BUFFALO, N.Y. – For decades, countless people from Buffalo have made the move from Rust Belt to Sun Belt. Maybe it was only a matter of time before one of its buildings would follow.
A Roman Catholic parish in the affluent northern suburbs of Atlanta has begun raising $16 million to import, piece by piece, a closed Buffalo church. The 99-year-old St. Gerard’s would get a second life as Mary Our Queen in Norcross, an up-and-coming parish that has outgrown the 600-seat sanctuary that opened a dozen years ago.
Supporters see it as “preservation through relocation” of a unique structure that already shows signs of deterioration since it was closed in January 2008 as part of a diocese-wide restructuring.
While a dozen other vacant Catholic churches in Buffalo have been reincarnated as housing, office space or houses of worship by other religions, there had been no takers for St. Gerard’s, occupying half a city block in a bereft neighborhood. Then came the Rev. David Dye’s offer to buy it, with the condition he take it with him to Georgia.
Buffalo’s bishop and St. Gerard’s former leadership agreed.
“When we closed, all I could see was the church standing here deteriorating or being used for not the right kind of purpose,” said parishioner Richard Ciezki, a former trustee who for years pulled the ropes to ring St. Gerard’s three bells before each weekend Mass.
“It’s like an organ transplant,” explained Dye. “You don’t want someone to die but if they are dying, it would be nice if their organs were reused and they lived again in a sense through that donation.”
Not everyone is ready to pull the plug.
The idea of moving St. Gerard’s out of Buffalo has angered the City Council, which has begun amending city law so that a preservation board would have to review any proposal to move out property.
“It’s not right. You can’t strip-mine a city’s historic heritage,” said Council President David Franczyk, who is unwilling to say that his city’s decline, marked by steep manufacturing and population losses, is permanent.
“Just because Buffalo is down on its luck, we shouldn’t blow a hole in the streetscape in an impoverished neighborhood,” he said.
Built by Italian immigrants and modeled after St. Paul Outside the Walls, a Renaissance-style basilica in Rome, St. Gerard’s was closed as the Diocese of Buffalo restructured in response to a shrinking number of Catholics. There were 950,458 Catholics in the eight western New York counties in 1971 and 656,750 today. St. Gerard’s parish had 1,600 families in the 1960s, and only 100 or so when it merged into Blessed Trinity Parish.
Buffalo is not alone in realizing that descendants of the Catholic immigrants who landed in Northeast and Midwest urban centers are not staying put, either moving to the suburbs or other regions altogether, said Dr. Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
As parishes in Boston, Cleveland, Allentown, Pa., and Camden, N.J., have closed churches, Sun Belt parishes in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Austin, Texas, have been “bursting at the seams” with transplants and an influx of Hispanic residents, Gautier said.
Walking through the mothballed 12,000-square-foot Buffalo sanctuary, the Rev. Francis “Butch” Mazur recalled how he encouraged worshippers at St. Gerard’s farewell service to line up to kiss the white marble altar before leaving. It was a rare full house, with former parish members coming mostly from the suburbs to say goodbye.
Rodney Cook, president of the National Monuments Foundation, called the idea of moving the church “the cutting edge of preservation in America today.”
“If we continue to let buildings that fine linger unused, they’re doomed for collapse and that’s a tragedy all the way around,” he said.