadership needed to make it all work are not universally found among our churches, clergy, and lay leaders. And I’d say – diplomatically – that it certainly works in Our Lady of Hope’s favor to be under the aegis of a religious order.
Long conversations with Father Felix Nyambe, Administrator, and Ron Thaler, Pastoral Associate, left me impressed with their wisdom and judgment, indispensable as they don’t teach priests in seminary how to lead a church like Our Lady of Hope.
Father Nyambe in particular, led the Mass with more sure-footedness and grace than I’ve seen from most parish priests. His reading of Sunday’s gospel text, John 21:1–19, in which a resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples and asks Peter – whom he knew on the night of his betrayal had denied him three times – three times, “Do you love me?” was lyrical and touching, despite English not being his first language. In his homily, he drew on the text to speak candidly about how we deal with those who have betrayed us and hurt us. I’m sure everyone in the church felt as I did, that he was speaking to them personally.
He then asked us all to turn to someone near us and say, “God loves you, and I love you.” And so we did. Rather than feeling concocted, it totally fit the mood of the reading and the homily. It also helped break the ice between so many present, so closely packed together.
Later, Father Nyambe did something I’ve never seen during a Mass before. He invited a couple who was celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary that day to come forward. They wanted to publicly reaffirm their vows, along with their child. It was short and simple, but also beautiful. The congregation erupted in cheers that the Sabres would be lucky to get on scoring a goal.
The Mass at Our Lady of Hope seemed so extraordinary (especially at over an hour and a half long) to so many of the Mass Mobbers that they thanked the priests afterward saying, “I can’t believe that you did all these special things just for us.” The priests graciously received their thanks but smiled and assured them, “This is what it is like every Sunday here!” And so it is. And may it always be.
After Mass, Sean Kirst had a personal mission. He’d brought a family photo album with a picture of his parents on their wedding day at the church then known as Annunciation, representing joy. But on the opposite page was a more poignant photo: his older sister Sharon, who died in infancy during The War while his father was overseas, and who was, as he says, buried from Annunciation.
Sisters from Eritrea, in distinctive white garb, offered to hold the album on the altar while Sean took a photo at the very spot his parents exchanged their vows eight decades before. It was a deeply personal moment of grace that I was honored and touched to be present for.
It gave me insight into why Sean has been such a beloved writer across a wide swath of this great state: he has an eye for just such deeply personal moments of grace that happen in the lives of all of us and in our communities. And he really sees them. And cares enough to tell their stories with such dignity and respect that you can feel he was honored and touched to have shared in them.
Before we headed to the reception, Sean told me that his mother had converted to Catholicism to marry his father. He mentioned the old chestnut that converts are sometimes more energetic than “cradle Catholics” (perhaps true in my case, given that in most of my ten years as a Catholic I’ve been involved in this effort to boost urban churches). His mother often said that one of the things that most impressed her about the Catholic Church is that “the church is always open.”
And indeed, eight decades later, at the conclusion of the Mass Father Nyambe told the crowd – visitor and parishioner alike – “the church is always open.”
That’s an invitation from Our Lady of Hope. Consider taking them up on it.