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What to do with empty houses of worship? Preservationists, civic leaders express deep concern for how diocesan downsizing will affect landmarks

Catholic Diocese of Buffalo officials utter a common refrain when discussing the future of area parishes: The church is not the building; it's the people.

But the buildings themselves -- some among the finest ecclesiastical works of architecture in the area -- have long held deep meaning, both for Catholics who have worshipped in them and for residents who have admired them from afar.

The diocese plans to shutter at least 16 of the churches in the City of Buffalo alone -- and most likely several more by the time it completes a strategic planning effort known as "Journey in Faith and Grace."

The prospect has area preservationists and community leaders expressing deep concern about the impact of the closings.

"To be faced with all of these buildings at once -- they're all landmarks. They're magnificent buildings," said Timothy A. Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture.

In many cases, he said, the houses of worship marked for closure represent "the few architectural grace notes that exist" in city neighborhoods.

Even modest churches are "important to their neighborhoods and to the cityscape," Tielman said.

"They enrich everybody's lives," he added.

And the grand, ornate structures designed by the foremost architects of the day and decorated by world-class artists and artisans can never be replicated.

Take St. Adalbert Church on Stanislaus Street, a basilica design that features a massive marble altar and a 125-foot-tall dome with paintings by Joseph Mazur.

Or St. Ann Church, which soars high above Broadway. Inside, the Gothic Revival structure, built by German immigrants, features 35-foot-tall stained-glass windows and carved wood throughout.

"That's the finest building in the city for religious architecture," said James Napora, who wrote his 1995 master's thesis on the architecture of Buffalo's many houses of worship. "The people who lived in that neighborhood built that church and paid for it brick by brick."

The church is scheduled to close next summer, sometime after the parish celebrates its 150th anniversary.

At the northeast corner of Bailey and Delavan avenues, St. Gerard Church still stands sturdy in a neighborhood of slumping homes and declining fortunes. But it, too, will close -- the victim of a demographic shift that has left it with fewer than 100 member families.

In Black Rock, parishioners no longer will get to marvel at the Stations of the Cross depicted in the stained-glass windows and large murals draping the interior walls of St. Francis Xavier Church on East Avenue.

"It's not like it used to be; we've got to remember that," said Bishop Edward U. Kmiec.

In a controversial resolution adopted last week, Common Council members criticized the diocese for having "no adaptive reuse plans for the closed churches, raising the very real possibility of seeing these churches become huge, blighted, dangerous eyesores, which eventually need to be torn down at great expense by the taxpayers."

But Kmiec pledged that the buildings would be well cared for and he shot back at legislators who have faulted the diocese for the deterioration of former Catholic churches.

In particular, Transfiguration Church on Sycamore Street has become a symbol of prior Catholic church closings. The diocese has long been criticized for its handling of this church, which has holes in its roof and now appears to be on the brink of demolition, most likely at the expense of city taxpayers.

But Kmiec pointed out that a predecessor prelate, Bishop Edward D. Head, had intended to demolish the structure at diocesan expense. Head sold the structure for $7,000 to current owner Paul Francis Associates at the urging of preservationists and city lawmakers, including Council President David A. Franczyk of the Fillmore District, the lead author of the recent Council resolution, Kmiec said. "The diocese acted in good faith," he said.

The closure of the churches will be grieved far beyond their dwindling memberships.

"The true loss comes not to religion; it comes to the community," Napora said. "We lose a part of who we were. A church building is part of the social fabric of the neighborhood. When you lose a church, you're losing a part of what a neighborhood is."

The closings could have a major impact on the city's revival efforts, based in part on attracting cultural tourism, which includes showcasing architectural wonders.

Some city lawmakers expressed frustration that so many closings would be coming at the same time, allowing them little opportunity to put together a plan for dealing with the vacant buildings.

"We have 10,000 vacant structures in the city as we speak. Now we're going to pick up these massive facilities," said Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. "Maybe we can turn them into housing, but we have to find investors to do that."

Some preservationists suggested other uses. Solid and airy, many churches could be converted into storage facilities, Tielman said.

Another possibility is a mausoleum or columbarium. "I can't think of a more beautiful and more appropriate space than an old church," Tielman said.

Additionally, grand churches are often attractive spaces for use as restaurants and bars, although the diocese has indicated in the past that it would not sell for such a reuse.

Preservationists said they hoped to work with the diocese on plans for the buildings.

In the meantime, they want to ensure that any vacant buildings are properly protected.

"There's value inside. Our ancestors created these churches. The least we can do there is keep the value intact," said Dennis J. Galucki, executive director of the Landmark Society of the Niagara Frontier. "Our job really for the time being is to make sure they don't get stripped and pillaged."

Long-term redevelopment of the properties will occur only if the buildings retain their value, Galucki added. "They fall down quickly if you let water in or if you let vandals in and they strip it," he said.

But he also expressed hope that preservationists could become "ongoing partners" of buyers of the properties.

"We ought to as a community see this as a community problem, not just a diocesan problem," he said. "In the end, these churches are going to require a lot of community creativity."


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