Parishioners of nine Catholic churches in Buffalo on Saturday began mourning the loss of their longtime houses of worship, as pastors announced at Masses the latest downsizings by Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.
The announcements set in motion what is expected to be a dramatic overhaul of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo's physical presence in the city.
Diocesan officials declined to comment Saturday, but Bishop Edward U. Kmiec is expected to address the latest parish mergers and church closings this afternoon.
Kmiec sent a letter to the parishes of the diocese's Central Buffalo vicariate, which consists of 14 churches in Buffalo and two in Cheektowaga.
Receiving word that their churches would close were Visitation and St. Agnes parishes in the Lovejoy neighborhood; St. Gerard Parish at Bailey and East Delavan avenues; St. James Parish at Bailey and Hastings avenues; St. Ann on Broadway; St. Mary of Sorrows on Guilford Street; Queen of Peace at Genesee and Forman streets; Holy Name of Jesus on Bailey Avenue; and Most Holy Redeemer on Genesee Street and Avery Place in Cheektowaga, near the city line.
In his letter, Kmiec wrote that the changes will promote vibrant parish life and create stronger, merged parishes that will keep ministries alive in the city.
"The process has not been easy, but I am confident that the results will be a source of new life and hope for our diocesan church," Kmiec wrote.
But the downsizing also will leave vacant several large and impressive churches, most notably St. Ann and St. Gerard, two architectural gems built by German immigrants
"In the day, the Masses were so crowded. If you didn't arrive 20 minutes early, you couldn't find a seat," said Dorothy Eckl, a longtime member of St. Gerard. "And now, a hundred people in a 900-person church. It's really sad."
The people of St. Gerard and St. James, who have been worshipping together for more than a year, were being asked to merge with Blessed Trinity parish, located in a federally designated landmark church on Leroy Avenue.
About 20 members of St. Gerard and St. James turned out for Mass on Saturday in St. James, where the pastors, the Rev. Francis X. Mazur and the Rev. Robert Gebhard, handed out copies of Kmiec's letter.
"There's nothing you can do really," said Lora Moser of Buffalo, a regular at St. James for nearly 30 years.
By the time the diocese's "Journey in Faith & Grace" is complete, the city could lose two dozen to three dozen of its current 58 parishes to mergers.
While 50 priests are staffing city parishes now, 18 priests are slated to be available by 2015, based upon diocesan projections of priest numbers.
In addition to the central vicariate mergers and closings, Kmiec is considering a proposal to merge seven parishes on Buffalo's East Side into two.
In Riverside and Black Rock, St. Elizabeth Parish is formally merging into Assumption Parish in a special ceremony this morning, and St. Florian, St. John the Baptist and St. Francis Xavier all are likely to close.
Major changes also are anticipated for South Buffalo, the West Side and North Buffalo.
In addition to Blessed Trinity, churches that will stay open in the central vicariate are St. Francis of Assisi in Lovejoy; St. Lawrence on East Delavan Avenue; St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga; St. Martin de Porres on Northampton Street; and St. Columba & St. Brigid Parish at Eagle and Hickory streets.
"It's unfortunate," said the Rev. Norm Sullivan, pastor of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, where parishioners opposed the merger with nearby St. Lawrence. "We've been here since 1913 and I don't think they want to give up their church. But I guess we'll have to."