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Sound of silence fills churches Parish closings leave treasured organs facing uncertain fate

The oldest church pipe organ in Buffalo, located in Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church, rarely gets played anymore, but it still can produce beautiful music.

Unfortunately, the organ's soothing purr could go silent forever if a plan proceeds to close the West Side church.

Or the historical instrument, built in 1853, might end up as some other city's point of pride.

It is one of hundreds of fixtures, furnishings and sacred objects from shuttered or endangered Catholic churches facing an uncertain fate.

Some of the items, such as statues, crucifixes, Stations of the Cross and baptismal fonts, are being reused in newly merged parishes. But many, purchased over the years at great expense to parishioners, will end up in storage or put on the auction block.

Even worse, some Catholics fear that religious objects and valuable furnishings could be stolen from vacant church buildings and used in a disrespectful fashion.

Merged parishes ultimately are responsible for any vacant properties, and some pastors worry about looking after the extra buildings.

"I don't have the manpower to maintain those church properties," said the Rev. David Bialkowski, pastor of St. John Gualbert Parish in Cheektowaga, which will assume oversight of Queen of Peace Church campus on Genesee Street and Holy Name Church on Bailey Avenue. "I'm very concerned. What happens when there is no one to buy anything? It's a liability then."

>Police question security

Buffalo police also are a little uneasy about large buildings being unoccupied and say they won't be able to keep a watch on all of the closed church properties.

"We would urge [the Diocese of Buffalo] to consider maybe a private security firm, something along those lines," said Michael J. DeGeorge, police spokesman.

The diocese has received about 65 requests for religious furnishings, with most of the inquiries coming from other dioceses, including some as far away as Texas, Florida and Arizona.

Some of the requests were placed by former Western New Yorkers who are now members of growing parishes in the South.

A former Buffalo priest who leads a parish in Pittsburg, Texas, has asked Bishop Edward U. Kmiec to donate pews, windows, altars -- whatever the diocese can spare.

"This is a poor community. We have nothing in the budget for furniture," said the Rev. Ariel Cortes, pastor of Holy Cross Church, which has 700 members but a sanctuary that holds about 110.

"I know there is grieving and suffering in Buffalo, but the good point is maybe they can support churches like ours," Cortes said.

Many of the items are handmade from the finest materials by master artisans. Their value is hard to quantify, in part because they were designed for a particular church and removing them might alter the aesthetics.

Old pipe organs, which need frequent repairs with custom parts, are especially delicate and difficult to move. Several churches scheduled to close under the diocese's restructuring effort have what are considered significant instruments.

St. Francis Xavier in Black Rock, for example, has the oldest organ built by Herman Schlicker, a Buffalo resident and one of the great organ makers of the mid-20th century.

The church already is closed. A prospective buyer has put in an offer for the building and plans to use the 1932 organ as part of a performance space.

The future of other instruments is less clear, and past experience prompts preservationists to fear the worst.

Stately organs from the former St. Matthew Church, closed in 1993, and St. Francis de Sales Church, shut in 1981, were dismantled and sold for parts. The organ for the former St. Mary of Sorrows Church, which was transformed into a charter school, has been in storage for years and probably never will be heard again.

The organ in Nativity Church, which is recommended for closure, baffled volunteers who worked for months in 2004 to get it in playing shape again for the Organ Historical Society's annual convention.

Long assumed to have been built by the Odell Co., the organ instead was traced to Hall & Labaugh of New York City. It had been constructed in 1853, originally installed in a Catholic church in Yonkers and moved to Buffalo in 1911.

>Organ called 'hidden gem'

The Nativity organ is one of the "hidden gems" in the city, said Joseph McCabe, a Buffalo native who now lives in Cleveland and serves as vice president of the Organ Historical Society, a national organization of organ enthusiasts.

"Organs before the Civil War had a much gentler sound," said McCabe. "It has a gentler quality. It has some very elegant soft sounds."

McCabe and other organ preservationists also are concerned about organs in Ascension Church in North Tonawanda, St. Florian Church in Black Rock and St. Agnes Church in Lovejoy.

"I hope that they all find homes intact. They are just wonderful treasures," said Bruce Woody, house organist at Shea's Performing Arts Center and music director of St. Albert the Great Church in North Tonawanda.

For years, Woody has played the Ascension Church organ, an A.B. Felgemaker design dating from 1895.

"It is one of the most beautiful sounding organs and just a joy to play. It was perfect for the space," he said. "The organ at Ascension has lifted spirits for over 100 years."

In addition to pipe organs, many of the churches tapped for closing feature beautiful stained glass, which poses an added dilemma for those responsible for building upkeep.

Preservationists maintain that such windows should stay in place if the building is to retain its value and attract buyers. But diocesan officials are leaving open the possibility of selling windows if they're the right fit for another congregation and a buyer for the entire property appears unlikely.

Representatives from St. Mark the Evangelist, a thriving Catholic parish in Summerfield, Fla., recently visited St. Gerard Church at Bailey and Delavan avenues and expressed interest in the church's elegant windows, some of which measure 7 feet tall.

Rather than seeing religious artifacts in a private collection or restaurant, the parish plans on "giving them new life, so they continue uplifting people's spirits," said the Rev. Simon Shaner, pastor of the Florida church.

What stays and what goes in a church that closes will depend in part on the disposition of the facility.

In all cases, sacred objects such as the altar stone, tabernacle and main crucifix will be removed.

>Some pieces out of place

Merged parishes get first crack at artifacts from closed churches, but the churches that remain often already have all they need and have little room for more religious objects.

St. John Gualbert Church has been encouraged to take some objects from Queen of Peace Church, which will celebrate a final Mass on Sunday.

But the two churches are built in different styles, and much of the marble statuary from Queen of Peace would look out of place in the heavily wooden sanctuary of St. John Gualbert, Bialkowski said.

Besides, he added, "If you have too many statues, it cheapens it."

The Rev. Edward Jost also is sorting out what to bring from Ascension Church in North Tonawanda, which closed last Monday, to nearby St. Albert the Great Church, which is remaining open. Ascension's pipe organ is highly regarded, but too small for the space in St. Albert, which already has two organs -- including one originally from a Catholic church in Buffalo that closed decades ago.

"We want to be sensitive to everybody," Jost said. "We want to do it well. We want to do it right. People have a very personal relationship to these things."


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