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Citing safety, diocese orders a stop to services at St. Ann; The congregation has been fighting to keep the East Side church open, but concerns over building's deterioration lead bishop to suspension

The clock that looks out from St. Ann Church and Shrine, high atop Broadway at Emslie Street, still keeps good time.

But too much of St. Ann's grand exterior, battered by wind and weather since 1886, has been deemed unsafe.

Diocesan Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has ordered all activities suspended at St. Ann, effective today.

In an unsteady voice, St. Ann's pastor read the bishop's order during Sunday's 10 a.m. Mass, the last to be celebrated there for the foreseeable future.

"It doesn't seem at this particular point that we have any choice," the Rev. Roy Herberger told about 90 congregants, many of whom had feared this day would come.

The church last year appealed to the Vatican to avoid Kmiec's decree that St. Ann merge with nearby SS. Columba and Brigid Parish, just a few blocks to the southwest in a sanctuary built in 2006.

With the appeal, Masses were still celebrated at St. Ann while the parish restoration committee wrestled with the huge task of arranging repairs pegged at up to $7.5 million.

Then, Thursday, Herberger received Kmiec's letter saying that a 126-page report assessing the building's structure was "more alarming than I had anticipated."

The northwest tower has been compromised. Stones are out of plane. Buttresses are pulling away from the tower. Assorted stones are broken and in danger of falling, Kmiec wrote as he described the findings.

"Structural damage is now so serious that it presents a safety threat," he said.

St. Ann, with ornate statuary set against peeling paint, will have to go idle within days and remain idle until a long-term solution can be determined.

After the Mass, Herberger did not hide his disagreement with the move. As far as he knows, nothing has ever fallen off the building's tower, he said, adding that the matter could have been handled "more sensitively" by diocesan decision-makers.

Still, both Herberger and Martin Ederer, a co-chairman of the restoration committee, acknowledged that the building has many structural issues -- issues requiring more resources than a congregation that has dwindled over the decades to about 95 households can muster.

"They felt they had to act quickly," Herberger said of diocesan officials.

Construction on the current St. Ann began in 1878 on Buffalo's then-German East Side. When the completed church opened its doors in 1886, all Masses, devotions and confessions were conducted in German.

In the 1950s and 1960s, a regular remembered, it was best to reach the church by 11:30 a.m. Sunday to be assured of a seat at the noon Mass.

Today's St. Ann family consists of the descendants of those German immigrants worshipping alongside African-American families that have been in Buffalo for decades, as well as newly arrived immigrants from Congo, Liberia, Rwanda and Sudan, according to a document about the history of St. Ann Church and Shrine.

Yet if Sunday's 10 a.m. service was typical, hundreds of seats go unclaimed in dozens of pews. From the altar, Herberger admitted he was not optimistic that St. Ann would have a new day. So parishioners familiar with the struggles saw Sunday's announcement as a historic moment.

"This is where I set the goals and the morals and the boundaries of my life, right here," said Raymond Kincannon, a former St. Ann altar boy who is now 60 years old. "I hate to see it closed."

The families can turn to other nearby churches: Corpus Christi at 189 Clark St; St. Martin de Porres at 555 Northampton St.; and SS. Columba and Brigid, where Herberger also is the pastor, at 75 Hickory St.

Meanwhile, the St. Ann restoration committee is not giving up. It meets Wednesday at SS. Columba and Brigid.

Herberger also has a meeting scheduled this week at the diocese to go over estimates for St. Ann's repairs, to assess whether there are less costly ways to get the most crucial work done.

"Pray that Buffalo will not lose this building," Ederer, the restoration committee co-chairman, told the parishioners Sunday.

The six bells of St. Ann range in size from 500 to 7,800 pounds. All but the biggest and the smallest, which must be manually swung, are struck by hammers driven by the pendulum-driven clock.

So, Ederer concluded in an interview later Sunday, the clock will continue to deliver accurate time to its East Side neighbors, and the bells of St. Ann will continue to toll, until someone orders them to be stopped.