Chris and I have met some fantastic people on our journeys and we have always been astounded by the sheer number of activists in Buffalo, New York and more specifically those activists who take a keen interest in the history of the Polonia neighborhood. If you have never read our blog before then you may not know that we have made an effort to visit several of these Polonia churches because they are simply spectacular pieces of architecture and history. But you may also not know that several of them have come upon hard times in the last few decades, with some being shut down and others experiencing dwindling membership. Thanks to the concerted and long lasting efforts of the Polonia activists, some of the churches are experiencing a bit of a renaissance; in fact just this week our friend Greg Witul wrote a fantastic article in the Am-Pol Eagle explaining some of this, which you can read more about here. We came to learn (and continue to learn) about the history of this neighborhood in a piece meal sort of way, which first started during our visit to St. Adalbert’s Basilica (which if you have not read yet just click here). After we posted our visit to St. Adalbert’s, we received a wonderful comment from Ms. Judith Felski who invited us to visit St. John Kanty Roman Catholic Church, of which she is a member. Well, it took us a year but we finally got there and in the meantime, St. John Kanty has received a ton of publicity, in part due to the Buffalo Mass Mob and a brand new statue of the Virgin Mary in its front lawn.
Judith, who actually goes by Judy, invited Chris and I to come eat lunch with her so we could experience some traditional Polish food and she would then show us around the church a bit and we of course agreed. We met Judy in the St. John Kanty parking lot and she invited us to come inside the parish house where we were introduced to Judy’s husband John and also Monsignor Robert Golombek, who is a former Pastor of St. John Kanty and who also grew up on Swinburne St, right near the church. I think some people are surprised to learn that two random guys from Rochester, NY make it a hobby to travel to different houses of worship across the state, but the company we were sitting with seemed to love it, making the discussion quite enjoyable. In addition, we also discussed the Polonia neighborhood and how it has changed over the decades and all three of the people we were sitting with could remember the “better days,” that had once existed. Lunch was also served as we talked, which was quite a sampling of Polish cuisine that included golabki, kielbasa, pierogies, cabbage and sauerkraut…and it was delicious! We eventually finished up eating, cleaned up a bit and were then asked if we were ready for our tour. You don’t have to ask us twice!
With a little help from Chris Byrd (who is perhaps the biggest activist of the Buffalo Polonia neighborhood, the author of the blog Broadway-Fillmore Alive and one of the four creators of the Buffalo Mass Mob), here’s a brief history: In 1873, the “Mother Church of Buffalo Polonia“, known as St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Church was created. Because of this, the Polish who would use Buffalo as a place of respite as they traveled to more established cities with Polish neighborhoods and work, like Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit, were beginning to make roots in Buffalo and calling it home. This church was the first to house the spiritual needs of the quickly growing Polish population in the Broadway-Fillmore area of the city, but shortly thereafter, several other Polish churches began to emerge as well. As more and more Poles settled in this specific area of the city, they had to move further and further east, making the walk to St. Stanislaus farther and farther away. In addition to the lack of space at St. Stanislaus, many Poles also had to walk across the dangerous railroad tracks lying in between them and their destination, causing several injuries and even some fatalities. It was in 1890 that land was bought on the east side of the train tracks to start a new parish and in 1892 the brand new St. John Kanty Roman Catholic Church was officially opened.
As we walked inside the sanctuary of St. John Kanty, we came in through the parish house and entered from the side of the Main Altar, therefore looking towards the choir loft and main entry. My eyes immediately went to the nearly life size sculpture of The Last Supper attached to the choir balcony. I immediately remembered that Judy had shared with us a bit of information about this sculpture when she originally emailed us a year prior to invite us for a tour and that the artist was actually from Rochester, NY. Here’s a snippet from that email of what Judy shared with us about the sculpture: “…There is an interesting link to Rochester at SJK, and that is our life size wooden sculpture of The Last Supper carved by Rochester artist Frank Pedevilla. This sculpture was in the original church (1892) but not put in place as part of the altar until around 1905. The story goes that someone was in Rochester and saw the sculpture in a store window and thought it would be perfect for SJK. The sculpture was originally commissioned by the Church of Notre Dame in Montreal, but when it came to paying the duty to cross the border to Canada, there was not enough funding to cover it. A devastating fire which started in the crèche took place in January 1955 causing a great deal of damage to SJK. Miraculously, The Last Supper sculpture was not damaged. After the fire the sculpture was relocated as a front piece of the choir loft. Without a doubt this piece receives the most comments during Holy Thursday visitation, when hundreds of people visit the churches in Polonia…”
I had slowly been walking closer and closer to the sculpture and as I was standing in the middle of the aisle staring at it, John came up to me and then began to explain to me some interesting information on not only the sculpture, but also the organ above it and the rose window above that. Chris quickly joined me as John began to share that the person within the image inside the center of the rose window is the actual man Saint John Kanty as he tends to the poor. (We eventually learned from Greg Witul’s article that it is the only window within the Diocese of Buffalo to have this image incorporated into stained glass.) John also shared with us that there is also an image of a church in the top right corner of the rose window that some believe may be St. Stanislaus in Buffalo or the actual church St. Stans is modeled after in Poland.
Since we were talking so much about things up in the choir loft, John suggested we just go up there and look around, so we did. John really wanted to show us the organ and he even played it a little for us. While I really remember nothing about who made the organ, Chris was able to explore inside the organ a bit. I usually hesitate a bit about going inside these organs usually because they are very cramped and are not meant for anybody my height. However, Chris seems to fit just fine so he made his way up to the very top of the organ and was able to take some great photos from up there.
If you know Chris and I at all, you know once we are in a choir loft, we usually begin to ask some questions about the bell towers. Lucky for us John was very willing to answer any questions we had and even brought up the idea of climbing up the tower to see the bells. While we have climbed into a few bell towers at this point, we have also learned that climbing up into one usually consists of doing so up some rickety ladders that are rarely used, which may or may not give way at any time. John assured us this was not the case and that St. John Kanty certainly had safe access into its bell towers, so we agreed to go…but only if John went first. Once actually standing next to the bells, John then got even with us for making him go first because as we were trying to read the inscription on the bells, he decided to ring them! Not only did this scare me beyond belief, it also left a ringing in my ears for the next 10 minutes. However, it was funny as well and it was a small price to pay to be given the privilege to see the actual bells of St. John Kanty Church.
Once down we realized that because we had taken our sweet old time up in the tower, Judy and the Monsignor had gone about their business. The three of us walked around a bit and in like many Catholic churches, noticed that each side of the nave has stained glass windows bordered by the Stations of the Cross, and there is also a side altar in each transept. Plus, like many Polish Catholic churches, one of these side altars was to venerate Our Lady of Czestochowa, or the Black Madonna. Once back at the Main Altar, John explained to us that the iconography on the ceiling above the Main Altar is also a bit unique since Christ is represented as Christ the King with two angels at his side, instead of a more typical representation (for example The Holy Infant).
At this point we thought were coming to the end of our tour, but Chris and I actually had no idea how wrong we were. John informed us that there was still plenty more to see if we had the time because there was still more to see in the parish house, plus the Lyceum next door was definitely worth seeing. Without skipping a beat, we reconvened with Judy and set off to see everything else. They each explained to us that the Lyceum was the Catholic school for the Polish children of the neighborhood for many decades and was also the social center of the community. However, like many Catholic schools over the years, funding has become limited and people have relocated to the suburbs causing enrollment to decrease, leading to the school to eventually have to shut its doors. To show us how the Lyceum was used as a focal point within the community, John and Judy took us to the main hall on the upper floor of the building. The room we entered was quite cavernous and in a serious state of disrepair with some of the ceiling on the floor. There was a stage at one end of the hall and balcony seating above. Chris and I listened as John and Judy shared with us the history that had existed in this room and the building in general. As they each told us some history and also personal stories, it was clear that John and Judy were passionate about preserving the history here. With having such a long-standing personal connection to the space, we could tell it was tough for them to see a place that they had come to love so greatly in its current state. John even shared that it was here, during a community dance that his parents first met. I quickly wonder how many other people’s lives first started as their parents met at a dance in that room.
Chris and I were led from room to room inside the Lyceum, allowing us to walk through a treasure trove of historical information. It was really quite amazing to us how such an important piece of not only Polonia’s history, but Polish history in general, sits like a time capsule in Buffalo, NY, just waiting to either be torn down or to be renovated for use once again. This time our tour really was coming to an end, so the four of us started to exit the Lyceum and head towards the parking lot. We thanked Judy and John for taking so much time with us and for filling us up with such a terrific lunch. Due to the efforts of these two people and I am sure other members of the congregation, St. John Kanty has been able to benefit, if even for a little bit, an upsurge in attendance and for allowing people like us to come and tour their facility and blog about it to all of you. So now it is up to all of you to keep up this momentum and to tell everyone you know about our post here and share it as much as possible!