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In the wake of 10 years of closings and mergers at churches, schools and libraries all over Western New York, some of those who have lived through the changes have moved on to wistfulness – and peace

We live in a time of letting go.

All over Western New York, beloved institutions have come to an end.

Schools attended by hundreds of children have merged with others or been closed. Neighborhood libraries once treasured by families have been shuttered. And churches have closed and combined.

The reason was simple: Times changed, and in some cases fewer people were using those institutions. But it’s the part that comes next that is never simple. What do you do now? Where can you go?

The most recent round of closings, the planned end of 10 Catholic elementary schools in June, saddened parents and families when it was announced in January.

The end of a place you have loved – one that has become deeply interwoven with your life – hits you in the hardest possible way.

Ask those who have been there, and they will tell you about the shock and confusion, the anger and bitterness.

“It’s a painful thing to have to go through,” said Pedro Liriano, a resident of Buffalo’s Clinton-Babcock area, who attended a Catholic church on the East Side that closed in 2007.

But life moves on.

After the grieving and the sense of loss – what comes in their wake?

That question was posed to people who have gone through the final days of churches, schools and libraries in our community.

The answers often are delivered in wistful tones. Some said they had never gotten over the loss of a place they loved. Some said they had.

“You get to a normal state,” said Liriano, who these days attends another city church. “But I don’t think we ever got back to where we were.”

A few even said this: That things worked out better – on the other side of the change.


Changing churches

Many people know what it is like to see a church come to an end – by closing or through a merger.

For Liriano, this sort of experience happened seven years ago.

Liriano and his wife, Tracy, had been married at SS. Rita and Patrick Catholic Church on Fillmore Avenue in 2000. They never expected that they would see the church close while they were active members of the congregation.

“It was a painful experience,” said Liriano, whose four sons were baptized at the East Side church.

After the closing, the Liriano family tried attending other Catholic churches in the city.

They ended up at SS. Columba-Brigid – a church at Hickory and Eagle streets that has had experience with prior mergers, as well as with recovering from disasters, including a fire.

“Most of the pull for me was Father Roy and the people. The parishioners,” said Liriano. “Their church had burned down, and they had to rebuild.”

At SS. Columba-Brigid, the Rev. Roy Herberger said he understands the powerful emotions that people go through during the closing of a church or school.

The East Side parish is something of an old hand at combining congregations: It was formed out of St. Brigid, a church that burned down decades ago, as well as the former St. Columba and St. Lucy churches in the city, the pastor said.

Herberger said that in past generations, people were so closely linked with their parishes that the churches and schools became part of their identities.

That was not a casual connection, said Herberger, who has been at the church for 15 years.

“That’s where your history was. That’s who you WERE,” he said. “This is where you socialized, where you grew spiritually – the parish was the hub of life for many people.”

Catholic churches across the region have undergone a dramatic decrease during the past 10 years – by about 100 sites.

When news came in February that historic St. Ann’s church had won the right to remain open from the Vatican, it was startling for being one of the few reversals of this broad trend toward closure and consolidation.

In 2005, the number of worship sites in the diocese was 275, data from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo showed. (That included 266 parishes and nine missions.)

These days, following the process the diocese called the “Journey of Faith and Grace,” there are 164 parishes in the diocese and two missions. The diocese now has 178 churches open for weekend worship services, according to data provided by diocese.

Those large-scale changes affected many people – and their immediate reactions were often deeply emotional, those involved in the process said.

“Anytime there’s ever change, that produces anxiety – even if it’s positive change,” said Dennis Mahaney, diocesan director for parish life.

Sister Susan Bowles remembered being yelled at while attending a function, by a parishioner of one church that was undergoing a merger.

“People feel displaced,” said Bowles, a member of Our Lady of Hope parish in the city, which was formed from the merger of Our Lady of Loretto, Annunciation and Nativity churches. “I think there is something about Catholics’ attachment to the institution. There’s something about that. The place – this is THE PLACE.”

“ ‘My parents were married here, I was married here, my kids were baptized here,’ ” she said. “That sort of thing.”

One goal, diocesan officials said, was to help people come through the grieving process and into new environments with fresh vitality and engagement.

“We try to create a space for transition,” said Mahaney. “A space where people can deal with the anxiety, go through the grieving.”

Some people said they have done just that.

In West Seneca, Bill and Mariann Kruger felt they fought the good fight to save their church, St. Bonaventure.

“We really did put the fight in,” said Mariann Kruger, who used to serve on the parish council. “We wrote letters; we did everything.”

The church closed anyway.

Now, the Krugers attend Fourteen Holy Helpers – a nearby parish with an elementary school that the diocese included on its most recent slate of planned closings in January.

“It’s not at the end of the street like St. Bonaventure,” said Bill Kruger Sr., 70. “But not far at all.”

For the Lirianos, the change to a new parish has brought some unexpected blessings.

The family is more active now than it was at its old church, Pedro Liriano said. His sons are altar servers and participate in the music and singing. He livestreams the Mass for the church’s website. His wife participates in other ways.

“We adapted to the change,” said Liriano.

Does that mean that all the old memories of their earlier parish are erased, or superceded? Liriano said it’s more complex than that.

“It gets better. It gets better,” Liriano said. “You never really get back to where you were.

“But you get to a comfortable point.”


Losing libraries

Losing libraries hurts, too.

When the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library closed more than a dozen branches, reducing the 52-branch network of libraries to 37 close to a decade ago, people around the county were upset and saddened.

“It’s one of the reasons you move into the community,” said John Klukowski, a South Buffalo resident and father of five. “For yourself, your kids, your family.”

People from all over the county poured out their feelings about the cuts, said Elizabeth Berry, head of the group “Save Our Libraries,” which protested the closings.

“It was a battle worth fighting,” said Berry.

She said she still feels bad about the outcome, even these many years later.

“I had to say, ‘We lost,’ ” Berry said.

But, she said, she feels satisfied with the effort she and many others made.

“We did a lot of good along the way,” said Berry. “It was totally worth it to fight till they closed the doors.”

Klukowski’s neighborhood library, the Cazenovia branch, was among those on the closure list.

For Klukowski and others like him in South Buffalo and elsewhere, the value of a library in a neighborhood is immense.

“That’s what neighborhoods are all about,” he said.

A citizens’ group rallied to keep the Cazenovia library open as a community library and resource center.

But Klukowski, who is head of the Friends of the Cazenovia Library group, said that even with the efforts to save the site, things aren’t as good as before the branch was cut from the system.

“It’s not the same,” Klukowski said. “It’s not the same because you don’t have the funding. You don’t have the professional librarians. You don’t have the support of Erie County.

“You need that.”

Leaders at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library were unavailable to comment for this story.

Still, Klukowski said efforts to keep the Cazenovia library going have not been wasted.

“You do what’s best for your community,” he said. “This is where I live.”


Shuttering schools

Most recently, the closing of 10 Catholic elementary schools – announced in January – has affected many families in the suburbs. Some parents are looking for new schools. Others are fighting to keep their schools going.

Already, Bishop Richard J. Malone has turned down one request from two schools in Elma to merge instead of close.

This round of closings came on the heels of the shuttering by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart of landmark high school Holy Angels Academy last year, a change that was greeted with sadness by former students, current students and the community.

“It is a shame that the academy’s hundred-plus years of dedication to the education of young girls in preparation for leadership roles in our society has come to an end,” wrote one alumna, in a letter to The Buffalo News published last fall.

Shortly after the diocesan announcement earlier this year, parents in the Sweet Home School District learned that the School Board was considering closing Heritage Heights Elementary School because of declining and shifting enrollment in the district.

Parents who have gone through the shuttering of a beloved school – whether diocesan or not; public or private – said it can be one of the most painful things a family can endure.

“It was a tough experience,” said Steve Boyd, who has four children, and who went through the closing of Mount St. Joseph’s Academy, a school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, while his kids were enrolled there.

Boyd and other parents took their grief over the school’s closing and turned it into action: They took over the educational program and kept it running for five years.

“We wanted to just keep it open forever,” Boyd said.

After factors including a bad economy led to the ultimate closing of the school, Boyd said, it was even more difficult.

“Closing it again was like going through a broken heart twice,” he said.

Boyd’s children moved into new schools – Canisius High School, City Honors, Nardin. They have done very well; one son will be attending Harvard University in the fall.

These days, Boyd said, he and his family cherish the memories of their time at the old school.

But, he said, he is also really happy that they moved into new places.

“Now that I look back, I can see that the new experiences my kids had … have really been enriching,” Boyd said. “I treasure the experiences they have had at their new schools.”


For another glimpse at life after closing, look no farther than the pews and aisles of Our Lady of Hope Catholic Church in Buffalo.

There – in the aftermath of the combination of the former parishes of Annunciation, Our Lady of Loretto and Nativity – a new sort of community has taken root.

Neighborhood residents Richard and Diana Martin, who were both baptized and made their First Communions at Annunciation and got married there in 1970, said the transition was difficult on all sides.

“It’s painful for people,” said Diana Martin. “Some of those meetings got really heated.”

Parish members, including Bowles, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, agreed.

“In some ways, it probably was one of the worst experiences I’ve had,” said Bowles, who has been a member of the religious community since 1959. “There was so much fear.”

But now, several years later, the congregation is attracting lots of members from Buffalo’s immigrant communities – people from Africa, Myanmar and elsewhere – who are bringing vitality and energy to the new parish, members said.

There are families with young children. There are several music groups. There is a new group for young girls, said Bowles.

“I think one of the lessons – or one of the fruits of all of the frustration – for me personally, and for anybody who stuck it out in these parishes … has been that once we got to Our Lady of Hope, many of us were determined to work toward something new,” Bowles said. “Something that would be life-giving.”

“Almost in spite of us,” she said, “we have transformed the parish.”

At one point during the merger, Mahaney said, wood from the pews in one of the churches was turned into small crosses – tiny tokens that its members could carry to the new church.

There was deep symbolism there – of carrying a piece of the past into the future.

Symbolic, too, is the name of the parish formed by the merger, said Bowles.

Having the word “hope” in the title says something beautiful about the beginnings of the parish and its ambitions, she said.

“It’s a hopeful place,” Bowles said.

“It’s a place people can come and find life – and feel that they belong.”