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Creative solutions are needed for old churches

There are footsteps in the snow where wedding rice once fell. Someone had come to peek in the windows of old Immaculate Conception, perhaps to see what you can get these days for $125,000.

It has been more than eight years since the parish celebrated its final mass in the church at Edward and Elmwood. The parish moved on, but the building stands as a monument to days past. Its side windows are boarded. All that remains of the sign that once listed Masses is an outline on brick.

Ron Alsheimer saw opportunity in the three buildings when he picked them up from the Catholic Diocese in 2006. The school is leased. He saw condos in the rectory and church.

His Plaza Group had the means, but it does mostly commercial work, and the plan to convert Immaculate Conception into living space soon faded.

“Residential just needs a whole different mind-set,” said Alsheimer, who converted the former Pierce Building across from Shea’s Performing Arts Center into apartments. He just couldn’t find a way to make the former church work.

The Catholic Diocese has sold 77 properties in eight years as it merged parishes and closed church buildings. Many found new uses. A church became a town hall. Rectories have become private homes and offices. There are community centers, worship sites and planned museums.

But others, like Immaculate Conception, which closed due to declining enrollment just as the diocese began its “Journey in Faith and Grace” restructuring, remain stubbornly empty.

Windows are boarded. Stained glass darkened. Sanctuaries that saw joy, sorrow, repentance are silent. The rhythm of worship has stopped.

This is not just a Catholic phenomenon. Or even a Buffalo phenomenon.

“It’s not just us,” said Tom Yots of Preservation Buffalo Niagara. “All across the state people are looking for solutions to this.”

Take, for example, the former Korean United Methodist Church at Tacoma and Colvin avenues. It was left empty in 2006, then damaged by fire in 2012 and – except for its bell tower – demolished earlier this year. The land is now slated for apartments.

But Yots believes the church on Colvin could have seen new life. He was working with a local architect to convert the building into apartments before it was demolished, but they couldn’t get approval for historic preservation tax incentives because of current federal interpretations over how large spaces such as sanctuaries must be preserved. Yots hopes the interpretation will change.

“There’s not a lack of thought,” Yots said of closed churches. “What there is is a lack of creative solutions, though, and that’s something that we in the preservation movement, I think it’s incumbent upon us to help the development community and the municipalities come up with creative solutions here.”

Alsheimer still sees opportunity for Immaculate Conception. The rectory, listed at $295,000, could be turned into law offices. The church, with the right buyer, could see services again.

“Its best use is a church,” Alsheimer said. “If we had the right church organization that had the money to improve the building, if we knew that, then we would make a substantial contribution.”

Its greatest hope might look an awful lot like its past.


This is not just a Catholic phenomenon. Or even a Buffalo phenomenon.

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