After reading an article in The Buffalo News in September 2007 about the many churches in the city of Buffalo, N.Y., slated to close during the massive reorganization of parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo, Mary Holland felt compelled to visit each one of the churches and get involved with the closing Masses.
“As I sat in these churches, I thought how sad it was for the people,” said Holland. “Then I thought, What’s going to happen to the artwork, stained glass and statues?”
Holland had recently viewed the movie The Rape of Europa, which described how people in World War II Europe saw the importance of preserving artwork and other church artifacts. They removed these items and hid them from the Nazi regime so that the items could be enjoyed by future generations. She saw a parallel to the closing of the churches in her diocese: “If no one in Buffalo stepped forward to save these items as the churches closed, many items would most likely be sold out of the area.”
A visit to the renowned E. B. Smith Stained Glass Art Museum in Chicago prompted Holland to start a similar facility in Buffalo. In 2008 she founded the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. Located in the former St. Francis Xavier Church, which closed in 2007, the mission of the center is to preserve the rich artistic and historic legacy of Buffalo’s immigrant religious and cultural heritage.
The building, a circa 1912 Roman basilica-style church, was the perfect location, according to Holland, who serves as director of the center. “It’s just off the expressway, easy to find, close to downtown and in the historic Black Rock neighborhood,” she said. The church was considered the “mother parish” of all the Black Rock Catholic parishes.
I had the opportunity to visit the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, along with several other churches with exceptional stained-glass windows, on the annual “Splendors in Stained Glass” bus tour offered by Buffalo Tours last December. This tour included a stop at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, lunch and visits to several other churches with notable stained-glass windows.
Our tour guide, Bill Koch, has been conducting tours of Buffalo churches since 1985.
“Buffalo has a rich ethnic heritage, and the settlers brought their style of churches from the Old Country,” said Koch. “They were working people who gave their extra funds to the church — a place that they could enjoy physically as well as spiritually.” He added, “Buffalo is a unique city that has such fantastic architecture; the churches in the city are so spectacular.”
That same thought was echoed by one of my fellow travelers, Ann Wik. “You just don’t realize what a rich area this is in terms of history and architecture,” said Wik. “It had been a long time since I visited this area of Buffalo, and I was really amazed at the overwhelming beauty of the churches, not only for the stained glass, but also for the woodworking.” Wik, who has traveled to Europe, added, “They were as beautiful and grand as some of the churches I saw in Germany and Austria. I am so pleased that there is a group tirelessly working to preserve the beauty of these churches and the rich art and history of these communities.”
As our group entered the arts center, the first thing that caught our attention was the mural work behind the altar. The upper level depicts the Holy Trinity, while the central portion portrays St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary. The lower level of the mural features other saints and the apostles.
Stained-glass windows, however, are the most unique feature of the center. Only a handful of churches in the world have windows like these, which depict the Stations of the Cross. They were crafted in Munich, Germany, by F.X. Zettler. Koch pointed out the pieces of wood affixed to the upper crosses in the windows.
Since the center opened, Holland and her staff of mostly volunteers have acquired items from more than 45 churches. The Buffalo Religious Arts Center is one of the first museums that specializes in artifacts from closed churches.
When a church closes, the items from that church first go to other churches in the area that remain open. Items that those churches do not choose to keep are sold to other churches or priests, and then the remaining items are made available to the arts center. Sometimes the items are donated, and other times they must purchase the items.
So far the center has 51 windows, including several from the now-closed Queen of Peace Church. Six of these windows are mounted in frames that are backlit; several are displayed in the confessionals. “All these windows are stunning; stained glass as an art form is unique,” said Holland. “We also have over 100 items in storage awaiting restoration, including statues, crosses, artwork and windows.”
While the majority of items in the center are from Catholic churches that have closed, they accept items from any faith. “We will preserve anything sacred from any church,” said Holland. “When Temple Beth El closed, we acquired a monument with the Ten Commandments in wood and brass and a Star of David.”
Holland said that plans are in the works to do more bus tours through Buffalo Tours, including several during the summer.
Sandy Eichelberger, who also went on the tour this past December, summed it up best: “The stained-glass tour was a feast for the eyes, plus the historical commentary was filled with fascinating details about early settlements, architecture and ethnic groups in Buffalo.” She added, “There is no better way to spend an afternoon than revisiting the beauty and grandeur of Buffalo’s heyday and coming to an appreciation of how important it is to preserve these historical landmarks and learn the story of our area’s cultural heritage.”
Christine A. Smyczynski writes from Getzville, New York.