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Celestial mural symbolizes Corpus Christi rebirth

When Henry Swiatek was in grade school attending Corpus Christi Catholic Church on Buffalo’s East Side in the 1950s, he recalled looking up into the sanctuary over the altar and seeing heaven. “When I was growing up as a child, that was my view of heaven,” said Swiatek, about the dome rendering of “Disputa,” a Vatican masterpiece by Renaissance painter Raphael. “As a native son of the parish, it was a lifetime dream to restore it, to make it whole again.”

More than half a century later, Swiatek would realize his dream and help restore the artwork that would serve as a symbol of rebirth for the East Side church with so many memories.

“Corpus Christi is a miracle,” said William Koch, a member of the Friends of Corpus Christi and a past president of the Landmark Society of Western New York. “It was a grass-roots effort to raise that money, but everyone got behind it, and we did it. These people who had grown up in that parish were really dedicated to saving it and to see it survive.”

Friends of Corpus Christi, a small, relatively unknown group formed in 2003, has spent $2 million so far reconstructing the church that was built between 1907 and 1909. It started with the installation of a $600,000 slate roof, the replacement of two 8,000-pound copper-topped cupolas at a cost of $1.2 million, and a painstaking restoration of interior artwork that includes stained-glass windows, mosaic floors, sculpture executed in marble and wood – and the “Disputa,” called the “War and Peace” of religious murals.

“Our mission is to really rebuild a community,” said Lucia Ederer, president of the Friends of Corpus Christi. “We want it to be safe and peaceful so that when people come they will see a beautiful green welcoming space, well cared for and preserved. That is good stewardship, and an example for everyone. How will we do it? One building at a time.”

As president of Friends of Corpus Christi, Ederer leads the fundraising effort, writing grants and pitching foundations, banks and state and federal preservation organizations for help. The recent receipt of a $313,000 grant from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation covered some of the cost of replacing the cupolas, Ederer said.

“When the work is done and approved, you get the money; that’s how grants work,” noted Ederer, who also serves as Italian vice-consul in Buffalo. “It took me quite a bit to obtain a line of credit, which no one wanted to give us. We’re not a huge organization, and we are grateful to Evans Bank for having confidence in us. Maybe, after a while, I talk so much they feel sorry for me; I don’t know.”

The six-building complex that defines Corpus Christi serves as a reminder of the huge role the church once played in the community. The rectory, school building, convent, parish hall and the Sears Street Social Hall with its bowling alleys, gymnasium and banquet facilities drew hundreds of people to pray and play.

By the early ’90s, Corpus Christi, at 199 Clark St., was one of eight churches on the East Side that was suffering from a dwindling parishioner base. Fifty years before, 43,000 people regularly attended the churches, according to published reports. In 1992, that number had shrunk to 3,400. So, too, the Conventual Franciscan Friars, who had founded Corpus Christi in 1898, no longer had enough priests to serve.

“It all began in 2003 when the Franciscans announced they were going to leave because the congregation was getting smaller,” Koch said. “There was a small group of people who were concerned about the church closing. They worked very hard to get another order of priests in – the Pauline Fathers – but also to get the diocese to agree with our effort. You don’t do that in the Catholic Church. A congregation does not look for priests. It’s the diocese that does.”

Critical to the effort was the church’s designation in 2007 as a New York State Landmark and its entry in the National Register of Historic Places. The state and federal recognition increased public awareness and opened new funding streams for improvements. It also required the restorative work to proceed with strict attention to historical detail in craftsmanship and materials, said one local architect.

“Some people look at that as a big obstacle,” said Thaddeus Fyda. “We had to convince the Paulines to put it on the historical register. At the end of the day it could have been an asphalt roof – not slate – at one-third of the cost, but not on a landmark building.”

Fyda, like many Friends of Corpus Christi, donated his services. He played a key role early in the process when he surveyed each building to determine the restoration cost. “It was in the $10 million to $12 million range,” Fyda said. “Generally, the buildings were in good stable condition. Our priority was the church. Masonry was falling off towers. Thank God it happened in the middle of the night and no one got injured.”

The painstaking restoration of the “Disputa” mural painted by Marion Rzeznik in collaboration with Gonippo Raggi was facilitated by the Rev. Anzelm Chalupka, former pastor at Corpus Christi. Anzelm, who is now pastor at St. Casimir Church in Yonkers, introduced art conservator Roman Kujawa to Friends of Corpus Christi. Kujawa, a parishioner at St. Casimir, worked on “Disputa” in 2011.

Working with Kujawa was Swiatek, who for a decade pushed for the mural’s repair.

“This was the church of my grandparents, my parents,” Swiatek said during a phone interview conducted while he worked 50 feet aboveground on a church in Olean. “I graduated from grammar school there in 1960. My grandparents lived on Curtiss Street and were displaced when the Central Terminal was built after the railroads bought up all the property.”

Originally installed in 1927, the mural portrays 65 figures – drawn in perspective – some as tall as 11 or 12 feet, said Swiatek, of Swiatek Studios, who coordinated the project with his son Brett.

Next up for the Friends of Corpus Christi is the social hall.

“The thinking in terms of the social hall is that this could really become a community asset because there is a gym and bowling alleys in there,” Koch said. “That could do a lot for the community. It’s worthy of restoration. This neighborhood has a lot going for it, but I think it needs a lot of help. Corpus Christi, St. Stan’s and the Central Terminal – all of these things can be an impetus for the rebirth of the neighborhood.”