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Swormville church faces growing pains But neighbors oppose plans by St. Mary's for larger building

One of the oldest Catholic churches in Western New York is having a problem dozens of parishes in Buffalo and elsewhere in the area would envy.

Its parish has been booming.

In the last two decades, the number of families attending St. Mary's Church, built during the Civil War era in the tiny hamlet of Swormville in Clarence, has doubled, to about 2,400.

"We've had wonderful growth," said Lou Izzo, chairman of St. Mary's executive committee.

That's the trouble.

Unlike churches struggling with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo's decision to close or merge them because of declining congregations, St. Mary's is struggling to accommodate its growing membership with an ambitious plan to build a modern-looking, far bigger church.

But initial reaction from outside the church hasn't been favorable.

"It looks like a UFO," said the owner of a home across Staley Road from the church.

The Clarence Planning Board recently rejected St. Mary's request for concept approval. Among other reasons, it cited the potential that such a big structure would alter the atmosphere of Swormville, one of oldest parts of Clarence.

Frustrated church leaders say they have taken great care to make the building fit in with Swormville's historic character.

St. Mary's never would damage the hamlet that way, Izzo said.

"We are the integrity of Swormville," he said.

St. Mary's Church is "fantastically beautiful," Izzo said. And it will remain standing and in use, he said. "But it was built in 1866. It is absolutely not functional for the year 2000."

Next Wednesday, church leaders will take their case directly to the Town Board, said Councilman Scott Bylewski, who, as the board's liaison with the Planning Board, has been involved in discussions on the plan.

The project, he said, is so large that it requires a "special-exception use" permit. But the board also will consider whether the proposed church really can be compatible with the neighborhood, he said.

"Scale, the architecture, walkability," Bylewski said. "We'll have to look at all those issues."

The plan encompasses roughly three acres behind the church at Transit and Staley roads. The new, 19,000-square-foot building would be roundish, Izzo said, with a semicircular space for services.

With pews on three sides of the sanctuary, no worshipper would be more than 65 feet from the centrally located altar, a design intended to encourage greater involvement in the service.

Izzo said the new church would incorporate amenities the current church lacks, including gathering space for parishioners, a "ready room" for brides, a gathering area for families during funerals, a state-of-the-art sound system and air-conditioning. It also would be accessible to the disabled.

The exterior would consist of a stone base, earth-colored brick and roof shingles similar to the current church. The cupola is designed to mimic the cupola on the convent building, and the cross from the church's old school would be carried into the design of the new church.

Plans include new athletic fields and more parking. At present, parishioners often must park along Transit Road and -- according to residents -- Staley as well.

Izzo said the project will cost "in the $6 million range."

Owners of homes along Staley have expressed particular concern about the project's impact on their two-lane street. The Planning Board cited that issue, along with the impact on the character of Swormville, in rejecting the concept.

Some neighbors have said they are most upset with plans for a new driveway on a sharp curve on Staley. They described the stretch of roadway as already dangerous, especially since drivers tend to fly along anyway -- and said a new driveway would elevate the risks.

Izzo said residents overestimate the dangers of the curve and that no matter where the church puts the driveway, "someone will complain."

Still, he said the church is ready to work with residents.

"We're absolutely willing to be flexible," Izzo said.


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