Members of St. Elizabeth Parish walked out of their church on Grant Street for one of the last times Sunday morning.
Back in March, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec determined that St. Elizabeth had too few people and would have to merge with Assumption Church, a brief walk away on Amherst Street.
Parishioners took those few steps after Mass on Sunday, carrying roses and pictures of St. Elizabeth into Assumption, where members of the neighboring church awaited them, singing "We Gather Together to Sing the Lord's Praises."
And so began a parish merger.
It is a fate that will affect dozens more communities throughout Western New York in the coming weeks and months.
While St. Elizabeth and Assumption were coming together as a single community, parishioners at 41 other Catholic faith communities learned Sunday that they soon will be doing the same.
The latest merger announcements will result in an additional 15 Buffalo churches closing, as well as one in Cheektowaga and five in Cattaraugus County.
But as Margaret Kraus walked in the procession on Grant Street, she wished there was another way.
"It's not the right direction to show the young people who don't go to church," said Kraus, a St. Elizabeth parishioner for more than 70 years. "I love the Catholic faith, but something different could have been arranged. It's too fast."
Others also argued that the diocese was too quick to leave behind its beautiful buildings and historical presence, particularly in struggling city neighborhoods.
"This isn't like one home on a street [being vacant]. This is an entire corner or city block," said Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., whose North District will soon have four church complexes without active parishes.
"It's the same old failed mechanisms over and over again. This is something the diocese will never, ever recover from."
So far, the diocese is nearly a third of the way through its intensive pruning of parishes. Of its 274 parishes and missions, 80 have been chosen for some form of restructuring.
The plan known as "Journey in Faith & Grace" already has affected parishes and schools in Erie, Niagara, Allegany, Wyoming, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Genesee and Orleans counties. Kmiec said he identified with the pain of people such as Kraus.
"I wish each round of changes got easier, but they don't," he said. "Through phone calls, letters, e-mails and personal conversation, I have learned a great deal about the pain many are experiencing as their parish lives change."
But diocesan officials noted that at most of the closing churches, attendance had fallen dramatically and the vibrancy of the communities suffered.
Kmiec and other diocesan leaders stressed that the parish mergers would strengthen the Catholic presence in the city by allowing the remaining faith communities to focus on ministries rather than buildings.
He again objected to a recent Council resolution that said the closings "appear to have the whiff of 'ethnic cleansing' " and attacked the diocese as lacking vision and "behaving as if these churches exist in a self-contained vacuum."
Kmiec reiterated that he was appalled by the resolution.
The bishop explained that he has met with Mayor Byron W. Brown, city strategic planning director Timothy E. Wanamaker and Richard M. Tobe, the city's development and inspections commissioner, regarding possible building reuse.
"We do have a plan. We do have a process," the bishop said. "We'll take responsibility for what we have."
Buildings, he said, will be leased, sold and used by parishes for other purposes.
But he also said the closings were unavoidable.
"If we had the people here, I don't think we'd have to close churches or schools," he said.
Diocesan and city officials had a wide-ranging discussion, said Tobe, including a conversation about Transfiguration Church, the deteriorating former Catholic church on Sycamore Street that the diocese sold in 1993 to a private developer who has done little to improve the property.
The crumbling church has become a symbol of what could happen with other city churches in the diocesan downsizing.
"We talked a little about lessons learned," Tobe said. "Of course, it's a major concern for the city, as it is for the diocese."