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St. Michael's Catholic Church, a downtown institution and the Jesuits' original home in Buffalo, will celebrate 150 years of ministry to the city and larger community during a Mass at noon Sunday.

In addition to its status as the seat of Buffalo's Jesuit community, St. Michael's, at 651 Washington St., is the original location of Canisius High School and Canisius College.

The church also has managed to survive a devastating fire and the disintegration of the residential neighborhood it once served.

The 150th anniversary Mass will be celebrated by Bishop Henry J. Mansell of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, who will be joined by retired Buffalo Bishop Edward D. Head and Bishop Emeritus Martin J. Neylon of the Caroline Islands. Neylon, a South Buffalo native who now lives in New York City, served as bishop of the Central Pacific diocese for more than 25 years.

About 25 Jesuit priests from Canisius High School, Canisius College and St. Ann's Catholic Church, which also is staffed by members of the Society of Jesus, will concelebrate the Mass. The Rev. Richard J. Zanoni, a teacher at Canisius High School and resident of St. Michael's, will preach.

Had it not been for a dispute over church authority, St. Louis Church, a few blocks from St. Michael's, might have been the seat of Buffalo's Jesuit community.

St. Louis was founded in 1829, and the Rev. Lucas Caveng became the first Jesuit priest to serve a Buffalo church when he was assigned as its pastor in 1851.

But because of a dispute between the parish trustees and Bishop John Timon over ownership and control of the parish, Caveng, a German-speaking priest, and 19 families left shortly after his arrival and established St. Michael's.

"We were founded during a period of turmoil," acknowledges the Rev. Gerald J. McMahon, St. Michael's current pastor.

McMahon, another South Buffalo native, said the new congregation initially held services in the basement of St. Peter's, a French-speaking congregation on the site of the present Lafayette Hotel.

But before the end of 1851, church members had erected a little frame church on St. Michael's present site on Washington Street.

Almost immediately, the parish established a grammar school staffed by women from the Nardin Community and the Stella Niagara Franciscans.

A second school, which the Jesuits called "Canisius College," was established in 1870. Named for St. Peter Canisius, a Jesuit known for establishing schools and churches throughout Germany and neighboring countries, it was, in the European tradition, an eight-year institution that offered four years of high school and four years of college.

The college portion, the present Canisius College, moved to 2001 Main St. in 1910.

Canisius High School began a phased move to 1180 Delaware Ave. during the 1944-45 school year. St. Michael's Elementary School closed in 1949 because of declining enrollment.

Parish records indicate that the present church, which can seat more than 900 people, was completed in 1867.

As the parish grew, the church was filled for several Masses every Sunday until the migration to the suburbs began in the 1920s.

What McMahon characterizes as the "death of St. Michael's as a residential parish" coincides with the construction of the Kensington Expressway and the Elm-Oak Arterial, which removed hundreds of homes, and parishioners, from the church neighborhood.

"Today we are a downtown parish," he said.

The parish survived a more dramatic brush with death in 1962, when a bolt of lightning struck the church's 280-foot-high tower during a spring thunderstorm. The resulting fire virtually destroyed the structure.

"Only the walls were left standing," McMahon said.

Besides the walls, which are part of the rebuilt church, only three small stained-glass windows and two statues were saved.

The Rev. Richard J. Hoar, a parochial vicar at St. Michael's, said a big part of the church's ministry today is the service it offers to people who work downtown.

Masses are celebrated at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m., 12:10 and 5:15 p.m. weekdays. An 11:30 a.m. Mass is added on holy days.

For people seeking a special place to pray, the church is kept open, and the Blessed Sacrament is exposed throughout the day. A popular devotion, the Novena of Grace in honor of St. Francis Xavier, a celebrated Jesuit Missionary, has been conducted annually since 1854.

St. Michael's also offers daily confessions from 11:30 a.m. to noon and from 4:30 to 5 p.m., and a priest is available throughout the day to hear confessions. On Saturdays, confessions are heard from 11:30 a.m. to noon, from 1 to 2 and from 3 to 5 p.m.

That's possible because eight priests, including three in their 80s and four in their 70s, reside at the parish.

Although it has only 200 registered members, St. Michael's attracts people from throughout the city and suburbs for its five Sunday Masses for a variety of reasons, Hoar said.

"They like the Jesuit style -- it tends to be conservative and simple. Or they want to maintain the link with Canisius College," he said. "And most of our Masses have no music."


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