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A spiritual smorgasbord Once dominated by Catholics, Western New York is now home to the faiths of the world

Heaven knows it takes a little faith to live in Western New York.

Demons linger here, whether they're hellish taxes or dysfunctional governments, Super Bowl losses or super-sized snowstorms.

We survive on chicken wings and prayers.

All kinds of prayers.

Catholicism dominated the local landscape of religion for decades, and according to Diocese of Buffalo data, it continues to be the faith of nearly half the populace in the eight counties of Western New York.

But the area also is more religiously diverse than ever, even as population here shrinks.

Just ask Dilip Sinha, a retired cancer researcher and one of the first Hindus to settle in Western New York more than 40 years ago.

Back then, maybe 20 families gathered in private homes for Hindu prayer sessions; today more than 1,000 area families practice Hinduism, said Sinha.

Sinha helped establish the Hindu Cultural Center on North French Road in Amherst in 1985, despite resistance from neighbors who at the time understood little about Hinduism.

"When you don't know something, it's fear of the unknown," said Sinha.

But the area's growing religious diversity has helped change all of that, he added.

"People have seen more," he said. "People are more receptive. People want to know, rather than just objecting. It's much easier, now, much easier than when I came here."

There is other evidence of the area's evolving religious makeup.

Buddhists and Muslims worship in former Catholic churches recently closed by the diocese. Evangelicals flock to state-of-the art suburban worship centers. Sikhs, once nonexistent in Western New York, now meet by the hundreds in a new Niagara Falls worship site.

The Rev. G. Stanford Bratton sees a dramatic shift unfolding daily in the operation of the area's largest interfaith group, the Network of Religious Communities.

Mainline Protestants historically provided much of the leadership for the area's interfaith efforts, which date back to the mid-1800s, said Bratton, a Presbyterian minister who is executive director of the network.

Not so anymore.

A few years ago, the first Muslim took the reins as president of the network. Currently, Vijayaraghavan Chakravarthy, a Hindu, is president. A Baha'i serves as vice president. Mormons also have been very active in recent years.

The groups are still relatively small when stacked against the area's Catholics and Protestants, but, said Bratton, "A lot of the energy has come from the other religious traditions."

Western New York offers a spiritual smorgasbord in its synagogues, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and churches.

The News over the next year will embark on an open-souled journey through that broad spectrum of faith, exploring the many manifestations of organized religion -- the congregations, music, art, architecture, symbols and rituals -- that mark this area as faith filled.

The occasional series will focus on how religious groups practice their faith, how the divine is present -- or represented -- in various forms of gathered worship.

Consider it a seeker's guide to spirituality in Western New York.

Bratton points out that there's wide diversity within individual religious traditions, as well.

Newer Somali immigrants, for instance, make up the bulk of Muslims at a newer mosque on Connecticut Street on Buffalo's West Side, while in Lackawanna, Yemenites that first began arriving in the area in the 1930s to work in the steel mills have multiple generations of Muslim family members.

Although there are no reliable figures for the area, Islam and evangelical Christianity appear to be experiencing the steadiest growth.

Mainline Protestant, Jewish and Catholic traditions all have had to close houses of worship in recent years.

The Catholic diocese alone shuttered nearly a quarter of its churches in a span of about three years. Most of the churches were half empty for weekend Masses.

Meanwhile, Muslims purchased one of the closed churches, the former Queen of Peace on Genesee Street, and converted it into a mosque, the newest of 10 in the area. An 11th is being planned for Transit Road.

Similarly, an evangelical church in Amherst known as The Chapel at CrossPoint bought the former St. Florian Church on Hertel Avenue to establish a city-based congregation, in addition to its booming campus in a business park.

And in Lovejoy, a former Catholic stronghold of the city, a Buddhist group snapped up two former churches, which are now used for meditation and Buddhist practice.

"The Catholics are dwindling out. It's always the old people [going to Mass]. You don't see many young people," said Bob Bakalik, a member of St. Michael Catholic Church on Washington Street.

The Wesleyan Church, an evangelical denomination of mostly smaller parishes, looked into buying a few former Catholic worship sites, said the Rev. Neil Koppen, district superintendent for the Western New York District of the Wesleyan Church.

The denomination experienced sizable expansion in the area in the 1990s and 2000s, and the local district of 32 churches includes large and highly visible congregations, Eastern Hills Wesleyan in Clarence and Hamburg Wesleyan. Eastern Hills Wesleyan, like The Chapel, recently launched an offshoot parish in Lancaster.

But the district as a whole has "shrunk back some" in recent years, to about 8,000 members, said Koppen.

As in other Protestant traditions and the Catholic Church, the Wesleyan denomination struggles with how to keep people tuned into their faith, said Koppen.

"We face some of those same things. Our people are busy," he said.

The religious diversity hasn't been without significant challenges.

As the presence of Islam has grown locally, so has the verbal sparring between some area Muslim and Jewish leaders, who hold deeply divided opinions, particularly on Israel and Palestine.

Aggressive efforts in recent weeks by The Chapel to expand its reach into the City of Lockport have put some Catholics on edge.

For the most part, though, the area gets high marks for its religious tolerance.

Surjit Singh, the first Sikh to move to Western New York, said he and his family experienced their share of challenges early on because some Sikh customs are outside the norm of American culture.

But Singh was never shy about explaining his beliefs and customs to anyone who was interested.

And more often than not, he and people of other faiths could reach a common understanding on the purpose of their respective religions, he said.

"Somebody's riding a train, somebody's riding a car, but we're all going to the same place," he said.

Singh's seven children are practicing Sikhs, although some of them have married people of other faiths, including Judaism and Catholicism.

"It's perfectly fine. We celebrate all holidays," he said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

This story kicks off a new series that will explore the broad and changing spectrum of faith in Western New York. Religion reporter Jay Tokasz will focus on how area religious groups practice their faith, and how the divine is present -- or represented -- in various forms of gathered worship.

SUNDAY: You won't want to miss our 28th new feature this month, "Talking Business," a weekly chat with leaders and workers from area companies. Look for it in the Business section.

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