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Refugee, immigrant haven is mission of former church

When the Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary Church opened on Buffalo’s West Side in 1898, it was mainly an Italian parish. Back then, immigrants brought letters and documents to the church, where a priest helped translate, said Ann H. Brittain, director of immigrant and refugee assistance services for Catholic Charities.

It later became the site of a school.

Shut down as a house of worship in 2008, the former church at 20 Herkimer St., near Albany Street, is now being transformed into a haven for Buffalo’s newest resettled refugees and immigrants. The former church will become a health clinic and education center.

In a way, Brittain said, the building is returning to its origins.

“We bring these people from all over the world, and that’s the whole idea … because that’s what we’re about is bringing everybody together,” she said.

It’s a project described Wednesday as a long-standing dream for Catholic Charities of Buffalo.

“Adaptive reuse is the name of the game in Buffalo,” said James F. Dentinger, president of McGuire Development, which provides facilities consulting for Catholic Charities.

The official grand opening of the facility is at least a few weeks away, but the repurposed church served as the backdrop for Wednesday’s announcement of this year’s $11 million goal for the annual Catholic Charities Appeal and an example of the kind of work the organization does for the community.

Catholic Charities has provided services for refugees and immigrants for decades – up to 600 new refugees each year. But previously it had to send clients to see a doctor at an outside agency, most recently Catholic Health System.

Now the organization will have one central location for all its services in the new Catholic Charities Health Care Center.

Even though construction for the project took about four months, design work and planning go back several years.

“The dream was to have a one-stop, multiservice center that would provide a wide range of services to refugees that were clients of Catholic Charities,” said Dennis C. Walczyk, CEO of Catholic Charities.

Inside the former church, refugees and immigrants will receive health care, from assessments required for new immigrants within 30 days of their arrival to primary care and case management.

Transforming the vast interior of the former church involved removing nearly all of the old pews – which were sold on Craigslist to someone in Georgia to use at another worship site.

Project designers sought to incorporate as much of the original features of the church, with one of the goals being to maintain as much of the church’s history as they could.

What was the altar and the front few rows of the church have been turned into the Peace Room, in which immigrants of all faiths may come and pray.

Several of the eight examination rooms have stained-glass windows, as do some of the offices. Some of the areas have had carpet removed and the original wood flooring refinished.

The lighting fixtures that hang from the former church’s ceiling were raised about 4 feet to accommodate the ceiling of the office and exam room area, with the inside of the fixtures themselves retrofitted with LED lights.

The entire electrical system in the building has been upgraded. The most complicated part of the project was the heating and air-conditioning systems. The offices and exam rooms have a system separate from the rest of the building, using radiant heat from two large units hanging on each side wall in the Peace Room.

Education programs are already offered on the same campus. Instruction, including English classes, will continue to be held across the street in the former Nativity School building. The former rectory is already used for office space.

Catholic Charities is working on the project with Mobile Primary Care, which will provide physicians; Baker Victory Services, which will provide dental services; and D’Youville College, whose students will be able to serve as interns at the clinic.

Several area foundations provided financial support for the project, including the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the James H. Cummings Foundation and the Western New York Foundation. Officials said they also got a good deal on a construction loan from M&T Bank.