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Future of vacant, decaying churches is focus as Buffalo Common Council approves task force

If things were still like 1928, when St. Matthew’s Catholic Church first opened, thousands of people would pass through its doors at 1066 E. Ferry St. on this Christmas weekend.

But those days are long gone. The once-elegant Romanesque style structure has been abandoned since 2004, and now decays along with other formerly grand houses of worship throughout the city.

At Tuesday’s Common Council meeting, however, Masten Council Member Ulysees O. Wingo Sr. gained approval of a resolution calling for a city task force to study just what to do with long-abandoned and crumbling churches. Wingo’s measure calls St. Matthew’s “battered, forgotten, neglected and open to the elements.”

“We don’t want these places to become havens for vagrants,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting. “We don’t want to wait for something to happen.”

Wingo noted that many closed churches once served as vibrant centers of the community, with Wednesday’s resolution noting that St. Matthew’s was known as a “diverse parish community with a great deal of emphasis being placed on education and compassion for others.”

The Council member noted that the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo closed the church in 1998 and that it was later purchased by the Way Christian Community Church. But he said the congregation was never able to raise enough money for extensive repairs and left.

“You have all these superambitious people think they can do wonders with these superdilapidated buildings,” he said, “until they find out how much it costs.”

St. Ann’s Catholic Church at Broadway and Emslie Street also has become a focus of city attention in recent weeks after the diocese ordered it closed in 2013 in the face of as much as $12 million in needed repairs.

A fence has been installed around the structure to protect passers-by.

Wingo received Council approval to convene Council members, the city Preservation Board, the Office of Strategic Planning, Department of Permit and Inspection Services, the Mayor’s Impact Team and the Law Department to discuss future use of St. Matthew’s and other churches.

“Maybe we could offer assistance with grant writing or something else,” he said. “We want ideas how to reuse them and get them back as the beacons of light and hope they once were.”