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'New chapter' at St. Leo the Great with opening of parish hall

When St. Leo the Great in Amherst was named in January 2014 as one of 10 Catholic elementary schools to close that year as part of a major restructuring of diocesan schools, church leaders were saddened and surprised.

But those feelings didn't linger.

"We're already looking to the future," Monsignor Robert E. Zapfel said at the time.

Three years later, that future is a reality.

The oldest part of the school building -- about 64,000 square feet built in 1954 -- was knocked down and about 13 acres of land was sold last year to make way for a new ambulatory care center now under construction.

And after months of construction, two new buildings -- a parish hall and an activities building -- open this month on the parish's Sweet Home Road campus.

"This is the beginning of a new chapter," Zapfel said Tuesday.

The hall -- a large banquet room attached to the church -- will serve as a meeting place for parish events and is also available to the community to rent for receptions, parties, showers and other functions.

"We have all the high-tech equipment in there for presentations, a great sound system, comfortable seating and things like that," Zapfel said.

The freestanding activities building nearby is geared toward young people, with a half-gym and area for Boy Scouts to meet. It will also house the parish's St. Vincent de Paul food pantry.

Automatic sliding glass doors were installed at the front of the church, and all campus buildings were made handicapped-accessible.

"We're really making an emphasis on serving the wider community and making our parish as welcoming as possible to new members," Zapfel said of the congregation of 1,400 families.

Bishop Richard J. Malone will celebrate a dedication Mass at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 18, followed by a reception and blessing of the new parish hall at 885 Sweet Home Road.

Meanwhile, the neighboring one-story, 30,000-square-foot surgery center, by the Ambulatory Surgery Center of Western New York, is expected to be completed in October.

Eight classrooms remain from the original school building and are still used for religious education, pre-school and meetings.

Amid all the new construction can still be found a nod to St. Leo's past. Stones and the corpus of Christ from the school's exterior were saved and made into a cross, which was placed on the exterior of the new parish hall, Zapfel said.

"It was an emotional loss to have the school closed," he said. "This, I think, is part of a bridge to the past while we're building toward the future."

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