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Diocese celebrates growth of St. Mary New building will serve parish of 2,400 families

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec broke plenty of bad news to disappointed parishioners over the past year and a half or so.

But on Sunday, instead of announcing another church closing, the bishop got a chance to celebrate one of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo's growing parishes.

St. Mary Church on Transit Road in Swormville conducted a ceremonial groundbreaking on land where the parish of 2,400 families plans to build a new $8 million church.

"It's always good to know that somewhere, some place in this diocese, there is a new hope arising," Kmiec declared, prior to blessing the ground on which the facility will be constructed.

The parish expects to begin construction next March. It will be the first new church built in the Buffalo Diocese since Kmiec began announcing parish mergers and church closings in March 2007 as part of a restructuring process known as "Journey in Faith & Grace."

In all, Kmiec and a strategic planning committee have identified 71 worship sites out of 275 to shut down, citing population losses that have left many of those churches empty and a dwindling supply of priests able to staff parishes.

While parishes in Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Lackawanna and some inner-ring suburbs have suffered with huge membership losses, St. Mary has been booming.

The Rev. Robert Yetter, pastor, said its Civil War-era church, which seats 500, no longer can accommodate the congregation.

The church hosts six weekend Masses, and during some of them, families have to be split up to be seated. The new church will hold 1,000 people inside a fan-shaped sanctuary, allowing the parish to reduce to five weekend Masses.

East Amherst and Clarence have experienced substantial growth over the past two decades, which already had led to the construction of two evangelical megachurches in the area, both of which can seat upwards of 2,000 people.

With fewer priests available, the diocese also would prefer larger parishes, such as St. Mary and St. Gregory the Great in Amherst, where multiple ministries are made available for families.

"We are aware of the growth of the two megachurches. They've brought in dimensions that smaller Catholic churches can't," said Yetter. "When you're in a smaller community, you just don't have of the amount of people you need to draw upon."

Youth ministry, in particular, is "much more difficult" in smaller Catholic communities, Kmiec said in an interview.

St. Mary parish, the bishop added, "in this day and time, it's probably a good size for efficiency and getting things done."

The parish so far has raised nearly $5 million in cash and pledges toward construction.

The congregation does not want to take a mortgage for more than $2 million, so an additional $1 million will need to be raised, Yetter said.

Some critics of the closure of as many as 20 churches in Buffalo say that the construction of Catholic churches in the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s led to the diocese's current predicament and that building now will only exacerbate the problem.

They would prefer to see religious leaders steer suburbanites toward existing city churches.

"How much more sprawl can take place in Western New York?" said Robert G. Lewandowski of Buffalo.

Lewandowski wrote a letter to The Buffalo News in 2007 asking the parishioners of St. Mary to adopt St. Ann Church, a huge church on Broadway, instead of building anew.

But Kmiec said there weren't enough people traveling from the suburbs into city churches to keep so many of the worship sites in the city open.

"You have to have some kind of community living around the place, too," he said.

St. Mary did have a partnership for several years with a city church, St. Gerard, but it wasn't enough the save the church from closing in January.

Now, a Catholic parish in Norcross, Ga., outside Atlanta, has proposed buying St. Gerard, dismantling it and shipping it to Georgia where it could be rebuilt for the thriving congregation of 700 families, which was seeking to construct a new church in a traditional basilica style.

Kmiec called it an "imaginative" idea that could breathe new life into a beautiful church in need of considerable repairs.

"Obviously, it's still in the talking stages, but they are very enthusiastic. We are, too," he said.

As for whether any of Buffalo's grand city churches could be relocated to the suburbs, Kmiec said the opportunity with the Norcross parish was unique in that "they wanted that church. They like it and it fits their congregation."

Yetter said the design of a church like St. Gerard, which features massive Indiana limestone and a large bell tower, would not fit in a small farming community like Swormville.

The new St. Mary church will be a brick structure, like its predecessor, which will continue to be used as a chapel.


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