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Children’s book from Britain casts surprise spotlight on embattled Buffalo church

Santa Claus is coming to Buffalo – and he is making one surprise stop.

At least according to “Santa Is Coming to Buffalo,” a beautifully illustrated children’s picture book by Steve Smallman and Robert Dunn, a writer and an artist in Great Britain. The 32-page hardcover is one of a popular “Santa Is Coming To Town” series of children’s books published in America by Illinois-based Sourcebooks. Each book is tweaked to fit a particular locale. As the publisher explains, “The series delivers a wonderfully personalized experience with customized text and art based on famous landmarks unique to areas across the continent.”

In every city included in the series, Santa encounters about a dozen different places, all tourist destinations of the highest caliber. The landmarks play a part in the story. In “Santa Is Coming To New York,” the Jolly Old Elf hears the bells of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In Philadelphia, he encounters Independence Hall; in Boston, Old North Church.

In “Santa Is Coming To Buffalo,” Santa flies over an architectural masterpiece that many would not have expected: St. Ann’s Church and Shrine.

The romantic, cathedral-like East Side church is pictured, unmistakably, on the cover of the book. It gets a shout-out early in the story, when Santa harks to the sound of its bells. “Well done, young reindeer!” Santa shouts cheerfully. “It must be the bells of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine. Don’t worry, children. Santa is coming!”

St. Ann’s dominates a colorful, fanciful panorama of Buffalo’s most acclaimed architectural gems. Its distinctive bell tower, accurately rendered, rises over Shea’s Buffalo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Electric Tower, our whimsical, Bavarian-looking County Hall and the new courthouse.

Buffalo’s Central Terminal also claims a place in the book, begging the question: Does the world value things that many Buffalonians overlook?

St. Ann’s starring role in the book is particularly awkward considering that here in Buffalo, it is the center of controversy. Former Bishop Edward Kmiec ordered it closed in 2011, claiming it was unsafe and eventually calling for its demolition. Parishioners, presenting experts who disputed the repair estimates, appealed to the Vatican that the church remain open and they be allowed to make repairs. In February, the Vatican ruled in the parishioners’ favor. The diocese appealed that ruling.

Since then, the parishioners have raised funds but have not been allowed in to make the repairs. They are looking to Bishop Richard Malone to help them work out a solution. Meanwhile, St. Ann’s sits shut and forlorn, surrounded by a forbidding chain-link fence, at the corner of Broadway and Emslie Street, in one of Buffalo’s most struggling neighborhoods.

The Santa book series, ignoring this humble setting, puts St. Ann’s in a bright new light. The church finds itself placed not among vacant lots but among most famous sites in the world. In California, Santa encounters the Capitol Records tower and the Hollywood sign. In San Francisco, he finds the Golden Gate Bridge, and when he comes to London, England, he sees Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey.

It could be said that St. Ann’s holds its own gracefully in this exalted company. But its appearance in the book is a mystery.

“I don’t know the people who produced it, so I don’t know how they decided to include us,” said Martin Ederer, the SUNY Buffalo State professor who has been at the forefront of the fight to save St. Ann’s.

Dunn, the illustrator, said from Scotland that the choice was not his.

“My editor sends me a photographic montage to work from, so I’m not sure how each building is chosen,” he wrote in a Facebook message. He said he would forward the inquiry to his editor, who did not immediately respond.

The books, sold through Amazon and Barnes and Noble, retail for $9.99.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com