The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, but at no time in its history was that more true than in the 19th century, when millions upon millions of folks hailing from all over Europe—"the tired, the poor, the huddled masses", in the famous words of Emma Lazarus—sailed across the ocean in search of a better life.
With plenty of easily available jobs in factories, on the railroads, and at the harbor, Buffalo was a major destination for these newcomers—and the East Side of the city was one of its most vibrant immigrant neighborhoods. The East Side was home to a patchwork of different nationalities, but above all folks from Germany and Poland. In many ways, the East Side of those days bore more resemblance to Europe than the rest of the United States: traditional food, music and culture were everywhere, English was oftentimes relegated to second-language status, and the same as in the old country, the tallest and most magnificent building in any given neighborhood was invariably the parish church. These were palatial buildings the equal of any in their parishioners' native lands, towering symbols of the pride and prosperity they had sought and finally achieved in their new home.
The descendants of these immigrants have almost all left the old neighborhoods, but many of their churches live on as the East Side's contribution to the rich architectural cornucopia Buffalo celebrates today. On this driving tour, you'll see the most magnificent of these buildings, discover their unique architectural features, and learn about the history of the communities that worshiped there.
The 1840s was a time of intermittent warfare, political turmoil, and religious persecution in the region now known as Germany, and the chaos drove many Germans to seek refuge in other lands. The flat, fertile plains east of what is today downtown Buffalo soon became home to a bustling German Village. Unlike most immigrants of the day, most of Buffalo's Germans were well-off and skilled in a variety of trades, and the neighborhood soon prospered.
The East Side grew steadily outward from downtown, with the most rapid period of growth taking place from 1860 to 1900. The scheme hit on by real estate speculators to attract development to new land was an ingenious one: upon dividing it up, the owner of a tract would donate one of his choicest lots free of charge to the Catholic Diocese or some other religious group for the construction of a church, which would act as a magnet to attract homebuyers. In this way, developers could even exercise a measure of control over the ethnic and religious makeup of the new neighborhood—this was essentially what Joseph Bork did with St. Stanislaus, as you'll read later.
For most of the second half of the 19th century, Germans made up more than half of Buffalo's population and a large proportion of the city's business and political elite—for a time there were even calls for the city government to make German a co-official language alongside English. Beginning about 1870, the Germans were joined by a large Polish community centered around the corner of Fillmore Avenue and Broadway, which made up an additional 10% of the city's population by the turn of the century. Also present on the East Side in smaller numbers were Jews, Italians, Russians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and—later on—African-Americans.
It was the rapid growth of the black community beginning around the First World War—along with a healthy dose of racial prejudice—that drove whites away from the East Side toward the suburbs as the 20th century wore on. More and more during that time, attendance at many of the district's churches fell sharply, and with dwindling revenues from the collection plate each Sunday the parishes were soon finding it harder and harder to keep up on utility bills and building repairs. Beginning in the 1990s and accelerating through the first decade of the 21st century, many churches on the East Side merged with neighboring congregations or closed outright. The crescendo came under Buffalo's Catholic bishop, Edward Kmiec, whose controversial Journey in Faith and Grace program closed or merged nearly a hundred Catholic churches in the Buffalo Diocese, including many on the East Side, between 2005 and 2008.
The wildly varying present-day statuses of these churches is another issue you'll be learning more about in this tour. While a good many of them continue as home to active religious congregations, others have been repurposed in a variety of ways for a new generation of East Siders, and still others remain abandoned and decaying or have been lost to the wrecking ball. The interiors of the churches that remain active (either as home to their original congregation, to a successor congregation, or as an oratory) can be visited at service times, which are listed in the main East Side article; the interiors of those that aren't are off limits to the public. However, the exteriors can be viewed anytime, as long as the buildings exist. To that end, safeguarding what remains of the architectural legacy of the East Side's churches is a major focus of Buffalo's historic preservationist community of today.
Catholic vs. Protestant
You'll notice that the vast majority of churches you visit on this tour are Catholic rather than Protestant. Why is that? There are several reasons.
The first is a simple matter of demographics: by far, Catholics made up the majority of 19th-century East Side residents. Specifically, Poland was and is an almost entirely Catholic country, and the places that most German immigrants to Buffalo hailed from—Bavaria, Württemberg, and the culturally German region of Alsace in France—were also majority-Catholic.
Secondly, there are also significant differences between the Catholic and Protestant traditions when it comes to ecclesiastical architecture. While Catholics traditionally did not hesitate to go all-out with exquisite grandeur when constructing churches, decorating them with ornate architectural details and breathtaking works of art inside and out, the modest and thrifty Protestants placed far more emphasis on the content of the preacher's sermons than the physical environment of the church, and thus tended to consider Catholic-style ostentation to be gaudy and vulgar, even idolatrous. However, architecture is intended to be one of the major focal points of this itinerary—and, theological differences aside, the East Side's Catholic churches are simply more interesting for the architecture buff than the Protestant ones.
Speaking of architecture, the East Side's roster of churches is a diverse one, incorporating most of the styles that were in vogue in the mid- to late 19th century. This was a quite conservative period in architectural history, dominated by revivalist styles that consciously hearkened back to past eras in European history—a perfect fit for immigrants hungry for nostalgic reminders of their homelands. Some of the architectural styles you'll encounter on this tour include:
- the Gothic Revival, which, along with the Neoclassicism to which it served as a direct rebuke, was one of the first "period revival" styles to come into vogue in North America. Thus, on this tour, the churches you see that are Gothic tend to be among the older ones, and were especially popular among German congregations. The defining feature of the style is the pointed arch (often referred to as a "Gothic arch") that crowns all the windows and doorways of a building, as well as spacious and airy interior vaults. Gothic Revival buildings are unmistakably vertically-oriented, with slim forms and steeply-pitched rooflines that draw the eyes upward. Windows are typically decorated with ornate tracery, and exterior buttresses commonly provide structural support to the sides of the buildings. Steeples and other pinnacles are usually topped with statuary, finials, or other ornamentation; where roofs are flat, decorative battlements are often present.
- The Gothic Revival's period of peak popularity in this region stretches from roughly 1830 to the outbreak of the Civil War. Churches dating from that period ordinarily mimic Medieval-era structures in England and Norman France. However, the style remained quite common through the remainder of the 19th century—branching out into substyles such as the simplified, rustic Carpenter Gothic and the eclectic Victorian Gothic, a more freewheeling interpretation of the template characterized by ornate decorative elements and polychromatic exterior façades often in terra cotta—and, in the case of Carpenter Gothic and similar late English Gothic-influenced designs often used for Protestant churches, even well into the 20th century.
- the Romanesque Revival, an imitation of 11th- and 12th-century designs popular in Normandy and Lombardy that first began to appear in the United States not long after Gothic became popular —an early champion was social reformer Robert Dale Owen, who in the 1840s promoted it over the Greek Revival, America's de facto national style of the day, vaunting the Romanesque's "architectural truth" in making space for modern trappings like stairways and chimneys, and deprecating the low-pitched roofs and other structural elements of the Greek Revival as unsuited to colder climates—but didn't truly take hold as a major architectural trend until after the Civil War. The popularization of the style in America was due in large part to the work of the great H. H. Richardson, who pioneered his namesake Richardsonian Romanesque substyle right here in Buffalo with its prototype design, the Buffalo State Hospital, erected in 1870. The style's heyday lasted through about 1900. In Buffalo, Romanesque Revival architecture was particularly popular among the Polish churches of Broadway-Fillmore that were built during the last quarter of the 19th century, as well as some of the later-period German churches.
- Romanesque Revival buildings are usually built of brick or stone—in Buffalo, Medina sandstone is especially popular—and have a stout, ponderous appearance distinctly at odds with the more delicate Gothic Revival style. Its major distinguishing feature is the round or semicircular arch, which is typically employed on all the windows and doorways of a building as well as serving as a decorative motif elsewhere. Richardsonian Romanesque typically uses the very similar Syrian arch instead. The columns that are typically employed around the entrance eschew less ornate orders such as the Doric and Tuscan in favor of stylized adaptations of Corinthian capitals adorned with ornate, often geometric designs that sometimes extend to the arches and tympanums in between. In Romanesque Revival churches, steeples are often topped with simple pyramidal roofs rather than spires, adding to their solid, robust appearance. Whether on a tower or elsewhere in a building, horizontal divisions on the façade are marked with string courses, often supported by corbel tables that can be quite ornate.
- the Polish Cathedral Style, which, as its name indicates, was brought by immigrants from Poland to areas of the United States where they settled in large numbers: namely, the industrial cities of the Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic regions and, to a lesser extent, southern New England. Built in the greatest numbers between 1870 and the First World War, these structures were invariably much larger and more ornate than neighboring churches: their grand scale served as a testament both to the glory of God and to the prestige of the Polish-American communities who built them, but also led to criticism from other denominations about the use of donations from poor immigrant parishioners to fund lavish church buildings.
- The Polish Cathedral Style is less a full-fledged style in its own right than a set of principles of design and decoration that could be applied to pretty much any style—in Buffalo, Romanesque Revival was usually the underlying aesthetic, though Gothic Revival Polish Cathedrals also exist. The decorative elements borrow from a grab bag of other styles such as Neoclassical, Baroque, and Renaissance Revival, synthesizing them into a unique, eclectic fusion whose ornateness is typically rivaled only by the most florid Spanish Baroque buildings. The trademark of the Polish Cathedral Style, however, is a pair of identical twin steeples that flank the front façade of the building, crowned with copper-clad cupolae with lanterns and finials at the top (or, in the case of Gothic-based designs, with tall, narrow spires). The front elevation and the eaves of the roof are peppered liberally with statuary, often depicting religious figures revered by Polish Catholics, and the apse is typically topped by a large dome often similar in design to the steeples' cupolae.
- the Renaissance Revival, the latest of these styles to come into vogue. The original Renaissance was, of course, a movement of cultural awakening that spread across all of Europe in the 15th, 16th, and 17th Centuries—which, in the realm of architecture, made for a loosely connected yet maddeningly diverse array of forms and aesthetic principles specific to each individual country. Renaissance Revival architecture is no different. Broadly speaking, in Buffalo the most popular varieties of Renaissance Revival architecture were the French and Italian styles, though you'll also see some scattered examples of other traditions such as Dutch and Flemish. In North America, the Renaissance Revival's heyday was a relatively brief period of a decade or two on either side of the turn of the century. A highly formalistic style marked by strict vertical symmetry, the Renaissance Revival's hallmark is a layered façade each level of which is articulated differently—the exterior surface may have a different texture on one layer, the columns and pilasters on another one may be of a different order, the window trim on a third may be different. The decorative elements borrow freely from a grab bag of random Greco-Roman motifs, which often makes for an eclectic mishmash where a Roman arcade might coexist with a stately Greek-style temple portico. The more prevalent Italian Renaissance style favors rough exterior textures such as ashlar as well as prominent cornices, while the older French Renaissance style melds Classical motifs onto a Gothic-influenced substrate that's expressed in elements like steeply pitched roofs and prominent vertical lines.
With the obvious exception of the area's infamously harsh winters, the Historic Churches of Buffalo's East Side itinerary is well-suited for any time of year. Buffalo is a place with four distinct seasons that each have their own charms, and during the temperate months the region experiences little in the way of extreme weather. For more specific information about what you can expect at any given time of year, see Buffalo#Climate.
You should allow for a minimum of three hours to complete the whole tour, or more if you really want to take a good long look at these majestic buildings. While heavy traffic is not generally a major problem on East Side surface roads, if taking the tour on a weekday it might be a good idea to avoid being on the road during rush hours (roughly 7:30AM-9AM and 4:30PM-6PM). You'll also want to time it out so you're finished before dark, as many areas of the East Side are best avoided at night. For best results, you might begin your tour just after the end of morning rush hour and wrap it up in the afternoon.
Aside from that, not a whole lot of advance planning is necessary. As long as you have a car—preferably in good repair and with a full tank of gas, as service stations can be hard to come by on the East Side—as well as a camera, replacement batteries, and maybe a GPS system, you're good to go.
The tour begins and ends at the corner of Broadway and Michigan Avenue. To get there from downtown, head to Lafayette Square then continue eastward for four blocks on Clinton Street (which begins on the south side of the square, in front of the Hotel Lafayette). At Michigan Avenue, turn left and proceed for two blocks. To get there from the suburbs, take the Kensington Expressway (NY 33) for 6.5 miles (10.4 km) past the New York State Thruway and get off at the Goodell Street exit. Michigan Avenue will be your first left; turn there and proceed for four blocks.
At 20.5 miles (32.9 km) in total length, the Historic Churches of Buffalo's East Side itinerary is not really suitable for any mode of transportation other than private car. Distances between the churches are far too long to cover on foot, and while the East Side is the part of Buffalo that's best-served by public transit, the extent of the network and frequency of service is not quite enough to make the bus a viable alternative to use on this tour. Particularly avid bicyclists might be able to pull it off, but they should know that dedicated bike lanes and other infrastructural elements for cyclists are few and far between on the East Side.
The Old German Village: East Side History Begins
The tour begins on the corner of Broadway and Michigan Avenue—the oldest part of the East Side, first settled in the 1830s. Head three blocks eastward down Broadway, away from downtown, until you come to the corner of Pine Street.
- The first stop on our tour is—or was—also the first church to be built on the East Side. On the 1 former site of St. Mary Redemptorist Catholic Church (southwest corner of Broadway and Pine Street) you'll only see a vacant lot and a few newly-built infill houses today, but in the old days this spot was the nerve center of the burgeoning German community that had established itself on the East Side.
- The year was 1843. The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo had not been founded yet—the Niagara Frontier was then a backwater province of the Archdiocese of New York—and the land east of downtown was a bucolic, fertile plain that was just beginning to fill with immigrant settlers from Germany, who had to endure a pretty long trek west to St. Louis Church every Sunday. What to do? New York's Archbishop John Joseph Hughes saw an opportunity to solve two problems at once. That year, he founded St. Mary's not only as the parish church for the new German East Side, but also as the headquarters for the local province of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, or Redemptorists, a ministry of travelling priests who visited rural Catholic communities all over the far-flung outskirts of his archdiocese (as far east as Elmira), as well as neighboring parts of southern Ontario, that were too small to sustain their own churches. Redemptorist priests would hold services in whatever buildings would agree to accommodate them. The first St. Mary's Church was built in 1844 with the unskilled labor of the parishioners themselves, and was of no architectural notability. It was replaced four years later by a handsome Gothic structure built with local limestone.
- As the East Side grew in size and wealth, so did St. Mary's: by the time the second church building was dedicated, a parochial school had already been founded, and wide-ranging charitable institutions such as the German Catholic Orphan Home and St. Francis Hospital were soon to follow. Under the leadership of Father Adrian van de Braak, St. Mary's also positioned itself front and center in East Side political life: the Buffalo Volksfreund, a German-language newspaper personally financed by Father Van de Braak, was seen as the moderating voice of the Catholic Church against the rabble-rousing political radicalism espoused by the Täglicher Demokrat and other organs, and in 1899 St. Mary's also took the lead in founding the Christian Society of Social Reform, an anti-socialist organization that was a cooperative venture of all of Buffalo's German Catholic men's societies. The community's growth continued undaunted into the beginning of the 20th century, and in 1906 the ribbon was cut on St. Mary's Lyceum, a handsome three-story Neoclassical school building that was the first Catholic educational institution of its kind in Buffalo.
- But after World War II, the East Side's fortunes would take a sharp downward turn, and St. Mary's location in the oldest and innermost portion of the district meant that it was one of the first parishes to feel the devastating decline that would creep through the entire East Side over the remainder of the century. The Lyceum continued on as a Catholic school and social and athletic club until the 1930s, then for a few decades more as classroom space for St. Mary's Business School, but there was no two ways about it: the character of the neighborhood was changing; Catholics were streaming out of the East Side, and especially the Near East Side, toward the suburbs. By 1981, the typical attendance at Mass had dwindled to a dozen or two, and the building had racked up a long and growing list of necessary repairs that the congregation could not keep up with. St. Mary's was closed and sold to a salvage company who spent the next few years stripping the building of valuables such as stained-glass windows, bells, and artwork.
- The building itself might have soldiered on like many other East Side churches have, but in the wee hours of the morning of December 20, 1986, a fire broke out—no one quite knows how—that quickly spread and culminated in the huge steeple collapsing and falling into the street at the corner of Broadway and Pine several hours later. The charred shell of the church was quickly demolished, and the convent next door followed four years later, which leaves the former Lyceum (correctly touted as "fireproof" when it was first built) as the only building of the old St. Mary's complex that still exists today. St. Mary's Lyceum has been named a Buffalo Landmark and is owned by the Belmont Contracting Company, who use part of the second floor as storage space. Belmont is searching for a buyer for the underutilized edifice, as it doesn't have the financial means to make imminently necessary repairs—such as a new roof—let alone to rehabilitate it to its former luster.
Continue eastward down Broadway through the heart of the old German Village. Cross Jefferson Avenue and keep going for another quarter of a mile (450 meters). On your left, just before the corner of Emslie Street, you'll see the parking lot of Kindgom Kids Family Fun Center—a good place to pull over and get a look at the next church on our list, which stands across the street.
- One thing you can say about Buffalo's preservationist community is they're nothing if not dogged. They don't hesitate to pour their hearts and their money into efforts that may seem like quixotic lost causes to others. 2 St. Ann Catholic Church (651 Broadway) is a prime example of that: despite the fact that it's one of Buffalo's largest and most ornate churches yet located in one of its most blighted areas, saving it from the wrecking ball is, as of this writing, one of the major causes célèbres on the local preservationist agenda.
- We'll start with its architecture. This 175-foot (53-meter) Gothic Revival sentinel looming over Broadway is perhaps the most architecturally European church building in the city, with 7-foot-thick (2 meter thick) walls of steel-reinforced Lockport dolomite. Right away you'll notice the two steeples, capped with structures that look rather like mansard roofs—these are the stubby remnants of the original spires, which were taken down for reasons of structural safety following a March 1964 windstorm. The taller tower, at left, contains a clock that was installed in 1895 by the E. Howard Company of Boston, as well as a total of six bells, the heaviest of which weighs in at 7,800 pounds (3,500 kilograms). Though the church is sealed off to the public today, there's still a treasure trove of statuary and art inside: a painting of the church's namesake imported from Germany, 35 stained-glass windows in the Bavarian style designed by the Francis X. Zettler Company, and frescoes painted in 1907 by local ecclesiastical artist Leo Frohe.
- As you've seen for yourself, St. Ann's is the second church you pass along Broadway as you go outward from downtown; likewise, it's the second-oldest Catholic church on the East Side, established in 1857 out of the eastern part of St. Mary Redemptorist's territory. This was still the outskirts of town at that time, and in those days, land speculators—in this case, Steven Van Rensselaer Watson, who was responsible for much of the development of the Near East Side, especially the Fruit Belt—would routinely donate one of the choicest parcels of their land to a religious group for the construction of a church which would, in turn, attract settlers. St. Ann's was no different, and as had been expected, this erstwhile tract of thickly forested and thinly populated land soon filled with new residents from among the burgeoning German immigrant population of Buffalo. Like many East Side church buildings of the day, the original St. Ann's—a handsome red-brick Romanesque building that was dedicated the same year the congregation was established—soon found itself straining to accommodate its now-vast parish population. After a $135,000 design for a new church by New York architect Francis Himpler was rejected by the congregation in the early 1870s as too costly, Father William Röther entrusted the project to his assistant, Brother Charles Halfmann, who was a world traveller and something of an architecture buff. Brother Halfmann modified Himpler's design to cut costs, and construction finally began in 1878. True to Father Röther's vow not to accrue any debt on the construction of the church, the building process proceeded in fits and starts and was not completed until 1886.
- As a Near East Side parish, the vicinity of St. Ann's was one of the first in the city to feel the effects of postwar suburbanization and the demographic shifts that came with it, so it's perhaps surprising that it was able to hang on as an active parish until April 2012. Despite the inevitability that Mass at St. Ann's no longer drew anywhere near the crowds it did in its 19th-century salad days, the church had experienced a modest revival in the first decade of the 21st century—not only due to the advocacy and social services it provided to the struggling neighborhood, but also even in terms of church attendance, as refugees from war-torn countries such as Sudan and Rwanda, many of whom are Catholic, had begun to trickle into the neighborhood. In 2007, when the Diocese of Buffalo announced their intention to merge St. Ann's parish with that of SS. Columba and Brigid a few blocks south of here, the congregation fought the plan tooth and nail. The appeals process reached as high as the Pope himself, but it was all in vain: the endgame was the "suspension" of all activities of St. Ann's congregation, with parishioners encouraged to begin attending Mass at their new church.
- Today, St. Ann's is empty and faces an uncertain future. Soon after the Diocese announced its plan to demolish the building in August 2013, a firestorm of opposition from Buffalo-area Catholics and the preservationist community forced it to change course and at least try to find a buyer willing to tackle the $8 to $12 million in structural repairs necessary to bring the building back up to code. For a time, the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, as of 2020 in the former St. Francis Xavier Church in Black Rock, was said to be interested in moving to St. Ann's, but nothing more was heard about that idea. For now, the building is in the hands of the Save St. Ann's Church and Shrine organization, whose frequent fundraisers have been successful enough that many of the most imminently necessary repairs have already been completed. Even though its 2014 nomination as a Buffalo Landmark took the possibility of demolition off the table for good, the organization still faces a decidedly uphill battle. Those interested in helping save this architectural marvel are welcome to make a donation via personal check, credit card, or PayPal.
Continue further east down Broadway. You're now entering Buffalo's Polish district. The first traffic light past St. Ann's is Smith Street; keep going down Broadway one block past the light to Coit Street, then turn right. After two blocks, turn left down Peckham Street. Keep going for another three blocks. On-street parking should be easy enough to find, or else you can park in the lot at the corner of Wilson Street.
- In contrast to the last two churches you've seen, 3 St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr Catholic Church (northwest corner of Peckham and Wilson Sts.) is very much alive, still a cornerstone of the community it has served since it was founded. In fact, in this case the church was here before the community: in 1872, Joseph Bork was a land speculator of Polish descent who was searching for a way to attract more of his countrymen to settle in Buffalo rather than staying only long enough to arrange for onward travel to Chicago, Detroit, and other places where Polish immigrant communities already existed. After he hit on the realization that towns in Poland were almost always centered around a large parish church, he donated a prime lot of his land to the Catholic diocese to establish a church. The diocese, in turn, recruited Father Jan Pitass, a Polish-speaking priest from Silesia, and St. Stanislaus was off and running as the "Mother Church of Polonia". Ingeniously, by the time the church was dedicated Bork had ensured that hundreds of new homes were built nearby and ready for occupancy, and his scheme worked like a charm.
- St. Stan's current church building—the second one to stand on the site—was erected in 1882 from a design by architect T. O. Sullivan, and with its imposing twin steeples towering 217 feet (66 meters) above Peckham Street, it's a particularly majestic example of the Polish Cathedral Style of Romanesque Revivalism that you'll be getting very acquainted with in this next stretch of the tour. The locally-sourced (probably from the Lewis Bennett quarry) gray Onondaga limestone of the exterior walls is accentuated by trim in lighter-colored Lockport limestone. You'll also notice the parade of saints crowning the buttresses on the sides of the building—among the statues are many Polish religious figures including Saint Adalbert and Saint Hyacinth of Kraków—as well as the octagonal cupola above the apse that echoes the ones atop the steeples. If you're lucky enough to get a chance to go inside, you'll also bear witness to some of the most exquisite work of prolific local ecclesiastical artist Jozef Mazur.
- At its height in the early 20th century, St. Stanislaus was among the largest Catholic churches in the country, with close to 20,000 parishioners, 2,000 students in the parish's school, and a Johnson & Son pipe organ. However, like Polonia's other parishes, St. Stan's saw its congregation plummet in number during the second half of the 20th century and was finally declared by the diocese to be a "shrine to St. Stanislaus and all Polish martyrs", partly to ensure its continued survival in a neighborhood that was becoming less Catholic every year. Despite that, its importance to the Buffalo Polish community continues undiminished—the normally quiet St. Stan's fills with worshipers once again on holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and during ethnic festivals like Dyngus Day.
Continue eastward down Peckham Street, crossing over Fillmore Avenue. Two blocks past Fillmore, you'll come to Lombard Street, where you'll make a left and pass alongside the back end of the old Broadway Market. Turn right on Kent Street and proceed one block to Clark Street. Here, at Buffalo's storied "Superman Corner", you'll find ample on-street parking and a majestic view of the next stop on our tour.
- A quarter-century after St. Stan's was founded, Broadway-Fillmore was home to a burgeoning community of 20,000 Polish immigrants worshiping at a number of different churches. Their story was a repetitive cycle: because the population of the neighborhood was growing by leaps and bounds every year, the churches, as massive as they were, eventually could no longer physically contain the crowds that came to attend Mass every Sunday. Old church buildings would occasionally be razed and replaced with bigger ones, but that alone was not enough to solve the problem: new parishes had to be established. So began a twelve-year orgy of construction that saw four daughter parishes carved out of St. Stan's territory; the grand finale came in 1898, when 4 Corpus Christi Catholic Church (199 Clark St.), the second-youngest of the grand old churches of Polonia, was established. (Queen of the Most Holy Rosary on Sycamore Street followed much later.)
- Corpus Christi's congregation originally worshiped in the building that now serves as its rectory: it stands on the north end of the complex, adjacent to Kent Street. The present church was erected in 1909 to a design by the local firm of Schmill & Gould. The exterior walls are built of rough, ruddy Hummelstown brownstone, and the church boasts a set of twin towers similar in design to the ones at St. Stan's; crowned by copper cupolae with roundel windows. Also interesting are the three entrance doors overlooking Clark Street, each of which are flanked by a trio of engaged Corinthian columns supporting a round compound arch that's exemplary of the Romanesque Revival; the tympanum of the middle doorway also contains a quatrefoil formation. The rear of the church features an unusual curved apse backed by a pair of towers similar to the ones in front, though smaller and without cupolae. Corpus Christi is also renowned for the sacred artwork in its interior, installed during renovations in 1926 and widely considered to be the most majestic collection of any Buffalo church: all its stained glass, including the majestic rose window on the front façade, is the work of the Franz Mayer Company of Munich, and Jozef Mazur (whose work you may have already seen inside St. Stan's) really went all-out with the frescoes and other works of art that bedeck its interior, including a reproduction of Raphael's Disputa del Sacramento and six large Madonnas that are reproductions from various famous Marian shrines in Poland.
- At its height in the 1920s, Corpus Christi's parish population topped out at 2,000 families, a number that declined slightly in 1929 when some 300 homes in its territory were demolished to make way for the New York Central Terminal. Corpus Christi hung on through the late 20th century and into the 21st as many other East Side churches closed, but there was no denying it: the days of standing-room-only Masses were over with. Broadway-Fillmore is nothing if not a resilient community, though, and when talk of merging Corpus Christi with a neighboring parish cropped up in 2003, it was not only quickly scuttled but it even led to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places as well as funds being raised for a new round of building renovations—the fourth in its history, cementing its place among the best-preserved churches on the East Side. Those renovations began in 2011 and remain ongoing as of this writing. Today, Corpus Christi plays second fiddle only to St. Stan's as a cultural cornerstone of Buffalo's old Polonia, playing host to two Polish-language Masses a week as well as the annual Dożynki harvest festival, the late-summer counterpart to springtime's Dyngus Day.
Backtrack down Kent Street until you get to Lombard Street again, then turn right. You're likely to have a fairly long wait at the light at Broadway. When you get to the corner, look to your right across Broadway and you'll see an old Greek Revival bank building that's now home to Prudential Jewelry & Loan. When the light changes, make a right and a quick left on the side street to the left of the old bank—Mills Street.
If you'd like to break from the tour for a little while and stop for lunch or dinner, a great place to go would be the 1 R&L Lounge, which you'll see on your right at 23 Mills St. R&L is an old-school blue-collar gin mill and, equally as much as St. Stan's or Corpus Christi, an honest-to-goodness throwback to old Polonia. At the helm of it all since 1969 has been the inimitable Lottie Pikuzinski. Ask her about the good old days of the neighborhood—or pretty much anything else, for that matter—and she'll talk your ear off, drawing from what seems like a bottomless pit of old stories. R&L also serves some of the best Polish food Buffalo has to offer, especially on Friday when fish fry packs the house. It's an experience not to be missed.
Otherwise, continue two blocks up Mills Street to Sycamore Street. You're now in the northern part of Polonia, colonized in the late 1890s by immigrants from Silesia, which is now part of Poland but was then a majority-Polish region of Austria. Today, it's home to a variety of immigrants including Yemenis, Pakistanis, and (especially) Bangladeshis. Make a right on Sycamore and find a parking spot on-street (this shouldn't be difficult). Look behind you, back to the corner of Sycamore and Mills, and you'll see the next stop on our itinerary.
- Despite the continued vitality of St. Stan's and Corpus Christi, not all of Polonia's old congregations have been able to withstand the neighborhood's decline and demographic changes. The state of affairs at 5 Transfiguration Catholic Church (929 Sycamore St.) is among the saddest of any East Side church, crumbling to the ground in plain sight yet barely acknowledged by the local preservationist community. Its story is a testament to the immense financial and logistical challenges that are involved in repurposing buildings as large and ornate as these, especially in economically depressed neighborhoods—and to some of the ironic pitfalls to nominating an endangered building to a historic register.
- Unlike the other churches of Polonia, Transfiguration's architecture (one of the earliest works of local architect Karl Schmill, dating to 1896, a decade before his partnership with George Gould) consists of a comparatively simple Gothic Revival design executed in red brick. You'll notice pointed arches everywhere, from the stained glass windows to the lucarnes in the octagonal belfry to the compound arch framing the front entrance. But, in its day, the interior looked much the same as any of the neighboring parishes: it once contained a wealth of decorative art, though all that remains today is a pair of tattered frescoes on the walls painted by Leo Frohe. Transfiguration's history dates back to May 14, 1893, the date of a meeting between two of the most prominent entities in the Buffalo Polish community: representatives of the branch of the St. Joseph Society of St. Adalbert Roman Catholic Church on Stanislaus Street, and the Reverend James Wojcik of the Church of the Assumption in Black Rock. In those days, the aforementioned population explosion in Polonia was in full swing, with the neighborhood being carved into smaller and smaller parishes—and now it was the Austrian Poles of the area around Sycamore Street whose turn it was to get their own church, to be headed by Father Wojcik who came over from Assumption. The wood-frame church built for them on the corner of Sycamore and Mills was replaced three years later (in which span of time the congregation had already tripled in size!) with the building seen here, and it remained home to a vibrant congregation until the gradual exodus of the Polish community that you've heard so much about began in the 1950s and '60s. Transfiguration continued withering away until 1993, when it finally fell victim to one of the initial rounds of "reorganization" by the Diocese of Buffalo that saw shrinking parishes in the inner city merged with each other. The final Mass in the old church was said on August 4 of that year.
- The diocese had planned to demolish Transfiguration after that, but out of the woodwork stepped prominent local attorney Bill Trezevant, who garnered the support of the local preservationist community and key figures in the city government with his plan to convert the building into a Montessori school. The struggle to save Transfiguration began promisingly enough in 1994, with city councilman David Franczyk successfully pursuing local landmark status for the building which effectively prevented its demolition, after which the Diocese finally relented and sold the building to Trezevant. However, when it came to the actual work needed to structurally stabilize the building, Transfiguration's new status as a Buffalo Landmark added an extra layer of red tape that caused the whole effort to unravel. The distribution of the grant money Trezevant had been awarded from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was held up for two years pending various environmental and historic reviews of his plans, while in the meantime he was hauled repeatedly before the city housing court to answer for building code violations that he did not have the wherewithal to address, which in turn complicated his efforts to apply for more federal grant money. Trezevant's allies within the preservationist community gradually began to turn against him too, dismayed by his uncooperative attitude toward the state Historic Preservation Office and their insistence on individually approving every stage of his renovation plan, as well as his increasingly hostile relationship with the local press and blogosphere. By 2007, massive holes in the roof exposed the church's beautiful interior to the elements, heavy slate roofing tiles had begun falling off the building, and the city government had further crippled Trezevant's finances by revoking the building's tax-exempt status.
- Despite the growing list of legal actions against him, Bill Trezevant still owns Transfiguration, and the church continues to deteriorate toward the point of no return, with only a few token repairs performed since its closure—most recently, in January 2017, the church narrowly escaped an emergency demolition by city crews after a spot engineering evaluation funded by a small grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation confirmed that with the exception of the cupola, which was removed at that time, the building was not in imminent danger of collapse. However, conditions remain dire enough that the suggestion by prominent local preservationist David Torke of fixBuffalo that the best use for Transfiguration might be to preserve its shell as a "sacred ruin", in the manner of Christ Church Greyfriar in London or Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, is still an accurate assessment. The ending is significantly happier for some of its outbuildings, though: the former rectory is now Paradise House, a transitional residence for homeless women and families, and the school has been repurposed as an Islamic bookstore.
Proceed eastward down Sycamore Street for four blocks, until you see Sobieski Street. Then turn right. After a very short distance, you'll see our next stop on your right. Find a spot on the street to park—again, there should be ample space available.
- Roman Catholicism was of course the dominant religion among early 20th-century Buffalo Poles, but it wasn't the only one. Starting in 1914, Buffalo was also one of the major national hotspots of the Polish National Catholic Church, a controversial breakaway sect whose local outpost was the 6 Holy Mother of the Rosary Polish National Cathedral (170 Sobieski St.) Built in 1906 to a design by architect Sidney Woodruff, the building presents an adaptation of the Gothic style to the Polish Cathedral structural template: the requisite twin steeples are present, but with Gothic-arched stained glass windows in the base and simple yet handsome wheel windows further up. You'll also notice an unusual, ornamental blind arcade of pointed Gothic arches stretching across the length of the Medina sandstone façade, above the entrance and below an understated yet lovely oculus that stands in place of a rose window. Until 2005, the aesthetic was completed by a pair of handsome Gothic spires atop the steeples; these were removed in 2005 by the building's current owner, the Darul-Uloom Al-Madania Institute of Higher Islamic Education, and the towers were refashioned into minarets capped with small, octagonal, domed cupolae. Inside there were once no fewer than twenty frescoes as well as a set of exquisitely sculpted Stations of the Cross, all done by local religious artist Jozef Mazur; those were removed from the building when the congregation sold it in 1993.
- Holy Mother of the Rosary's story begins with Saint Adalbert, the first new parish established in Polonia after St. Stan's, in 1886. This was a troubled church whose congregation was constantly plagued by infighting. The question of who owned and controlled the church building and grounds—the diocese, or the parishioners whose donations helped build and maintain them—led to a revolving door of unpopular priests who tried and failed to maintain order among their flock, and finally, in 1895, to the anti-diocesan faction splitting from both the church and the Diocese. They banded together and bought a plot of land a block away from St. Adalbert's, and so it was that Buffalo's first "independent Catholic" church was founded. Father Stefan Kaminski soon arrived from northeast Pennsylvania to lead the new parish, and with a fiery zeal—not to mention Warta ("Guard" or "Sentry"), the church's own self-financed newspaper—he defended his flock against the insults, jeering and occasional violence that they endured from the rest of the community. In 1903, when the hastily constructed and overcrowded frame church in which they had heretofore worshiped was claimed by fire, Father Kaminski seized the opportunity to begin construction of a proper home for his congregation. The present-day church building was dedicated three years later.
- Father Kaminski died in 1911, and fatefully, his successor would prove to have a far less steady hand in leading the growing church—in just two years' time, it was so plagued by financial troubles that it defaulted on the mortgage of the church, and the city foreclosed. The Catholic Diocese, seeing an opportunity to crush the renegade independent church for good, put in the highest bid on the property at the ensuing foreclosure auction, and in September 1913, the former Independent Church hosted its first Roman Catholic Mass.
- The Independents were down, but they weren't out. In 1914, the homeless congregation aligned itself with the Scranton, Pennsylvania-based Polish National Catholic Church, which had split from Rome acrimoniously some years earlier over a host of complaints, foremost among which was a shortage of Polish-speaking priests to lead immigrant congregations. That had never been a problem in Buffalo's Polonia; however, Franciszek Hodur, the Polish National Church's founder and "Prime Bishop", had been undertaking an aggressive campaign of expansion based largely on swallowing up independent Catholic churches like Holy Mother of the Rosary, and here he saw an opportunity to strike back at Rome. With Bishop Hodur's financial backing, the congregation sued the Diocese and, in 1915, won their church back plus $24,000 in back rent for the 22 months the Roman Catholics occupied the building. The mainstream Catholic congregation that had been meeting there (Queen of the Most Holy Rosary) then moved to a modest building a bit further down Sycamore Street. Meanwhile, their courtroom victory helped bolster the Polish National Church's prominence in Buffalo, which reached its crescendo a dozen years later when Holy Mother of the Rosary was named the Cathedral of their newly minted Buffalo-Pittsburgh Diocese, with its head priest, the young Father Jan Jasinski, as Bishop.
- Their dispute with the Roman Catholic Diocese resolved for good, Holy Mother of the Rosary settled into a quiet and stable coexistence with the other Polish churches of the East Side. And, similar to its neighbors, as the 20th century wore on the decline of and demographic changes in old Polonia made it more and more difficult for the church to continue on in its present location. In 1992, the congregation finally approved the move to the suburbs that it had been contemplating for a long time, and three years later the new Holy Mother of the Rosary Cathedral in Lancaster opened for worship. As coincidence would have it, the congregation found a willing buyer in Dr. Mohammed Memon, imam of Darul-Uloom Al-Madaniya, an Islamic seminary that had recently vacated its former premises on Best Street in Masten Park. Darul-Uloom has proven to be an exemplary steward of the handsome old building, putting in $200,000 worth of renovations to the complex as well as bringing a new stability to the neighborhood with an influx of immigrants. In addition to the seminary which occupies Holy Mother of the Rosary's former school and rectory, the church itself is used as their mosque, Masjid Zakariya.
Continue down Sobieski Street, then make your first left at Stanislaus Street and go a block and a half to the next stop on the tour. On-street parking should be easy to find, but if you'd prefer to park in a lot, turn down Rother Street (your first left after Sobieski)—there's one behind the church.
- Saving an old East Side church doesn't necessarily require the congregation to persevere through hard times, nor does the Diocese necessarily have to find a responsible buyer with the financial resources to not let the building go to pot. There's a third option that has been used several times to preserve churches in the responsible hands of the Diocese even when there aren't enough worshipers to sustain congregations of their own: oftentimes they are repurposed as oratories, or worship spaces that are linked to a full-fledged parish nearby and used by them for various functions such as weddings, funerals, and special-event Masses. Converting former churches to oratories is usually less controversial than closing them outright, but it can still generate a degree of resentment among the parish community who will now be displaced into a merged congregation in an unfamiliar building. That's precisely what happened in 2011 to 7 St. Adalbert Catholic Basilica (212 Stanislaus St.), the largest church in Buffalo to have been preserved in this way.
- And preserve it they did: St. Adalbert's is a beautiful building, faced in handsome red brick and boasting an adaptation of the Polish Cathedral design that's unique in the Buffalo area; the work of the architectural practice of R. Huber & Company. As in any building of the style, the standout feature of St. Adalbert's are the handsome twin steeples that guard Stanislaus Street from a height of 150 feet (46 meters), but equally impressive—and almost equally as tall—is the huge copper dome that crowns the center of the transept, whose design is similar to the cupolae on top of the steeples: topped in turn with a handsome lantern and cross bottony. You'll also notice the elegant corbel tables supporting the eaves at both levels of the steeples as well as at the top of the façade itself, where it frames a trio of round-arched windows whose voussoirs feature handsome ornamental keystones. The entranceways are of a similar design too, framed by a Tuscan-columned portico, while the stained-glass windows—again round-arched and voussoir-capped—were, like Corpus Christi's, the work of the Franz Mayer Company of Munich.
- St. Adalbert's was Polonia's second Catholic church, split off from St. Stan's parish in 1886 due to the burgeoning population growth of the neighborhood. As you read at the last stop on the tour, its early years were fraught with discord among its parishioners over matters of property ownership—a situation that drove away its founding priest and his successors in short order, and ultimately led to the formation of Buffalo's first "independent Catholic" church, Holy Mother of the Rosary, by one of the disgruntled factions. After that period, however, St. Adalbert's was able to settle into a peaceful existence under the able leadership of Father Tomasz Flaczek. The crowning moment in the church's history came in 1907, when Pope Pius X elevated St. Adalbert's to the rank of minor basilica, giving it precedence over all other churches in the Buffalo diocese except for St. Joseph's Cathedral, and giving it the right to use the papal symbol of crossed keys in its interior decorative elements. Historical background details are scant as to why the Pope chose to distinguish the church in this way, but what is not in dispute is that St. Adalbert's was the first church in the United States to be so honored.
- The story after that should be familiar to you by now: the neighborhood prosperity and full pews every Sunday that characterized the early 20th century started to fall off after World War II when the parishioners began to move en masse to the suburbs, and by late century it was getting tough for even a large and prestigious congregation like St. Adalbert's to hang on. It was Bishop Edward Kmiec who, between 2005 and 2011, did the wildly unpopular but ultimately inevitable duty of closing or merging 104 Buffalo-area Catholic parishes, a program that sported the somewhat Orwellian name of Journey in Faith and Grace. In 2007, as many in the community had feared, St. Adalbert's appeared on the list of churches to be closed, with the remaining parishioners merged into St. John Kanty east of here on Broadway. The congregation sprung into action, appealing directly to the Vatican to reverse the bishop's decision and save their magnificent church from a fate like the "demolition by neglect" of Transfiguration—or, worse, the outright demolition that spelled the end of far too many other area churches. The bureaucratic gears turned slowly, but four years later Pope Benedict rendered his decision that while the merger of the congregations could proceed as planned, St. Adalbert's could not be closed outright and would have to remain under the ownership of the Diocese as an oratory. At first the rebuffed Bishop Kmiec rejoindered that St. Adalbert's would only be open to the public for a very limited range of "special-occasion liturgies" such as weddings and funerals, never for Mass, but an intense grassroots campaign (lawn signs reading "BISHOP KMIEC: WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?" in bold, angry letters could be seen peppered all over the East Side in summer 2011) caused him to relent on the eve of St. Adalbert's 125th Anniversary Mass in September of that year, the final regularly-scheduled service in the building. Today, you can certainly get married or buried at St. Adalbert's, but there are also plenty of special-event Masses and other opportunities to stop in and see both the inside and the outside of this magnificent old building. Moreover, St. Adalbert's also remains active in the community as the home of the Response to Love Center headquartered in the old parochial school, providing free food, school supplies, and educational and skills training to neighborhood residents in need.
Continue eastward down Stanislaus Street (or, if you parked in the church lot, exit right onto Kosciuszko Street then turn left on Stanislaus). Turn left at Lathrop Street then right onto Sycamore Street, passing under the Belt Line Railroad and out of old Polonia. Four blocks past the railroad overpass, you'll find the next stop on our tour. A great vantage point to see this church is from in front of the striking midcentury-style Providence Funeral Home on Sycamore; if you don't want to park on-street, there's a fenced lot behind the building.
- What with their perpetually bare-bones budgets. ordinarily not-for-profit community organizations are not the first groups you'd think of as being willing to take on the task of restoring and maintaining a grand old church. However, it's not at all unheard of for a building to come available and finances to fall into place at just the right time and in just the right way to make that possible, which is exactly what happened in the case of the former 8 St. Luke Catholic Church (northeast corner of Sycamore St. and Oberlin Ave.), reborn in 1994 as St. Luke's Mission of Mercy.
- St. Luke's is one of the last of the grand old churches built in Buffalo—erected in 1930 from a design by the prolific local firm of Oakley & Schallmo, it's a stout Romanesque Revival building with a basilica floor plan and a notable Classical flavor to its architecture. The ultimate inspiration for its design, like that of St. Gerard's which you'll see later in the tour, was the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, though St. Luke's differs from its model with a façade of ruddy brick and terra cotta taking place of the original's marble, as well as in the entrance portico facing Sycamore Street, which rather than a wide entablature supported by Corinthian columns is an arcade of compound round arches decorated in a guilloche pattern. But look above and between those arches and you'll see the most impressive decorative features of the church—splayed above the entrance is an exquisite multicolored terra cotta frieze that depicts Biblical scenes, and in the spandrels between the arches you'll see four round terra cotta relief sculptures that depict the four authors of the Gospels. Finally, bookending each side of the church are the former school building and a handsome campanile that's connected to the building yet freestanding.
- Though it's located a few blocks past the railroad tracks that divide Broadway-Fillmore from the areas to its east, St. Luke's might as well be considered Polonia's seventh Roman Catholic parish, as at the outset the majority of its parishioners were Poles who crossed under the Belt Line every Sunday morning to worship here. It was in 1908 when its continued growth compelled Bishop Charles Colton to carve St. Luke's parish out of the territory of two older churches, Transfiguration and St. John Kanty, so that residents of the eastern fringes of the Polish district didn't have quite so far to walk to attend church and school. Under the leadership of founding priest Father Leopold Stein, the first building to house St. Luke's was finished the next year.
- But Broadway-Fillmore was hardly the only Buffalo neighborhood that could barely contain its own growth at this time in history. North of there was an expanse of rocky land called the Jammerthal, or "Valley of Woe", where hardy immigrants had earlier tried and failed to farm a thin layer of soil that lay atop a bed of high-quality Onondaga limestone. By the early 20th century the quarries that had come to dominate the area were starting to get mined out, filled in, and replaced with residential neighborhoods populated by the outward expansion of the German East Side, and St. Luke's—conveniently situated at the far southern end of the Jammerthal—gradually became a congregation of two ethnicities. The growth was such that barely a decade passed before the original church had become too small for the congregation, and after a gradual process of buying parcels next to the church in preparation for such construction, ground was broken for the present-day church in 1927. The building was dedicated three years later.
- Of course, soon enough the familiar East Side story of post-World War II economic decline, demographic changes, and blight began to manifest itself in St. Luke's vicinity too; by June 1993, when the final weekly Mass was said in the church, the descendents of the Germans and Poles who'd worshiped here in years past had long since moved to the suburbs. But it was at roughly the same time, thousands of miles away in Portugal, on a group pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima led by Auxiliary Bishop Edward Grosz, where local restaurateur Amy Betros first met research oncologist Dr. Norm Paolini. Hitting it off immediately over their mutual devotion to the Catholic faith and charity work, the two began to minister together to the needy residents of the East Side, generously giving of themselves with food, clothing, money, advice, or whatever they were capable of. Not much time had passed before Bishop Grosz tipped the pair off that the Diocese was looking for a buyer for the recently closed St. Luke's, and one visit to the old place was enough to convince them that they had found a new home for their ministry, if only they could get the money together to buy it! Betros sold her restaurant, Dr. Paolini took an early retirement from his job at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in order to devote himself to the effort full-time, and the two began raising funds immediately. Finally, in August 1994—with a little (or rather a lot of) help from an anonymous benefactor—St. Luke's Mission of Mercy opened its doors. The ministry started by Betros and Paolini has grown since then into one of the most well-known charitable organizations on the East Side: staffed by volunteer lay missionaries, independent of both the Catholic diocese and the government, and funded entirely by donations, St. Luke's services to the community include free food, clothing and school supplies for needy families, structured rehabilitation for men suffering from alcohol or substance addictions, and a Catholic education for primary-aged students in the neighborhood.
The Far East Side: Kaisertown, Lovejoy, and Bailey Avenue
Continue down Sycamore Street. After about a third of a mile (550 meters), just before the overpass of the old Suspension Bridge and Niagara Junction Railroad, Sycamore merges with Walden Avenue. At the fork, look to your left and you'll see 9 Concordia Cemetery, the second-largest in Buffalo. If you're especially interested in local history, this might be a good place to take a break from the tour: Concordia has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its importance to the history of Buffalo's German community, as well as its well-preserved collection of tombstones representing a range of 19th-century styles. Concordia was founded in 1859 by a trio of German Protestant churches—First Trinity Lutheran Church, St. Peter's German Evangelical Church, and St. Stephen's Evangelical Lutheran Church—and boasts a simple design that's more typical of the early 19th century than the exquisitely landscaped "rural cemeteries" of its day, a rectangular plot divided into three sections that correspond to the three respective churches. In sharp contrast to the then-skyrocketing price of land in the urbanized area of Buffalo, the rural farmland past the edge of town was still affordable enough for the three churches to pool their money and buy a 15-acre (6 ha) plot to use as a place to bury their dead. Today, Concordia contains the remains of 17,000 individuals, mostly working-class immigrants whose headstones are, in many cases, inscribed only in German—these inscriptions include a particularly disturbing one belonging to a murder victim.
Past Concordia, you'll continue eastward down Walden for another five blocks, then turn right on Bailey Avenue. This was once a dense timberland owned by William Bailey, and the road that bears his name was a dirt track along which he would haul lumber to market. Bailey's farmhouse was located at the corner of Broadway. The area you're passing through now began to urbanize around 1890, after a forest fire claimed most of the Bailey Woods and his descendants sold the family farm to the Erie Railroad to use as a railyard.
2.3 miles (3.8 km) south of Walden Avenue, you'll come to Clinton Street. Turn left on it and continue eastward past the Interstate 190 onramps. You're now in Kaisertown—a once-German, now-Polish neighborhood that dates back to around the turn of the century. The third street on the right after the Interstate overpass is Spann Street; turn down it, then make a left on Casimir Street and continue for four blocks to Weimar Street. Turn left and enter the parking lot on the left side of the street, which is the best vantage point from which to take a look at the next church on our itinerary.
- Throughout its history, Kaisertown has been best known as a German neighborhood—not surprisingly given its name. But before the arrival of the Germans or pretty much anyone else, there was Kazimierzowo, a small colony of Polish immigrants clustered around what is today the corner of Clinton and Weimar Streets and named after the church where they worshiped in their sleepy, countrified neck of the woods: 10 St. Casimir Catholic Church (northeast corner of Weimar and Casimir Sts.)
- Right from the getgo, you can tell this church is unique among all the places you'll see on this itinerary: it's a big, blocky building designed in the Byzantine Revival style, a rarity in the local area, and built in 1927 from plans by local architect Chester Oakley. St. Casimir's is real eye candy: a colorful, exotically decorated fantasy in tan brick and terra cotta, all topped off by a huge dome covered in polychromatic slate tiles. The entrance facing Weimar Street is a trio of segmental-arched doors flanked by exquisitely decorated, twisted terra cotta columns and crowned with blind round arches. Above them you'll see a rose window tucked into a huge recessed arch that dominates the upper half of the Weimar Street façade, and all over you'll see statues and relief sculptures executed in brightly colored glazed terra cotta. Predominant among the statuary are religious figures that play important roles in Polish Catholic culture: Saint Hyacinth, Saint Stanislaus the Martyr, and of course, the church's namesake who appears twice: he's depicted in bas-relief giving alms to the poor in the tympanum of the entranceway's central blind arch, as well as in high relief at the top of the façade seated on a throne with kneeling angels on either side of him. To the left is a stout bell tower crowned by a belfry that's surrounded by still more twisted Byzantine columns and topped by a small cupola. Inside, the semispherical apse is bedecked by a breathtaking fresco painting of the Coronation of Mary, and the nave is flanked by a colonnade of a dozen marble triumphal columns, all topped by statues of the Twelve Apostles hand-carved in a European monastery.
- As soon as the first Polish immigrants came to Kazimierzowo in the 1880s, a problem presented itself: they had nowhere nearby to worship. The nearest church was a mile and a half (2.5 kilometers) away in South Buffalo, and the nearest Polish church was even further. So it did not take long for the neighborhood residents to petition Bishop Ryan to assign them a priest and found a parish for them, and thus, in 1890, begins the history of St. Casimir's. The congregation struggled at first, meeting in a little wood-frame building (nicknamed "Noah's Ark" due to its oblong, boatlike dimensions) for Sunday Masses led by preachers who commuted over from St. Stanislaus. But change was in the offing: the new century brought not only a dedicated priest for St. Casimir's to call their own, but also explosive growth to their little backwater neighborhood on the edge of town: the borders of the increasingly crowded German East Side were pressing outward continuously, bringing many newcomers to Kaisertown. The Germans soon got a parish of their own—St. Bernard's on the corner of Clinton and Ogden Streets—but the Polish contingent grew steadily as well. The increasingly cramped "Noah's Ark" was demolished in 1908 to make way for a bigger building, which in turn was razed nineteen years later for the majestic church that still exists today.
- The second half of the 20th century was a time of decline for Buffalo in general and especially for the East Side, and while Kaisertown was no exception to that rule, this part of town held on much better than any of the neighborhoods you've passed through thus far on this itinerary—to this day, Kaisertown remains a humble but vibrant enclave of hardworking blue-collar types. And while church attendance at St. Casimir's did decline gradually due to changing attitudes toward religion in this modern day, it came as something of a surprise when Bishop Edward Kmiec announced in 2011 that, under the auspices of his aforementioned Journey in Faith and Grace program, both of Kaisertown's Catholic churches would fold into the congregation of Our Lady of Czestochowa in nearby Cheektowaga. It didn't all go according to the Bishop's plan, though: St. Bernard's fought back and successfully convinced the Diocese to change course, and while St. Casimir's was relegated to the status of an oratory, it's an unusually active one—six Masses a week take place here, as well as a full slate of community events and services (including a raucous Dyngus Day shindig) that preserve St. Casimir's status as the nexus of Kaisertown's Polish community.
Continue northward on Weimar Street then make your first right onto Clinton Street, heading east through the heart of Kaisertown. The second light you'll come to is South Ogden Street. Turn left there. You'll soon come to a five-corner intersection with signs pointing toward Interstate 90. Head straight onto the overpass to stay on South Ogden Street. You'll pass over the expressway, across Dingens Street, and alongside a suburban-style shopping plaza with a Family Dollar and a Big Lots. Hang a right at the stop sign at the far end of the plaza—you're on Richard Drive now—and keep going around the curve until the road splits off in two.
Keep left at the fork, passing under the old Erie Railroad tracks. You'll soon come to another fork in the road with a sign welcoming you to Lovejoy—a multiethnic, turn-of-the-century industrial neighborhood that's completely surrounded by railroad tracks, hence its nickname, Iron Island. Take a right at the fork. You're now on North Ogden Street.
After that, make your first left onto Ludington Street and proceed westward for three blocks to Benzinger Street. Ahead of you and to the right, you'll see the next stop on the tour. Park on-street or in the parking lot whose entrance is on your right half a block past Benzinger.
- As you've already seen in the case of Holy Mother of the Rosary, much of the new life that's coming to the East Side—and to many of the majestic buildings therein—is being brought by legions of newcomers who are helping keep alive the district's enduring identity as an immigrant haven, but whose cultural identities bear little resemblance to that of the working-class Germans and Poles who came before them. Lovejoy's 11 St. Agnes Catholic Church (194 Ludington St.) is another example of an old Catholic church reborn as a meeting place for a congregation of an entirely different religion—in this case, the Tu Viện Đại Bảo Trang Nghiêm Vietnamese Buddhist Cultural Center, which serves a growing Southeast Asian community that's made their home just west of here, as well as the world at large as the home offices of the International Sangha Bhiksu Buddhist Association.
- St. Agnes is a beautiful red brick structure in the Romanesque Revival style, one of the many works of the firm of Esenwein & Johnson which was one of the most prominent in Buffalo at the turn of the century. Perhaps the most notable feature on its façade are the ubiquitous corbel tables: they bracket the gabled roof and the eaves on the sides of the building, and crown the Ludington Street entrance and the two upper levels of the nearly 100-foot-tall (about 30 meter tall) bell tower. The building's design has a very German appearance—not surprising given the ethnic composition of St. Agnes' congregation in its earliest years—with round-arched windows and doorways crowned with semicircular window heads. The stained-glass windows, installed in 1921, are the work of local glazier Otto Andrle.
- Formerly the farmstead of Joseph and Sarah Churchyard, in the late 1870s Lovejoy began to develop as a working-class neighborhood populated by a diverse melting pot of Germans, Irish, Italians, and Russians who worked in the machine shops and freight yards of the railroads that surrounded the neighborhood on all sides. For the first few years, the Germans among the mix had to walk all the way to St. Ann's on Broadway in order to attend Mass—a three-mile (4.5 kilometer) trip in each direction. But in 1883, Bishop Stephen Ryan had a census performed in the eastern portion of St. Ann's parish to determine if there were enough Catholics living there to justify the establishment of a new church. There ended up being more than enough, and, as promised, the first St. Agnes Church building was in place on this site by December of that year. Over the next few decades, two more churches would be established to serve the booming population of Lovejoy—the majority-Italian St. Francis of Assisi on North Ogden Street, and Visitation on Greene Street, where the Irish went—but this barely made a dent in the overcrowding problem that was plaguing the small wood-frame structure St. Agnes' congregation met in. Hence the much larger building that stands on the site today, erected in 1905.
- Over the years, the ethnic balance in Lovejoy as a whole began to tip more toward the Italian than the German, and by the 1940s St. Agnes was a majority-Italian parish. But despite the church's success in reorienting itself to a different type of parishioner, different and even more devastating demographic changes were soon to come. Though the decline that wracked the East Side in the second half of the 20th century left Lovejoy relatively unscathed, the Diocese of Buffalo nonetheless announced in 2007 that, under the framework of its Journey in Faith and Grace program, it would close St. Agnes and fold its congregation into that of St. Francis of Assisi. The final Catholic Mass was held there on October 21 of that year.
- That could well have been the end of the story for the church, but luckily it was not. St. Agnes, as well as the former Visitation Catholic Church a few blocks away, were bought two years later by Thich Minh Tuyen, a Buddhist monk and refugee from Vietnam who, with his International Sangha Bhiksu Buddhist Association, set out converting the old church into a monastery for the training of monks as well as a retreat center for Buddhists living in Western New York, Southern Ontario, and elsewhere across the region—and despite a few annoying setbacks involving building maintenance and a spate of vandalism in 2012, with the help of charitable assistance from Buddhists around the country the association has largely fulfilled its dream. Today, Tu Viện Đại Bảo Trang Nghiêm is not only the home of a growing monastic community, but it's also open to the public seven days a week for silent prayer, and Sundays and Mondays for group chanting and meditation. Vietnamese language classes for children, special religious ceremonies, and cultural events also occur on a frequent basis. If the temple happens to be open during the time of your visit, you'll notice relatively few changes to the building's interior—the stone pillars in the nave are decorated with colorful yellow flags and the crucifix at the altar has been replaced with a trio of huge statues of the Buddha, but the hand-carved oak pews and confessional booths and the original pipe organ remain in place as an intentional effort to avoid offending the curious former parishioners who make up a large proportion of the temple's visitors.
Continue westward down Ludington Street. At the corner of Greene Street, you'll come to a T intersection, and you'll see Hennepin Park in front of you. Make a left and an immediate right to continue along Ludington Street, along the south edge of the park.
After one block, you're back to Bailey Avenue. Turn right and backtrack along the same stretch of road you came down earlier. Continue northward past Walden and also cross over Doat Street and Genesee Street. Finally you'll come to East Delavan Avenue. The best place to park on this corner is the Rite Aid lot on the left side of the street. Diagonally across the intersection, you'll see the next church on the list.
- A few years back, 12 St. Gerard Catholic Church (1190 E. Delavan Ave.) made national headlines because of a unique redevelopment proposal that divided Buffalo's preservationist community: a Catholic congregation from Georgia wanted to disassemble the building into pieces, ship it 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) south, and reassemble it for their own use. Founded in 1902, St. Gerard's is an anomaly: the parish it was built to serve was mostly Italian, in sharp contrast to the German and Polish constitution of most of the East Side—and its impressive Italian Renaissance architecture, whose debt to St. Paul Outside the Walls is much more obvious at first glance than St. Luke's, definitely mirrors the demographics of its early worshipers. The work of the local firm of Schmill & Gould, St. Gerard's is a solid-looking structure of Indiana limestone whose main façade faces Bailey Avenue. You'll notice handsome symmetry and a strong debt to Greco-Roman Classicism there, where a trio of round-arched entrances are flanked by Ionic pilasters and, in the case of the main door, a proud triangular pediment. On the second floor there are niche statues of the church's namesake, Saint Gerard Majella, as well as Saint Joseph—two prominent figures in Italian Catholic culture—that are the work of local sculptor Angelo Gatti. Those are flanked by still more pilasters: two Corinthian ones on both sides of each niche, while in the center a small but lovely round-arched stained-glass window is surrounded by Ionic pilasters, a handsome ornamental balustraded balconet, and a rounded recessed pediment. In sharp contrast to the church is the former St. Gerard's School building next door, a red-brick Romanesque Revival structure with a stout central tower; the Syrian arch that crowns its entrance is mirrored by a smaller one on the lintel above the third floor's central Palladian window. It's been converted into apartments.
- Delavan-Bailey was one of the last neighborhoods in Buffalo to urbanize, and at the outset, the community St. Gerard's served was still a sparsely settled area on the far outskirts of town. The first services were held by Rev. William J. Schreck on the upper story of a grocery store that once stood where the East Delavan Branch Library is now. But by 1911, when construction of the present-day church kicked off, Delavan-Bailey had a much more dense and urban character than before. Due to limited funds, for many years the church remained only partially finished with a temporary roof in place—it was finally completed in 1930, when the clerestory of the nave was raised to its present height of 60 feet (18.2 meters) and the 110-foot (33-meter) bell tower was added.
- Following years of decline due to changing neighborhood demographics, the final Mass at St. Gerard's was held on New Year's Day, 2008. Before the year was out, Rev. David Dye of Mary Our Queen Catholic Church in Norcross, Georgia purchased the building and announced his scheme, which if it had actually happened would have been the largest such project in history. Dye's rationale was that an existing church building with its own history would embody the spirit of his parish better than a sterile modern structure. Preservation Buffalo Niagara caught a lot of flack for coming out in favor of the building's "salvation by relocation"; many others in the preservationist community saw it as the wholesale looting of Buffalo's architectural heritage. But in the end, it was a moot point: the $16 million required to move the building proved too much for Dye to raise without the corporate sponsorship he'd hoped for but failed to find, and when the church went up for sale again in 2014 it became clear their plan had finally been put to bed for good. In February 2017, after nearly three years on the market, the State Supreme Court approved the sale of St. Gerard's to a local not-for-profit with plans to convert the building to a mosque, yet another reflection of the ever-changing immigrant identity of the East Side.
If you'd like to break from the tour at this point for a bite to eat, you're within striking distance of Kensington-Bailey, which features the most diverse dining options on the East Side. This stretch of Bailey Avenue has a good selection of Jamaican restaurants, and a particularly recommendable one is 2 Caribbean Experience, at 2897 Bailey Ave., on the right side of the street just past the Kensington Expressway overpass. The place may look empty when you walk in, but it's not: the counter where you order is actually in the back. Ring the buzzer in front to let the owner know you're here. When you're done, just head back down Bailey to East Delavan again.
Heart of the East Side: Humboldt Park, Hamlin Park, and the Old Jammerthal
Now head westward down East Delavan (turn left if coming from the Rite Aid parking lot; right if coming from Caribbean Experience). Make your second right onto William L. Gaiter Parkway, a new industrial park built on the site of the old Suspension Bridge and Niagara Junction railroad tracks. Keep going down Gaiter Parkway for a little less than a mile (1.4 kilometers), passing under the Kensington Expressway and making your next left at Kensington Avenue. After two blocks, you'll come to a "peace sign"-shaped intersection—make a slight right onto Leroy Avenue. After about a third of a mile (600 meters), you'll see your next stop on your left.
- Given the frenzy of parish closings and mergers that has been the diocese's main response since the 1990s to the decline of Catholicism on the East Side, sometimes for a church to remain active and vibrant is simply a matter of swallowing up as many neighboring parishes as possible. A good example of that is 13 Blessed Trinity Catholic Church (317 Leroy Ave.), which has persevered since 1906 through the rise and fall of the surrounding neighborhood of Highland Park.
- A Buffalo Landmark that's also inscribed on the National Register of Historic Places, Blessed Trinity's design is an exquisite adaptation of the Lombard Romanesque style to the model of the Cathédrale Saint-Trophine in Arles, a masterwork of local architect Chester Oakley. The church is built of unmolded brown brick that was manufactured in an authentic Medieval style and is decorated with what is said to be most plentiful terra cotta ornamentation of any church in the United States. You'll see this ornate glazed terra cotta all over the building's façade, but especially around the front portico that was a special point of pride for the architect: there are geometric designs along the bow of the single stout Romanesque entrance arch as well as on the engaged columns that stand alongside the stately red-oak doors, an exquisite bas-relief sculpture of the Crucifixion adorning the tympanum of the same arch, and sculpted corbels supporting the front roof gable that symbolize the Ten Commandments. The church also has three rose windows whose exquisite stained glass is the work of local glazier Leo Frohe. Topping it all off is a Spanish tile roof crowned with a handsome octagonal cupola and lantern.
- Though settlement of this part of the city began in the late 1880s, when a streetcar line was established along Kensington Avenue, Blessed Trinity was a relative latecomer to Highland Park: by 1906, when Bishop Charles Colton arranged for a new Catholic parish to be located here, it was already a well-established neighborhood of German and Irish immigrants living on what was once a rocky wasteland, the northern part of the aforementioned Jammerthal. The fledgling parish got to work immediately on the construction of a church building to call their own—the site they had purchased was once part of the estate of John Gesl, one of the Germans who had tried and failed to farm the Jammerthal's soil before finding success as a shareholder in the local stone quarry—while holding Mass for the first year of their existence on the third floor of the Kleinderhaus Grocery Store a block away on Dewey Avenue. But even as the ribbon was being cut on Blessed Trinity's first church home, its head priest, Father Albert Fulton, was already planning for the future. He had seen what happened to other East Side parishes—victims of their own growth, the congregations soon found themselves straining to fit in the overcrowded churches in which they worshippd—and with some of his parish's leftover funds, he bought the vacant lot next door to hold in reserve for when a larger church inevitably would need to be built. Sure enough, a dozen or so years later it was often standing room only at the old church, so down it went and in its place rose the building you see here, dedicated in 1928.
- The story after that mirrors that of the rest of the East Side: over the next decades, the neighborhood's growth gradually slowed, stopped and finally reversed itself. By the 1960s and '70s, Catholics were leaving the area in droves, and what few people were moving in to the East Side were rarely of the same religious persuasion as their predecessors. This, of course, meant that attendance at Sunday Mass at Blessed Trinity and other area churches was in freefall, which posed a major problem given that the parishes were expected to be financially self-sustaining through donations at the collection plate. As we've read already, keeping up with building maintenance—not to mention simply paying utility bills—is no small task when we're talking about structures as huge and ornate as these. At first, under a succession of understanding bishops such as Edward Head and Henry Mansell, the diocese was willing to funnel money to these struggling parishes to keep them alive, but that approach quickly grew more and more unsustainable: compounding the problem was the fact that the scenario on the East Side was merely a particularly severe example of what was happening all over the diocese; from city to suburbs to rural hinterlands, the population was not only declining but growing less religious as well, and there was a shortage not only of money for the Diocese to prop up dwindling congregations but also of new priests to staff them.
- This was the scenario facing Buffalo's new Bishop, Edward Kmiec, when he ascended to the head of the Diocese in October 2004. Though there had been a trickle of parish closings and mergers that happened in fits and starts throughout the 1990s (including some that came at the behest of the parishes themselves, such as when a quartet of underattended East Side churches petitioned Bishop Head to merge them into what became St. Martin de Porres), it was nowhere near enough and the bottom was about to fall out. So, when he announced as his first major initiative the "parish revitalization and reorganization program" he called Journey in Faith and Grace—under the auspices of which dozens of churches across the Buffalo Diocese would be chosen to close or merge with neighboring parishes, based on factors such as weekly attendance and the rate of baptisms, marriages, and funerals—there was an air of inevitability and resignation about the whole thing. That's not to say there was no controversy, though: many members of soon-to-be-merged churches were livid at what they preceived as the callous and heavyhanded way the Diocese went about the initiative, feeding them pat platitudes such as "the church is not a particular building, but the overall community of God's people" while ignoring decades of parish tradition and largely shutting rank-and-file churchgoers out of the decision-making process, and the preservationist response ranged from trepidation over the difficulty of finding buyers for so many huge, high-maintenance buildings to outright accusations of bad faith on the part of the Diocese (fixBuffalo blogger David Torke famously dubbed the effort "Journey to Avoid Housing Court"). Still, the wheels were set in motion and there was no turning back: in seven stages lasting through all of 2007 and most of 2008, churches all over the Diocese—but disproportionately those on the East Side, whose roster of 21 Catholic churches was reduced to ten—either celebrated their last Masses or prepared for an influx of newcomers from nearby parishes. Of course, Blessed Trinity was a winner rather than a loser: after having accommodated the remains of several other congregations during the 1990s and 2000s, on July 1, 2007 it welcomed the former members of St. Gerard's and St. James on Bailey Avenue for the first time.
Continue westward down Leroy Avenue, then turn left at Fillmore Avenue and proceed for a mile (1.6 km). The intersection you'll come to is a strange one: you'll see a traffic light with a street sign labeled Northland Avenue and, immediately thereafter, you'll pass under the Belt Line railroad, with the actual street corner located directly under the overpass. Though it's not a busy intersection, it's tough to see around the corner, so be careful. Make a right and keep going on Northland until it ends at Humboldt Parkway.
The next stop on your itinerary stands across the Kensington Expressway and a little to the left. You can get a pretty good view of the church from a distance, but there are also several options if you want to come right up next to it. On foot, you can turn left and proceed half a block down Humboldt, and there's a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the expressway. By car, turn right on Humboldt, continue bearing right to avoid the expressway onramp, then turn left at West Delavan Avenue. Cross under the highway overpass and turn left again on the opposite side of Humboldt Parkway, then proceed for three blocks.
- Of course, one of the most logical ways to reuse a defunct church is as the home of another church—and population loss or not, churches are something that the East Side has never been short on. With the Diocese placing many of these magnificent churches on the market for fire-sale prices, it can be tempting for a smaller congregation to purchase and move into a building that's much more ornate and grandiose that anything they could afford to construct on their own. But as we've seen time and again on this tour, in buildings as huge as these, routine maintenance tasks and simple utility bills turn into monumental financial burdens that are easy to underestimate at first blush. A great example of this pitfall is Hamlin Park's 14 St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church (575 Humboldt Pkwy.), which, after its closure by the Catholic diocese, spent brief stints in the 1990s and 2000s under the ownership of two separate congregations who proved unable to handle the responsibility.
- Designed by architect George Dietel in association with the Washington, D.C. firm of Murphy & Olmstead and erected in 1928, St. Francis de Sales is a majestic building in the Italian Renaissance Revival style (with its blocky configuration and small rose window, it's inspired specifically by churches in the Ravenna region) whose façade of monochromatic, cream-colored Indiana limestone is lined with tall, round-arched windows and doorways, between which stand engaged columns whose capitals are adorned with Medieval-inspired geometric moldings and which are flanked by niches containing relief sculptures of various saints. The most striking feature of St. Francis de Sales, however, is its elegant 140-foot (42-meter) bell tower, topped with a small, unassuming cupola. The building is supported by rows of elegant buttresses at its sides and topped by a roof of red Spanish tile.
- Hamlin Park was named in honor of Cicero Hamlin, a wealthy dry goods merchant who owned the Buffalo Driving Park which was located on this site until 1905. After Hamlin's death, his heirs had far more interest in selling off his now-quite valuable land holdings than in continuing to operate the horse track, so on the market it went. Buffalo's Bishop, Charles Colton, had the foresight to know that with an influx of residents would come the need for yet another new Catholic parish, so he appointed the young Father J. C. Carr to quickly organize one in the new neighborhood, whose territory would be drawn from those of St. Nicholas, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Vincent de Paul. A chapel, converted from an earlier building that was already located on the site, was complete by August 1912. As predicted, the new neighborhood's growth started with a bang and continued going strong through the 1910s and '20s; only a year after the chapel was built, St. Francis de Sales was expanded with an $80,000 church building designed by the young Buffalo architect George Dietel, who would go on to local renown several decades later as one of the designers of Buffalo's glorious City Hall. In turn, both of those fell to the wrecking ball in 1925 to make way for the magnificent church that exists today, designed by the same architect.
- St. Francis de Sales thrived for several decades in its majestic new church, but by the 1950s and '60s it had begun to suffer the same fate as other East Side parishes—demographic changes that shrunk its membership roster precipitously. The end came in 1993, when the church was shuttered in one of the earliest rounds of closings that profoundly altered the map of the diocese throughout the '90s and '00s. Unlike many congregations that met that end, though, the diocese was immediately able to find a buyer: Tabernacle Baptist Church, a small African-American congregation that had been looking for a new home for some time.
- Happily ever after? Not so much. Though it purchased the old church for a song, Tabernacle Baptist soon found itself contending with utility bills and urgently needed structural repairs that dwarfed the purchase price. The congregation made a game effort to keep up, but eventually the church dissolved under the pressure of its mounting debt. From that point on, St. Francis de Sales changed hands multiple times—from the city government, which foreclosed on Tabernacle's mortgage in 1999; to Scott Wizig, a real estate investor who's notorious as the most prosecuted landlord in Buffalo history; to James Youngblood, an absentee landlord from Houston who allowed the building to deteriorate to such a degree that it briefly fell under threat of demolition before its nomination as a Buffalo Landmark forestalled that process. Then, in 2004, Perry Davis, the pastor of New Life Harvest World Ministries Church of God in Christ, stepped up to the plate.
- At first glance, Reverend Davis appeared to be the perfect man for the task: not only was he the charismatic young head of a thriving East Side African-American congregation, but he was also a proven fundraiser and, as longtime head of a construction company, seemingly had the expertise it took to restore and maintain a building as grand and ornate as St. Francis de Sales. But complications developed almost immediately when, after he sold thirteen of the church's stained-glass windows to a local antiques dealer for $3,000 before the sale of the building to him was even finalized, the Reverend skipped town. When he was finally located, he was immediately hauled in to Buffalo's Housing Court—which itself came under a hail of scorn from the preservationist community for its lax enforcement of the city's own laws on historic landmarks—to explain himself. Rev. Davis' claims that he was merely trying to ensure that the windows would not fall victim to vandalism and looting were regarded with skepticism at first, but less so as time wore on and some real headway was made in the restoration of the church. However, the same as the previous owners before him, in the end Rev. Davis and his congregation ran out of money and finally put the church up for sale again in 2013. As of this writing, St. Francis de Sales remains on the market with an asking price of $75,000; its location in the Hamlin Park National Historic District entitles purchasers to a 40% tax credit on qualified rehabilitation work. Meanwhile, next door, the church's former rectory is already in use again as Northland House, a group home for disabled military veterans.
Backtrack the way you came along Northland Avenue to Fillmore Avenue, then turn right. (If you went by car to the other side of Humboldt Parkway to get a closer look at St. Francis de Sales, as described above, proceed south to East Ferry Street, then turn left and left again on the other side of Humboldt, then make a right on Northland.)
Proceed south on Fillmore for about three-quarters of a mile (1.1km). You're now entering Humboldt Park, a neighborhood that—though fallen on hard times these days—was the home of the aristocratic elite of Buffalo's German community beginning in the 1870s. Continue to the corner of Urban Street, at which point on your left you'll see the next stop on the itinerary. On-street parking is easy, or you can pull into the lot just before the church on the left side of the street.
- Despite the sad story of St. Francis de Sales, for a grand old Catholic church to be taken over by a modern-day East Side congregation is not always the kiss of death. One that has had a much more fortunate fate is 15 St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church (1327 Fillmore Ave.), which is thriving today under the guiding hand of Pastor William Bunton as the home of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.
- A magnificently preserved Romanesque Revival fortress, St. Mary Magdalene's façade is done up in cream-colored terra-cotta brick and is centered on a glorious rose window facing Fillmore Avenue. The front of the building is bookended by a pair of twin steeples containing elegant stained-glass windows in their bases and topped with round-arched lintels to match the one above the rose window. The tops of these steeples once boasted unusual Moorish-style cupolae which were replaced after a violent windstorm in March 1964 with belfries of a simpler design; however, the distinctive quartets of small, conical-roofed spires surrounding them remain intact. At the top is a long corbel table that runs along the roof gable and extends to the tops of the first level of the steeples. The building's roof is steeply pitched, and its interior once contained a trio of exquisite murals painted in the style of Diego Velázquez by Rochester artist Albert Prentiss: respectively, they depicted the church's namesake, the death scene of St. Francis Xavier, and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
- Though it was a thriving neighborhood of well-to-do German Catholics, for its first two decades Humboldt Park was a backwater as far as the Buffalo Diocese's parish map was concerned: it was divided up as the hinterlands of several distant churches' territories. That all changed in 1899, when Bishop James Quigley responded positively to a petition by 300 neighborhood residents and assigned Father J. C. Bubenheim to found and lead a new Catholic parish for Humboldt Park, whose territory would be carved out of the parishes of St. Mary of Sorrows and St. Nicholas. Meeting for its first few months in a rented store, the congregation completed their first dedicated building the next year: a three-story brick block on a plot donated by wealthy Buffalo German miller-cum-landholder, George Urban. The original St. Mary Magdalene was a multipurpose building that combined a church on the ground floor, the school on the second and a small meeting hall on the third—but of course, in a burgeoning neighborhood like Humboldt Park that scores of new residents were crowding into every month, any such solution would have to be temporary. True to form, it was not long before the permanent church seen in this picture was erected: a design by local architect George Setter whose magnificence placed it well among the ranks of Buffalo's palatial East Side churches. In that building the congregation prospered for over three-quarters of a century.
- The end for St. Mary Magdalene came earlier than almost any other East Side Catholic Church: a victim of the same changing neighborhood demographics that had led to the closure of its school in the previous decade, the congregation disbanded after its final Mass on October 16, 1978. But the flash-forward some forty years to the present day doesn't take us to as depressing a conclusion as you might fear: against all odds, Antioch Missionary Baptist Church has prospered for over a quarter-century in the old home of St. Mary Magdalene—and has kept the building in tip-top shape to boot.
Continue southward down Fillmore Avenue for half a mile (800 meters). You're in the heart of the East Side now, a place that—while well off the beaten path for Buffalo foodies—nonetheless boasts some of the most authentic barbecue, soul food and other Southern American specialties the area has to offer. If you're hungry for some, any of the spots you'll pass by along Fillmore will do you right, but a particularly interesting choice would be 3 Lee's Barbecue at 1269 Fillmore Ave. Lee's stands alone in Buffalo in specializing in East Carolina-style barbecue, which eschews the sticky-sweet tomato-based sauces you might be used to in favor of a thin, spicy, vinegar-based slather that's unique in the local area, but addictive. Extra sauce costs a dollar extra, but it's a dollar well spent.
Otherwise, keep straight along Fillmore, curving through Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Your second traffic light after coming out of the park will be Genesee Street, which in its day was the main drag of Buffalo's Germania. Turn right and proceed for three blocks to the corner of Rich Street, where you'll find the next stop on our itinerary. Though parallel parking on Genesee is rarely if ever a problem, you can also turn right on Rich Street and park in the gated lot on your right.
- When a grand old church closes its doors, one of the best things that could possibly happen is for the city government, public school system, or other deep-pocketed public-sector entity to express interest in it. In 2000, the long-closed 16 St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church (938 Genesee St.) was hanging on by a string: heretofore in the hands of the nonprofit King Urban Life Center who'd spent the ensuing years struggling to scrape together funding to restore and maintain the building, its future was assured that year when the King Center Charter School set up shop there with the help of a full slate of government funding.
- First, let's talk about its architecture. St. Mary of Sorrows is also sometimes known as the Church of the Seven Dolors and is arguably the most majestic church on this entire itinerary: prominent architect Adolphus Druiding used the famous Cathedral of Worms as a model for its design, but went that old masterwork one better with magnificent and intricate architectural details—and its rusticated façade in blue Buffalo Plains limestone adds a touch of local identity as well. There's a surreal, fairy-tale look to St. Mary of Sorrows: everywhere you look you'll see ornate raking corbel tables, steeply-pitched pediments and turrets topped with finials, and exquisite decoration of all kinds. The entrance facing Genesee Street is a good example of this whimsy: a bow-shaped vestibule, its four portals are composed of double doors that are topped with delightful stained-glass transoms and placed inside recessed Romanesque arches that are themselves topped with steep pediments, while in between the arches stand engaged turrets with horizontally-banded, conical pinnacles. The entrance is flanked by an asymmetrical pair of steeples: the smaller one on the right is flat-roofed and topped with a parapet, with an octet of tall, delicate-looking, round-arched windows in the upper level, while the larger one on the other side is a stout, rectangular clock tower whose huge conical spire makes St. Mary of Sorrows the tallest church on this tour, at 241 feet (72 meters). Interestingly enough, St. Mary of Sorrows' majestic rose windows are toward the rear of the building, tucked away behind a long, steep-roofed, barrel-vaulted nave: you'll see them on either side of the transept.
- In the early 1870s, when landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted ringed what was then the outskirts of Buffalo with an expansive system of parks and parkways, the verdant greenery immediately proved a magnet for Buffalo's aristocracy who built elegant country estates on the adjacent land. The Parade—today's Martin Luther King, Jr. Park; the eastern extremity of the network—was no exception, and so Humboldt Park became the new neighborhood of choice for the richest of Buffalo's East Side Germans. But there was one problem: the walk back west to St. Louis and St. Ann churches was a long one. The need for a new parish for the residents of Humboldt Park was obvious, and it was in 1872 when the Diocese assigned Father William Grundlach to found one—and it happened not a moment too soon. In these years the East Side's population was growing faster than ever before or since, and although the building was expanded twelve years after it was built to accommodate the newcomers, within a year it was standing room only again. So it was that, in 1886, the parish sent for Adolphus Druiding in Chicago to design a new, even larger St. Mary of Sorrows. Its construction took a full fifteen years to complete: the building's formal dedication didn't happen until 1901.
- When a fire gutted St. Mary of Sorrows' interior in 1947, the Humboldt Park area was still vibrant enough that the parish was fairly easily able to raise $500,000 from its community to reconstruct it. However, the shift away from that prosperity had already begun and would only intensify going forward: the well-off Germans were pushing further eastward and eventually past the city line, making way for poorer Eastern Europeans and, after 1950, African-Americans. The church soldiered on through the 1960s and '70s but eventually succumbed to the inevitable: there was only so much money in the Diocese's coffers, and floating the parish money to pay for the structural maintenance of a massive, ornate building that rarely accommodated more than a few dozen parishioners at a time was a more and more unsustainable paradigm. The final Mass at St. Mary of Sorrows happened in 1985, with demolition planned for the following year.
- But to lose one of the few buildings in the neighborhood untainted by blight would have been a devastating body blow to the already-reeling Humboldt Park. Community leaders were concerned—and luckily, they had the ear of the preservationist community. Together, they sprung into action. The first item on the agenda was to prevent demolition, which they successfully did in the summer of 1986 by convincing the city Preservation Board to name St. Mary of Sorrows a Buffalo Landmark. The next task—and a far more important and difficult one—was to figure out what to do with the building now that it was saved. Again, the city government's sympathetic assistance proved invaluable: they not only agreed to take ownership of the building and lease it back to the group for no charge, freeing it from the burden of property taxes so that all their funds could go toward preserving the building, but they were also instrumental in setting up a formal eight-person committee of local political figures, businesspeople, and community members that evolved to become the executive board of the King Urban Life Center, a new community organization whose task was to establish a wide gamut of educational programs that would take place there. By another stroke of luck, building inspectors found St. Mary of Sorrows to be in remarkably good condition structurally, which meant that—with the exception of some comparatively minor roof repairs and façade cleaning—the bulk of the funding the King Center had lined up could be used for those programs.
- In spite of it all, though, it was no mean feat for a small not-for-profit to keep the lights and heat on at this cavernous old building, and undertake daily maintenance. The King Center's modest budget was stretched to the limit, and they struggled to keep going. Salvation came in 2000, when Governor George Pataki cut the ribbon on the eponymous King Center Charter School, Buffalo's first, which would provide a quality education to hundreds of neighborhood children in the spirit intended by the community center—while its lease would provide its parent organization with a hefty $167,000 per year to use for its other educational programs, which would continue at its new home just across the street. With this arrangement in place, the King Urban Life Center grew into a dominant force in Humboldt Park, bringing its stretch of Genesee Street back to life with an expanded slate of community programs and in rehabilitating and finding tenants for many of the homes and buildings around the church. Though the charter school finally moved on to a larger building (the former Public School 71 in Delavan-Bailey) for the 2014-2015 school year, its legacy of a transformed neighborhood has proven an enduring shot in the arm to the King Center and its efforts. With a long and impressive list of accomplishments to its name and a higher profile in the community than ever before, the prognosis for the center finding a new tenant for the old St. Mary of Sorrows is decidedly positive.
Continue westward down Genesee Street (if you parked in the lot off Rich Street, turn right). The second traffic light you'll come to is at the corner of Jefferson Avenue. Turn right, pass onto the overpass above the Kensington Expressway, and continue northward for five more blocks.
Full Circle: Midtown and the Near East Side
Turn left on Best Street. This is the main drag of Masten Park, a onetime well-to-do German enclave of slightly earlier vintage than Humboldt Park that's now on its way back up again. After a bit more than half a mile (about one kilometer), the road will curve slightly to the right and you'll come to a traffic light. That's Main Street, Buffalo's traditional dividing line between East and West. Turn left and continue for half a block. On your left, you'll see the next stop on the tour. Park on Main Street or in the lot behind the church, accessible via Old Best Street.
- With the example of St. Gerard's, we saw that the question of how a historic building is preserved can rile the preservationist community almost as much as the prospect of it being demolished in the first place. 17 Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church (1115 Main St.) is a more recent example of the same phenomenon: in 2015, the long-closed church was the object of much controversy as the potential recipient of a historic preservation loan even though its new owner, Ellicott Development, had demolished parts of the complex including the former school and rectory buildings.
- Our Lady of Lourdes' design is an interesting one, executed by the local firm of A. E. Minks and Sons in a hybrid style that incorporates elements of the Romanesque and the Gothic: while the former is represented by the round arches that dominate the rusticated Medina sandstone façade and the overall stout, ponderous appearance of the building, the steeply pitched roof and the finials that sit ubiquitously atop the roof gables, dormer windows, and spires are more suggestive of the latter school. The Main Street side of the church features two distinctive asymmetrical spires, the taller of which is crowned by a steeply-pitched octagonal cupola with an open-work lantern on top, and once boasted niche statues of St. Peter and Our Lady of Lourdes made of imported Italian marble. Those handsome decorations, along with the matching hand-carved marble altar, full-relief Stations of the Cross, and exquisite interior murals, are all now lost—as are the majestic stained-glass windows, now boarded up.
- Though you'd never know from looking at it, the history of Our Lady of Lourdes stretches back further than any other East Side Catholic church. Its story begins in 1832, the same year that Buffalo was incorporated as a city—that's when Buffalo's very first Catholic church, Lamb of God, was established. A humble wood-frame building that looked rather like a barn, Lamb of God stood at the corner of Main and Edward Streets where St. Louis Catholic Church is now, and in its earliest years was attended by all of Buffalo's Catholics without regard to nationality: Germans, Irish, and French.
- But Lamb of God did not last long. From the outset, the congregation was plagued by bitter infighting over the church's leadership, financial affairs, and other factors, with factions split along ethnic lines. By 1850, Lamb of God had split into four congregations: the majority-Irish St. Patrick's at Broadway and Ellicott Street downtown (the site of the current Central Library), the German St. Louis and St. Mary Redemptorist, and St. Peter's French Catholic Church, which met in a pint-sized, red-brick converted commercial building on Lafayette Square for half a century, until it was demolished to make way for the Hotel Lafayette. The demolition came at an opportune time: throughout the last decade of the 19th century, it became clear that the building was too small to accommodate all the worshipers who showed up for Sunday Mass—and it was old and falling apart to boot. When the wrecking ball finally claimed Old St. Peter's in 1900, the congregation, now renamed Our Lady of Lourdes, had already been worshiping in their new Main Street church for several months. As the years wore on, the parish added on to their already impressive digs with a full redecoration of the interior in the 1920s and '30s.
- Being located in a neighborhood that did not fall nearly as far into the morass of blight and economic decline as many other East Side areas, it's conceivable that Our Lady of Lourdes might have been one of the survivors of the freefall years of the very late 20th century, when Catholic churches in this part of town were closing by the score, and lived to see the revival of its neighborhood at the beginning of the new millennium. But the kiss of death for the congregation was its small size. It's to be supposed that the reason such a large church was built for them was they assumed that their flock would continue growing, just as many East Side churches "grew into" buildings that were initially too big for them. But as a French church in a majority-German neighborhood, the size of Our Lady of Lourdes' congregation remained stable. So, even though it spent the 1970s and '80s going further than most churches in its double duty as a neighborhood cultural center (in addition to the usual slate of social activities, the complex also had a full-sized basketball court and even a bowling alley, "Lourdes Lanes"), Our Lady of Lourdes was among the first wave of the East Side church closures of the decades that bookended the year 2000: in 1993, along with three other Near East Side parishes—St. Matthew in Genesee-Moselle, St. Boniface in the Fruit Belt, and St. Benedict the Moor in Cold Spring—it petitioned Bishop Edward Head to merge the four of them into a new church, which continues on today on Northampton Street as St. Martin de Porres.
- By the time of Our Lady of Lourdes' closure, the building had already seen better days—and it didn't take long for the bottom to fall out after that. Stripped of its fine marble statuary and interior elements and all that beautiful stained glass, the plywood boards covering the old windows struggled to keep the rain and weather out from inside the gutted, rubble-strewn shell of the building. Through the end of the '90s and into the '00s, the church continued to fall apart in plain sight even as the neighborhood around it, now called Midtown, roused back to life as the middle ground between the burgeoning economic engine of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and the trendy neighborhoods of Allentown and the Elmwood Village. In 2005, it was purchased by an inner-city ministry organization with big plans for a community center for the surrounding neighborhood, but none of that came to pass—nor did anything come of an auction three years later that, despite the city's best efforts to talk up its prime location in the heart of Buffalo's revitalization, attracted no serious bids.
- So, all eyes were on local developer-cum-political rabblerouser Carl Paladino in 2010, when his firm, Ellicott Development, bought the church from the city. Never a popular figure among the preservationist community, who disdained the suburban-style designs his men came up with as blind to the history and unique urban character of Buffalo, their vague sense of trepidation for the church's future turned to howls of protest when Paladino submitted a request to the Buffalo Preservation Board a few months later to demolish the former rectory next to the church, having said nothing about his plans for the church itself and having only made vague references to "working with a couple of possible occupants for the school". Though the request was withdrawn a few days later for unknown reasons, the bulldozers and backhoes showed up on Main Street four years later to claim both rectory and school just as Paladino announced preliminary plans to convert the former church into twelve apartments. This presented the preservationists with an interesting dilemma—was Paladino to be condemned for compromising the integrity of the complex with the demolition of the outbuildings, or to be praised for at least preserving the church itself, which many thought he might not do?
- The plot thickened in March 2015, when Paladino applied for a historic preservation loan through the Buffalo Urban Development Corporation to help fund the church conversion. The fundamental question this begged—under what circumstances historic preservation can be reconciled with selective demolition—fed into and deepened the divide among the preservationist community, and though it became moot the following September when he abruptly reversed course and elected to pursue funding from other sources instead, those divisions reemerged in early 2017 with Paladino's belated unveiling of his complete plan for the Our Lady of Lourdes property: the church-turned-apartment building would be joined via a glass atrium to a six-story office and retail complex on the former site of the rectory, with a strikingly modern but (some preservationists complained) bland design very much in keeping with both Ellicott Development's house style and the "new look" that this stretch of Main Street has sported since the growth of the nearby Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus began in earnest in the beginning of the 2010s. As of this writing, construction is tentatively set to begin (pending final Planning Board approval) by early summer 2017, with completion around the end of 2018.
Continue south down Main Street to the next intersection (East North Street), where you'll turn left and then right at the next light (Michigan Avenue). You're now passing along the northern and eastern perimeter of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, a cooperative venture run by the University at Buffalo, Kaleida Health, and Roswell Park Cancer Institute that is profoundly changing the face of the Near East Side through the construction of major new healthcare and biomedical institutions that, by 2017, will provide well-paying employment to as many as 17,000 Buffalonians. You've likely already seen the spillover effects in neighborhoods like Masten Park and the Fruit Belt, where Civil War-era brick Victorian cottages are gradually being spruced up to their former glory and old factories and warehouses are being converted to new upscale apartments marketed to medical professionals.
Continue south past the Kensington Expressway overpass for another half mile (800 meters). This stretch of Michigan Avenue has been designated by the city as the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor, which preserves many of the historic places and sites significant to the history of Buffalo's black community. The most important of these sites is the next and last stop on our itinerary—you'll see it on your left half a block past Broadway. Off-street parking can be had in the lot at the southwest corner of Michigan and Broadway.
- The 18 Michigan Street Baptist Church (511 Michigan Ave.) is the last stop on our tour, and it's symbolic of a new phase in the East Side's history that brought an end to the era when white Catholics dominated the demographic landscape there. For as long as the East Side has existed, it's played host to an African-American community—in fact, Michigan Street Baptist is the oldest church on the entire itinerary—but until the early 20th century it was a tiny one, confined to a few square blocks centered on Vine Alley (what is today the stretch of William Street between Oak Street and Michigan Avenue). However, that would change in a big way as the 20th century dawned, and African-Americans began to press outward, displacing the Germans and Poles who began moving to the suburbs in droves after World War II.
- Michigan Street Baptist Church is a place of superlatives: it was Buffalo's first African-American congregation (in existence from at least 1838); it's the oldest continuously black-owned property in the city (erected in 1847); it was led for many years by the Rev. Dr. J. Edward Nash, the most prominent civil rights leader locally; and it is today the centerpiece of the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor. The only thing that's not remarkable about it is the building itself—it's a simple, two-story red brick structure of no particular architectural distinction, with a shallow-pitched roof and wide round-arched windows facing Michigan Avenue.
- The Michigan Street Baptist Church grew out of First Baptist Church, a majority-white congregation on Washington Street that Buffalo's small black community attended largely by default. It was in 1836 when Elisha Tucker, a prominent African-American member of the congregation, hit on the idea to split the black contingent off into a church of their own. The first seven years in the history of what was then called Second Baptist Church were a time of penury: unable to afford a building of their own, the flock worshiped under a rapid succession of ministers in a rented room above an undertaker's office. It wasn't until Samuel Davis ascended to the role of pastor that a measure of stability came to the congregation: a mason by trade, in doing much of the construction work himself his congregation was able to afford to build on the vacant lot on Michigan Avenue that they'd purchased earlier. In 1844 the cornerstone to the newly renamed Michigan Street Baptist Church was laid.
- In the years before the Civil War, Buffalo's African-American community was small but of pivotal importance: located adjacent to the border with Canada, Buffalo was the staging point for many escaped slaves' final push to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and the large and active local abolitionist community worked hand in hand with the blacks of Vine Alley to ensure safe lodging and passage for the escapees. Reverend Davis and his congregation played a starring role in the proceedings: he was well-known for his outspokenness on behalf of the African-Americans of the day, having written an antislavery declaration into the charter of his church, having been a delegate to the National Negro Convention of 1843, and being the leader of a church whose members were mostly former slaves themselves. The Niagara Frontier contains almost two dozen sites known to have served as "stations" on the Underground Railroad—and there were likely many more in addition to that—but the Michigan Street Baptist Church is the best-known of all of them. Escaped slaves were kept hidden in a room in the church's basement by day, then ferried across the Niagara River from Unity Island under cover of night.
- Of course, the Civil War put an end to slavery in the United States once and for all, but the Michigan Street Baptist Church continued to retain its position at the forefront of the local civil rights movement. Rev. Davis was succeeded at the pulpit by J. Edward Nash, Sr., a son of freed slaves native to Virginia who was still a young man when he ascended to his post in 1892. Rev. Nash quickly made a name for himself as the unquestioned leader of Buffalo's African-American community, whose access to leaders of the national civil rights movement of the day, such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and especially his classmate and friend, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was unmatched locally. Remarkably, Rev. Nash was also able to forge relationships with Buffalo's political and business elites—a domain largely off-limits to blacks in the early 20th century—which he put to good use in founding the local chapters of the National Urban League and the NAACP and in leading community betterment efforts through the church. And, perhaps most of all, Nash was a consummate diplomat who mediated both between the black community and the white establishment as well as between opposing factions within the black community, always advocating for the members of his congregation and community who were victimized by the racism that infested the era.
- As for Buffalo's African-American community in general, Nash's long tenure as pastor of Michigan Street Baptist Church coincided with a period of explosive growth in it: the black population of Buffalo increased during that time from 1,200 individuals to over 40,000. During that time, the whole country was undergoing a Great Migration of African-Americans fleeing segregation and racism in the South and attracted by the easy availability of jobs in Northern industrial centers like Buffalo. While conditions in the North were markedly better than where they came from, racism did exist in Buffalo to a considerable degree, and the arrival of blacks in large numbers ignited deep-seated tensions. Spurred on by prejudicial practices in the real estate community such as redlining, through which real estate agents and mortgage lenders conspired to effectively prohibit African-Americans from buying houses or renting apartments west of Main Street while at the same time openly encouraging white buyers to avoid the East Side, the German and Polish residents of the old East Side quickly began to abandon any neighborhood they perceived as being taken over by blacks (a phenomenon known as white flight). The civil unrest of the 1960s and the overall decline of Buffalo's economy during the same period only served to accelerate the process, and by the end of the century, the face of Buffalo as a whole and the East Side in particular had been changed profoundly.
- After six decades at the pulpit, Rev. Nash stepped down as pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church in 1953. His retirement was a gala event—culminating in the Buffalo Common Council renaming Potter Street, which ran behind the church and was the street the pastor lived on, in his honor—and was truly a turning point in the history of the church and the East Side in general. As Buffalo's black community continued to push outward, the neighborhoods closest to downtown—including the Michigan Avenue area—began to simply empty out. In fact, as the '50s wore on into the '60s, many half-abandoned Near East Side neighborhoods were summarily demolished in the name of urban renewal in order to make way for the public housing projects that in those days were viewed as a panacea for inner-city social ills, and soon many of the families who had attended Michigan Street Baptist Church for generations found themselves forced to move to faraway neighborhoods. With heavy hearts, the congregation began to plan for a move to a different building, and in 1964 the first service at their new Humboldt Parkway location was held. The old Michigan Street Baptist Church was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and spent most of that decade and the following one as the temporary home of another Baptist congregation, the Macedonia Baptist Church, but it had been vacant for some time by 2012, when it came under the umbrella of the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor, a not-for-profit community group set up to preserve and celebrate the historical sites important to Buffalo's black history. Now fully restored to its original appearance, the Michigan Street Baptist Church has been preserved as a historic site that's a testimony to the enduring community it helped build.
Backtrack northward half a block along Michigan Avenue until you reach Broadway. You're now back to the starting point of the itinerary.
The East Side is notorious among Buffalonians as a cesspool of crime, but is the reality as bad as its reputation suggests? Yes and no.
First off, while poverty and blight are endemic across the East Side, that doesn't always translate to high crime rates. In other words, just because you're in a neighborhood that's visibly rundown doesn't necessarily mean you're in danger. Secondly, and more importantly, it's important to understand that most of the violent crime on the East Side is committed against locals. Assuming you're not a gang member or involved in the drug trade, you have very little to worry about as you are not a target. Property crimes are another story entirely: theft and vehicle break-ins are common in many of the areas you'll be passing through, so when you park your car to get a closer look at one of these architectural marvels, use common sense as you would in any urban area: lock your doors and keep any valuables out of sight.
The surface condition of East Side streets varies considerably, and tends to be especially bad on side streets. Be vigilant when it comes to potholes.
If the East Side's roster of magnificent old churches wasn't enough for you, then you'll be happy to know that there are many more to admire all over the area.
- Just beyond Buffalo's southern border is Lackawanna, a working-class industrial city that's the somewhat unlikely location of the most magnificent church in the entire Buffalo area, Our Lady of Victory Basilica. A Baroque Revival masterpiece completed in 1926 to a design by Emile Ulrich, it stands today as a testament to the charitable works of Father Nelson Baker, who as of this writing is being considered for sainthood by the Holy See.
- Downtown also has quite a few magnificent churches, including St. Joseph's Cathedral on Franklin Street that serves as the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, as well as St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, a National Historic Landmark that's one of the best-known designs of Richard Upjohn—the architect whose magnificent body of work, more than anyone else's, popularized the Gothic Revival style in the United States.
- Aside from being home to many of the Germans and (especially) Poles that fled the East Side in the middle 20th century, Cheektowaga is also where you'll find the Maria Hilf Chapel, a local pilgrimage site established in 1853 by Alsatian immigrant Joseph Batt as a tribute to Our Lady Help of Christians, whom he credited for his family's survival after the ship they were taking to America found itself caught in a hurricane.