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A taste of Buffalo’s rich Italian heritage

St. Anthony of Padua Church, founded in 1891 and tucked in the shadow of City Hall, could be called a stained-glass window to history.

The faithful ring the bells by pulling ropes in the choir loft, which is accessible only by steep stairs. The 9 a.m. Sunday Mass is a Tridentine Latin mass, and the 11 a.m. Mass is in Italian. When Pope Francis was elected, yellow and white bunting appeared over the doors of St. Anthony’s, in keeping with an ancient tradition rarely seen these days.

Now, the church is celebrating its history, and giving a gift to the city at the same time.

The atmospheric basement has just become host to a large and ambitious museum chronicling Buffalo’s Italian immigrants, beginning in the 19th century. There are sepia-toned photographs, Italian musical instruments such as the mandolin and a set of Italian bagpipes, and other treasures.

Peruse the pictures, and certain things come into focus: Busti Avenue clearly gets its name from Paolo Busti, an early Italian settler whose picture a visitor sees more than once; Mayor Frank Sedita appears as a youngster in the front row of an group portrait from Public School No. 1; you see Liberty Macaroni Company, one of many pasta companies that once enriched Buffalo, and a picture of an Italian vendor on Scott Street.

Many of the pictures show laborers, because St. Anthony’s began its history by ministering to poor families from Sicily. Karen Krajewski, who was instrumental in assembling the museum and could be considered its curator, explained that the waterfront neighborhood once called “the Hooks” came from the dockworkers who lived there.

“They hooked big cargo coming off the freighters,” she said.

Krajewski is hardly an Italian name, and Karen Krajewski emphasizes that that museum has a wide appeal.

“It’s not all Italian,” she said, gesturing toward the statues and images. “We have an Our Lady of Guadalupe. St. John the Baptist was Jewish. St. Anthony was from Lisbon, Portugal.”

There is a fascinating wealth of items foreign to most modern Mass-goers. Visitors learn what an alb is, and a cope, and a chasuble. An ambry, or case for holy oils, bears the inscription “Olea Sancta.” A ornate monstrance was used for veneration of the Holy Eucharist.

In one corner, a mannequin wears priest’s vestments. Krajewski scored the mannequin off Craigslist. It came from a little store in Lovejoy that was going out of business.

“What calls out to me is the richness of the vestments,” she said. “The weight of the stitching. The colors.” Picking one up to demonstrate, she said: “When a priest wore that – oof,” imagining how it would feel.

It adds up to a portrait of a church that is, in itself, a survivor. Monsignor Fred Voorhes, the current parish priest, pointed out that like many churches, St. Anthony’s has had some close calls.

One close call came in the 1930s, he said. “The original plan was to tear down this church for City Hall.”

But St. Anthony’s escaped that fate, and in 1944 paid off its mortgage. A photograph at the museum shows how the priest and parishioners celebrated – by burning the mortgage formally after a Solemn High Mass.

A huge crucifix

Krajewski and Voorhes put the museum together over the past year or so. Its centerpiece is a collection of photos amassed by the Rev. Secondo Casarotto, the church’s departed longtime pastor and a member of the Scalabrini Fathers, the missionary order that staffed St. Anthony’s for years.

“He is a great scholar and researcher,” Voorhes said.

Casarotto made it his mission not only to safeguard the history of St. Anthony’s, but to rescue endangered artifacts from endangered churches, and keep them safe.

“Ninety-five percent of the items were either in storage or on the second floor of the rectory,” Voorhes said.

Once the museum began coming into shape, he and Krajewski were amazed at how quickly the other 5 percent of items appeared.

“I was gone from January to the end of March,” said Krajewski, a snowbird. “When I returned in April, I said, ‘It’s time.’ Since April, this has exploded.”

Casarotto came from Northern Italy, and the photos’ captions reflect his colorful way ofccommunicating.

“Italian Organ Grinder. 25 cents per day!” reads one.

“Italian men catching up with the news.”

“Sicilian marionettes on Canal Street tell medieval stories.”

“Italian workers at the Erie Canal relax while the Holy Family watches over them.”

Are there any gaps in the museum that need to be filled? Krajewski considered the question.

“We have an absolutely gorgeous crucifix, but it’s so large that it can’t stand up in its own,” she said. “I have to come up with some way to secure it.”

Then she paused, thinking.

“I’d also be interested in anything that adds to the flavor of the immigrants’ life,” she said. “I have a steamer trunk, but nothing to put in it.”

‘Why hide these things?’

For Voorhes, the museum has close associations.

Early in 2012, when he was called in and told of his new appointment, he had no idea where it would be. When he learned he was being named parish administrator at St. Anthony’s, there seemed to be a rightness to that.

Voorhes, who grew up in now-defunct St. Gerard’s Parish on the East Side, is Italian thanks to his mother, whose last name was Benincasa. His uncle was Bishop Pius Anthony Benincasa, who was not only an indirect descendent of St. Catherine of Siena, but the first Italian-American bishop our town had seen. Born in Niagara Falls in 1913, Bishop Benincasa was auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo. He died in 1986.

Now, Voorhes celebrates the Sunday Italian mass at St. Anthony’s. And Bishop Benincasa’s black and purple cassock is there in the museum, around the corner from a collection of relics and a document signed by Father Baker. His chalice is there too.

“They are items that I have received as his nephew,” Vorhees said.

The museum, which is open when the church is open, is more than a trip into the past. It is a sign that St. Anthony’s is alive.

“The idea was, why hide these things?” Voorhes says. Displaying them would do good on various levels. “They will increase the visibility of this church, which is still here.”