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Catholics grieve at church closings As services end at five parishes, some vow to shun new congregations

The Kilgen pipe organ thundered for the last time. A rendition of "Ave Maria" echoed gloriously among the decorative oak rafters. A haze of incense hung over the pews.

And 83-year-old Florence Maziarz was reduced to tears during the closing Mass in Queen of Peace Catholic Church on Genesee Street -- one of five Catholic parishes holding final liturgies Sunday.

"People's hearts are broken," she said. "When they sang 'Ave Maria' in church today, I cried like a baby."

A deep, abiding sadness isn't the only sentiment Catholics are expressing about church closings.

As the toll mounts, feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment and betrayal have been growing.

Some Catholics say they might never join another parish. Others insist they will have to watch Mass on television now, because, with their church closed, they won't have transportation to a different church.

St. John Gualbert Catholic Church in Cheektowaga is prepared to accept members of Queen of Peace and Holy Name of Jesus on Bailey Avenue, an inactive worship site that also closed on Sunday.

But Morris Johnson, who served for 20 years as an usher at Queen of Peace, doubts he will go to a new parish.

"I haven't got no way to get there," said Johnson, who is 79 and no longer drives.

Maziarz isn't sure where her next church will be -- or even if she will find one.

Other Catholics from closed parishes say they also feel orphaned from their spiritual homes -- in many cases the churches where they were baptized and from which they expected to be buried.

"I don't think we'll ever forget about it. It just hurt a lot of people," said Florence Zuchlewski, 80, who had spent her entire life as a member of St. Florian Catholic Church on Hertel Avenue in Black Rock until the church closed Oct. 28.

The closing was a bitter experience for Zuchlewski, a faithful Mass attender who considered opting out of the obligatory weekend liturgy.

"I said, 'What did it do?' I went all my life, and then they threw me out," she said.

Zuchlewski changed her mind, though, and now goes to Mass in All Saints Catholic Church in Riverside. But she says she doubts she ever will enroll as a member.

"I just can't join a church. I'm afraid if I get really attached, they're liable to end up closing that one. I don't think I could handle it. Once is enough," she said.

In addition to Queen of Peace and Holy Name, three other Catholic parish communities closed for good Sunday: SS. Rita & Patrick on Fillmore Avenue, St. Stephen on Elk Street and St. Valentine on South Park Avenue.

Next weekend, those three will merge with two previously closed churches -- Precious Blood and Holy Apostles SS. Peter & Paul -- to form a single parish called St. Clare, located at the St. Stephen Church site.

For many years, Rose Wardenski attended Holy Apostles, a small church on Clinton Street that produced four priests and more than two dozen nuns in its 88 years but, more recently, attracted fewer and fewer worshippers.

"People don't go to church, that's the sad part," Wardenski said. "You can't expect a building to stay open if you don't support it."

Wardenski anticipates ending up at St. Clare, but she is leaving her options open.

"I'm not going to make a commitment," she said. "I want to go somewhere where I'm going to feel comfortable, where people are friendly. We had friendly people. I'm sure people will be friendly at other places; it will take some getting used to."

Before Sunday, more than a dozen church buildings had closed in the past year -- leaving a trail of heartache throughout the eight counties of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.

In rural Allegany County, Deborah Fleming still is trying to cope with the loss of Sacred Heart Church in Angelica, the lone Catholic parish for miles around. The church celebrated a final Mass in July.

"Regardless of what the diocese wants to say, you don't just go and make a new home someplace," said Fleming, who now attends the merged Holy Family of Jesus Mary and Joseph Catholic Church in Belmont. "One of the things we're all struggling with now is even daring to call something home. Everybody is struggling with the same thing, the instability of it all. Nobody wants to become attached again."

The closings in Allegany County splintered the community -- so much so that some Catholics joined Protestant churches, Fleming said.

In Dunkirk, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has yet to make a final decision on whether St. Hedwig Church will remain open, but the outlook isn't good. A diocesan commission recommended that the parish merge and the church be closed -- a frightening prospect for Bernice Zebracki, one of many members of St. Hedwig who volunteered time and money to build a new church in the 1970s.

"I want to be buried from my church," said Zebracki, who was baptized and married in St. Hedwig parish. "There's a lot of meaning to it. It's like losing part of my heart. I can't accept that the church is just a building. To me it's a sacred place. Are we saying that church means nothing at all?"

Many longtime Catholics said they feel the diocese's process for restructuring its parishes was disingenuous. That process -- dubbed "Journey in Faith & Grace" -- was supposed to be a grass-roots effort.

But some Catholics said that feasible proposals on which a majority of parishioners agreed were disregarded in favor of plans developed at the diocesan level, without grass-roots advice.

Some priests and parishioners said they wished Kmiec simply had ordered church closings.

"It would have been easier, rather than let you think you had some say in it," Fleming said. "There's no trust left."

Members of SS. Rita & Patrick and Queen of Peace churches expressed similar thoughts.

"I think there's a lot of bitterness in the way things were handled," said Marge Musial, a longtime member of SS. Rita & Patrick, which dates back to 1854. "It's shaken a lot of people in terms of their trust in the hierarchy."

Some Catholics from parishes with financial savings also were upset that the money they donated and saved over the years would be used in other parishes -- some of which had debts with the diocese.

At Queen of Peace Church, the Rev. Richard M. Poblocki urged a flock of about 400 worshippers in his homily not to be discouraged by the closures.

The buildings of Queen of Peace and Holy Name of Jesus were not mere bricks and mortar, he said.

"They have been consecrated by years of your presence here," he said. "We have met Jesus here; we have felt Jesus."

Yet, added Poblocki, "The most important thing is not whether the building will stand or fall, but that you go out and live life like a Catholic Christian should."


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