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Slated for demolition, a 19th-century neo-Gothic church gets an 11th-hour reprieve, but time is running out to find a new buyer.
BY PETER JESSERER SMITH
BUFFALO, N.Y. — The soaring neo-Gothic edifice of St. Ann’s Church — deemed too expensive to be repaired, and too unsafe to let stand by the Buffalo Diocese — has found an 11th-hour reprieve from the wrecking ball, thanks to the efforts of a devoted group of parishioners.
But time is running out for St. Ann’s, as diocesan officials and local preservationists try to find a developer that will save this city’s icon of immigrant faith from destruction.
Built by German immigrants in 1886, St. Ann’s ranks among Buffalo’s most beautiful churches. The church reflects the Gothic beauty of churches from immigrants’ native Germany, with towers that once stood 200-feet tall, high vaulted ceilings, ornate woodwork and 35 beautiful stained-glass windows adorn the sanctuary. [A virtual panoramic tour of the church is available here.]
“It’s a pretty amazing structure, there’s no doubt about that,” said Martin Ederer, a history professor at Buffalo State College and St. Ann’s parishioner. “It was one of the biggest parishes in Buffalo in its time.”
But this symbol of Catholic faith has deteriorated along with the surrounding neighborhood on Broadway Ave. Both the adjacent convent and the elementary school, where the sisters once taught 2,200 students, are now empty. St. Ann’s has been shuttered since April 2012, when Bishop Edward Kmiec said the church was structurally too dangerous to be used even as a temporary worship site.
The move was a hard blow for the former parishioners of St. Ann’s, who had appealed the consolidation of their parish with Sts. Columba and Brigid parish under canon law since 2007. And for a brief time in August, it appeared all but certain that St. Ann’s was headed for demolition.
Kevin Keenan, spokesman for the Diocese of Buffalo, told the Register that razing St. Ann’s was the “last decision” Bishop Richard Malone (who succeeded Bishop Kmiec in August 2012) wanted to make. He said the diocese had been unsuccessful finding a buyer, and the estimated $8 million-$12 million to repair the church was too steep a price for the diocese.
“And that’s a very conservative number,” Keenan said. “That is money the diocese doesn’t have and money the parish responsible for the church doesn’t have.”
Ederer, who heads a committee of former St. Ann’s parishioners dedicated to saving St. Ann’s, takes a different view and said their estimates showed the cost to make the building safe — not a full restoration — is closer to $500,000, and the parishioners have raised half that sum.
“This is something that is important culturally and religiously, and all efforts should be expended to try and save it,” he said.
Plans to demolish St. Ann’s are now on hold, while the diocese works with a local preservation society to broker the sale of St. Ann’s and the surrounding complex before the onset of winter.
“The sooner someone is able to take over that building and start stabilizing and restoring it, the better,” Keenan said.
Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara (PBN), told the Register that the idea is to sell St. Ann’s church, convent and school complex to a buyer who would preserve St. Ann’s and find a commercial use for the other properties.
“We have done those kinds of things for other religious congregations in the Buffalo-Niagara community,” Yots said.
Yots explained that St. Ann’s parishioners had approached him about ways PBN could work to preserve St. Ann’s. Yots then reached out to Keenan, a longtime friend, who in turn proposed the idea to Bishop Malone of PBN brokering the sale of the church, school and convent to a developer, and that way save the church.
PBN has invited a developer with experience in transforming religious complexes like St. Ann’s into commercial ventures to evaluate the property. Yots said PBN has also reached out to contacts with the University of Buffalo and the business community.
“We believe that if we found the right developer, those buildings could be redeveloped in a way that would produce an income and allow the church building to remain preserved as it is,” Yots said.
He pointed out that the convent and the school could be rehabilitated into housing and apartments, and space could even be transformed into a restaurant. Yots speculated that the church could serve as a cultural center — something that has been done with other churches — with the worship space and religious artifacts untouched, and host concerts, lectures and exhibits.
“In New York state, you can get up to a 40% tax credit for historic preservation rehabs, if there is going to be a commercial use,” Yots said. “That’s a very high incentive.”
Catholic No Longer
Whatever the outcome of the next few weeks, it appears that St. Ann’s will no longer have a future as a Catholic church.
“The days of [St. Ann’s] being a Catholic church are behind it,” Keenan said.
Keenan said the diocese did not have a potential buyer from a religious order when St. Ann’s was last on the market, which could have kept it a functioning Catholic church. He said the Conventual Franciscans had sold Corpus Christi parish to the Pauline fathers, but noted that the church “was in decent condition,” and he doubted any religious order would absorb the costs needed to restore St. Ann’s.
Yots said that St. Ann’s could become a new home to another Christian congregation and that, as a cultural center, it might be able to play host to visiting clergy and weddings. But the important thing, he noted, was that PBN and the diocese find a buyer for St. Ann’s before the church is too far gone.
He said, “Everybody has to be prepared that we’re going to roll up our sleeves and make this work.”
Even if all parties succeed in saving St. Ann’s from demolition, its end as a Catholic church has a note of tragedy.
“People build buildings, and people make sacrifices for buildings,” Ederer said. “The Church is about people, but the building is a physical embodiment of what that group of people is.”
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.