When we find someplace that we want to visit that is more than an hour drive, we typically try to make a day trip out of it and see as much as possible at once. It’s no secret that Buffalo and the surrounding area is scattered with architectural gems; each time we visit we end up seeing three or four things and it still seems like we haven’t even scratched the surface of the list of places we want to go. On one cold, rainy and grey Saturday in early November we made just that kind of trip and spent the day meeting new people and seeing new places in Buffalo.
After touring around all morning we made our way in to the historic Black Rock neighborhood which is in the Northwest section of the city and at one time was its own municipality. In 1820 Black Rock battled the City of Buffalo to be the spot where the Erie Canal ended. We now know the City of Buffalo won that fight and Black Rock was later absorbed by the city. In addition to being the former home of a U.S. Congressman, an American poet and a U.S. Secretary of War, it’s also home to Nick’s Place, a Greek greasy spoon where we grabbed a quick bite in the middle of our long day. This of course isn’t a food blog, but allow me to recommend the “Nick’s Plate” which includes hot dogs, scrambled eggs, peppers, onions, cheese and a meat hot sauce on top of home fries–you’ll have to bring your own Tums though. Just a few minutes from Nick’s was our final destination for the day, and after slamming a couple diner coffees we drove a few blocks to a spot that has been on our list for quite a while, and we met up with our new friend Bill at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center.
Like many of the Erie Canal cities, Buffalo was largely was settled in neighborhoods of ethnicities. The Germans didn’t go to an Italian church, they built their own. The Irish wouldn’t have anything to do with anything related to Britain, so they built their own churches too. Additionally, the Polish built their own churches and…you get the point–national and cultural pride meant you worshipped with your own kind. Later on in the mid-1900′s people began to move outward from the city centers and suburbs began to absorb the population that left behind these cavernous, expansive examples of hard work and national pride. Many have survived and some even continue to prosper, but even more have been closed. In 2007, the strapped-for-cash Diocese of Buffalo enacted a solution to remedy the overabundance of unused churches and labeled the plan “Journey In Faith And Grace” and started to lock doors of churches that had been operational in some cases since the 1800′s. Some were repurposed as something entirely different, some were later re-opened at the request of parishioners, one in particular is currently on the chopping block despite the behest of the congregation and neighborhood, and some remain shuttered and available for purchase. One of the churches closed in Black Rock became the stuff that religious historians dream of–a museum!!
St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church has a long and important history for the Black Rock neighborhood. The neighborhood was primarily a German one, and though the Germans had the ability to walk either downtown or to St. John’s Chapel for worship, the biggest upset for them was not having a suitable school in their backyards that could provide a moral upbringing in addition to secular educational studies. In 1847 twelve individuals gathered and rented a room to begin setting up a school for their children. Only a year later a plot of land was purchased for just $300 at 157 East Street, and the history that Luke and I sought out that day would begin being written.
After just two years of first being founded, the news spread to Bishop John Timon, and he insisted that Reverend Bernard Fritsch go pay a visit to the Germans on East Street and check things out at the school. When the report deemed that things were looking good, the Diocese convinced the school to add a small chapel and join with the Diocese, which became home to the first mass on that location on December 3, 1849. December 3 isn’t just the first mass of the church, but it’s also the Feast of Saint Francis Xavier, and the day that the parish was granted mission status by the Diocese. The first building was a simple house looking dwelling, but the parish quickly outgrew it, and soon built their second church on the same spot in the early 1850′s. Toward the close of the 19th century it became clear that they were outgrowing those walls as well.
In 1911 the parish began to build the final version of the St. Francis Xavier Church and School. The Romanesque Revival building stood complete by 1913, and featured marble columns, Medina whirlpool stone, rose windows, stained-glass in the transepts, a tiled roof and unique pier buttresses between the windows. For the following century this religious work of art was home to a prospering congregation that was proud of its neighborhood and heritage. But as the ‘White Flight’ phenomenon of the latter part of the 1900′s took hold, the building would find itself on the auction block as part of the Diocese’s ‘Journey In Faith And Grace’ mentioned earlier. The final mass at St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church was held on August 26, 2007 and the doors were closed forever…..sorta.
A group of local Buffalonians who each on their own had been studying and looking to preserve the city’s religious history and culture (sound like a couple of guys you know??) banded together and formed a group looking to find a permanent home that would allow them to have a brick and mortar museum dedicated to exactly that mission. Less than a year after St. Francis Xavier closed its doors, the Buffalo Religious Arts Center opened them back up. One of the founding members of the group, Bill Koch, met us to show us around and spend some time letting us talk his ear off.
The group came together in early 2008 and raised the funds to unlock the doors and establish the center “to collect and preserve fine art from the many houses of worship that have closed their doors in the Western New York area. The Art Center is one of the first galleries in the United States housed in a former church and dedicated to the preservation of religious art.” Since then, the center has received pieces from different houses of worship from around Buffalo and Rochester and includes everything from stained glass, statuaries, candelabras, murals, baptismal fonts, and even some items from the Jewish faith. Bill took a lot of time to walk through each of the items around the entire church and provided us a really unique look into both the history of the church itself, and the group’s mission to preserving religious and cultural history from the surrounding area. Having been one of the founding members of the center, his decades of study and personal devotion to religious history in Buffalo was one we were pretty stoked to have tapped in to. He did however get pulled away at one point, to meet with a bride-and-groom to be. The BRAC is available to host your special day, and they have been hosting a few weddings a year on average. We are always happy to explore on our own, so we spent time reading each of the museum like plaques next to each item, indicating their name and original location before being donated to the center.
Things like weddings, the $10.00 entry fee to tour the center, fund-raising efforts, a small gift shop and grants are all part of the necessary means to maintain a space like this. When churches sell they are often for way less than one might imagine. It’s not uncommon for a church like this one to sell for around $100,000–because, who’s gonna buy a huge church, right?? What’s important to plan for when buying a church though is maintenance costs. Leaking roofs, crumbling bell towers, architectural infrastructure, and potentially even more costly: utilities. Bill told us that it was important to not let the heat in the museum drop below 50 degrees to establish an environment that would allow the artwork inside to maintain itself over time. In Upstate NY maintaining a temperature of 50 degrees can occasionally be tough–the most costly of those utility bills for the center was $5,000 in a single month!!
After Bill finished his meeting with the bride-and-groom to be, he rejoined us and began right where he had left off without missing a single detail. It was a great feeling to be in a space where like-minded people were pouring their dedication in to what once was a hobby and had now become a calling. Precisely one of the reasons we began this blog was to see and experience the incredibly unique architecture and history of New York’s religious past and these people had taken the same curious inquisitions that Luke and I have and turned it into an outstanding effort toward preservation, education and cultural pride. We left and began our trek back to Rochester feeling like we had spent a day meeting really incredible people and looking through a window into the religious past of Buffalo, and feeling grateful for those opportunities and the efforts of others. If we don’t get to cross paths in person with Bill again, hopefully he’ll read this so let us again say thanks for your dedication and taking time out of your Saturday to hang with us!!!