St. Ann’s Still Stands: Vatican Rules U.S. Diocese Can’t Close Inner-City Church

The new ruling gives hope to parishioners that their church can be restored and reopened, but cuts off the diocese from pursuing secular uses as another avenue to save the iconic church from demolition.

St. Ann's Church in Buffalo, N.Y.
St. Ann's Church in Buffalo, N.Y. (photo:

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A long-shot appeal to the Vatican has given a small band of parishioners in Buffalo, N.Y., a chance to save their church as a worship site, after it had been closed by the local diocese.

The Jan. 7 decree handed down from the Congregation of Clergy states that St. Ann’s Church and Shrine, located on Broadway Avenue in Buffalo, cannot be sold or repurposed for profane use. The Buffalo Diocese had closed St. Ann’s as part of a parish consolidation process and was seeking to sell the church, convent and school complex to a private developer for secular uses, after judging that an estimated $8 million-12 million price tag to repair and restore it was something the diocese could not afford.

“We’re elated. We felt like we were on Cloud 9 when the decision came in,” said Carol Robinson, co-chair of the Save St. Ann’s group that has been fighting to keep the church present in Buffalo’s inner-city as an active Catholic parish.

St. Ann’s Church and Shrine, a beautiful neo-Gothic structure located in the heart of the city, has been the center of a contentious and emotional battle between its loyal band of parishioners and a financially stressed diocese.

The church has also become a rallying point for the city itself. The Buffalo Common Council, community leaders and public figures declared their support for St. Ann’s after the diocese announced last fall that, without a buyer for the property, the wrecking ball was the only future for St. Ann’s.

“St. Ann’s is an important part of our community. The church’s story has helped shape the stories of many families in the city of Buffalo,” said state Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who has been one of the local public figures who have called on Buffalo to support efforts to save the church.

“With the decision from the Vatican, St. Ann’s will remain standing, and, now, we must keep working hard to ensure St. Ann’s remains standing as a beacon of hope for the city of Buffalo.”


Diocese Efforts on Hold

The canonical decision in favor of the parishioners against the diocese, however, cuts off a major avenue to save the church edifice.

“What this [decree] means is that the diocese is prohibited from selling the property to a developer who may repurpose the property,” said Kevin Keenan, spokesman for Bishop Richard Malone.

The diocese had been working with the organization Preservation Buffalo-Niagara (PBN) to find potential developers to take over the St. Ann’s complex. The effort would save the church but put it to uses other than a worship site.

Now, those efforts to sell the church have hit a dead-end with the Vatican decree, unless it is overturned on appeal.

Bishop Malone has written the Congregation for the Clergy and asked them to reconsider their decision.

If the decision stands, Keenan told the Register that Bishop Malone intends to appeal the case to the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of appeal in the Church other than the pope himself. The Vatican court is currently presided over by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke.

“We’ve had studies done, and the cost estimates are between $8-$12 million to not only stabilize the building, but also to restore it,” Keenan said. “That is money the diocese certainly doesn’t have.”

“The diocese needs to be using its finances to serve the mission of the Church, and that is to serve people and reach out to those in need,” he said.


Evangelize or Parishes Perish

Keenan said that the Buffalo Diocese has a “significant footprint” throughout the city, with four Catholic colleges and a variety of robust ministries.

However, he added that “the traditional parish presence is changing, and that is because there are not enough parishioners and not enough potential resources.”

Keenan said the survival of inner-city parishes will largely rest with their determination to reach out to the surrounding community and effectively evangelize.

“Evangelization has been the priority of Bishop Malone’s episcopacy since he came here in 2012, and it is incumbent on Catholic parishes all over the diocese … to evangelize, to invite and welcome people into the parishes and to help to rebuild this [local] Church.”

But St. Ann’s capacity to evangelize is in doubt. Bishop Malone has ruled out the possibility of it ever again being a worship site.

For the St. Ann’s community, it’s a frustrating situation. Robinson said they approached Bishop Malone with multiple ideas for restoring the church and staffing it, including a proposal to invite a religious order to take charge of it and make St. Ann’s a mission to the deteriorated neighborhood.

“They wouldn’t go in that direction,” Robinson said. “They kept telling us, ‘No, it isn’t going to be a church.’”

She says that the Save St. Ann’s group “would like to see St. Ann’s being used as a church again.” Robinson added that the school and the convent on the campus could have a variety of uses, from apartment complexes to a veteran’s center or academic institution.


Past Precedent

If Buffalo residents are looking for someone who knows how Catholic schools can be key to an inner-city church’s revival, they should talk to Mary McDonald. Currently the CEO of the educational consulting firm MCD Partners, McDonald is the former superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., where efforts to strengthen schools helped revitalize that city’s urban center.

McDonald said the rebirth of Catholic “Jubilee schools,” beginning in 1998, made a real impact on the community, especially in some of the poorest zip codes in Memphis. Neighborhoods long afflicted with the blight of gangs, prostitution and boarded-up store fronts were turned around, families made a more established presence, others moved into the area and some began urban gardens.

McDonald said one local priest told her that he thought he “was sent here to watch this church die” and was thankful that his parish was now growing and thriving and able to support itself, thanks to the school.

“Our very presence empowered the neighborhood to get better,” she said, pointing out that the presence of the church and school provides an anchor for communities, without which they go adrift.

McDonald believes something similar can happen in Buffalo. She believes that St. Ann’s Church and the existing school complex present a “goldmine” of possibilities to evangelize and lift up the neighborhood if the church and school were restored.

According to McDonald, philanthropists and investors who consider themselves “social entrepreneurs” are key to putting life back into churches and schools. The key to attracting them is to ensure them that their dollars will make a long-term difference.

“Money follows the mission,” she said. “People do not donate; they invest.”


A Focus on Fundraising

In the short term, the St. Ann’s community is focused on aggressively raising funds to repair and restore the church.

David Hirschbane, who is Jewish but whose wife is a long-standing Catholic parishioner, pointed out that the Vatican decree was based partially on the fact that the church “can be repaired in 10-20 years.”

He said that Save St. Ann’s has now obtained nonprofit status, a designation that will make it easier for them to fundraise. Before the decree, the group didn’t raise much money, out of fear that they would have to return the money if a decision went against them.

“According to our attorney, there is a very small chance this ruling could be reversed; but there’s always a chance,” he said. “We’re very confident we’re going to win.”

The St. Ann’s community and the diocese have dueling evaluations and estimates on how much the repairs will cost, but Hirschbine believes the diocese’s figures reflect the total cost of restoration over time. He said their plan will be first to focus on repairing the key structures, such as the roof and the West Tower.

“The building, right now, as far as we know, is watertight,” he said.

The engineers contracted by the diocese to evaluate St. Ann's take a different view. Their report alleges the main building's high gutter has "numerous leaks” resulting in water seeping into the exterior masonry walls, and causing further damage. It also said water intrusion was a cause of major damage in the West Tower, and in the belfry, where "[e]xcessive water intrusion has badly rotted the wood in many areas."*

Robinson said the group will utilize its website, Facebook account and mailing lists to maximize the fundraising effort. The group also relies on the fundraising strategy of outsiders who have taken an interest in preserving St. Ann’s.

Sen. Kennedy said that he was urging Buffalo’s community leaders to apply “creativity” and “work hard” to the fundraising effort to make sure that St. Ann’s will be there for future generations.

“Our community has relied on the faith fostered at St. Ann’s during times of need, and, now, St. Ann’s is relying on us,” he said. “Community leaders, business leaders, investors and others have expressed their admiration for St. Ann’s — now all of us should work to find ways to repair, restore and return the church as an open, welcoming and inspiring place of worship.”

*Editor's note: This information was added as an update to the original story. 

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.

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