The sheer number of teenagers and young adults depicted in a 1920 black-and-white photo stood out to members of Buffalo Covenant Church who discovered the picture this week while sifting through church documents and historical items.
The lawn of the church, located then on the city’s West Side, overflowed with more than 100 participants in a church group known as the Swedish Young People’s Society.
“This probably was the peak of Christianity in Buffalo,” remarked parishioner Suzanne Robison. “You don’t get that kind of youth participation anymore.”
Indeed, dwindling participation, especially among younger people, was being cited as a primary reason for the church’s recent decision to shut down.
The small congregation will conduct a final worship service on Sunday, concluding a 122-year run in Buffalo.
Its buildings at 786 Kenmore Avenue in North Buffalo are in the process of being sold to Creative Structure Services, a development company that plans to convert the property into apartments.
Founded in 1890 by a group of Swedish immigrants, the church originally was named the First Swedish Evangelical Mission Church of Buffalo and was housed in temporary homes on the West Side before building a sanctuary on Jersey Street.
The congregation moved to North Buffalo in the 1940s and has been in its current building since 1947.
Membership actually peaked in the mid 1940s through the late 1960s, with more than 300 adult members and 70 children enrolled in Sunday school, according to the Rev. Beatrice Radakovich, pastor.
Fewer than 100 people are members now, she said.“Over the past couple decades the membership has declined pretty significantly,” said Radakovich, who is looking for ministerial work out of the area.
The Buffalo Covenant Church is one of the oldest members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a Protestant denomination created in 1885 and based in Chicago.
The Buffalo church’s closing means the denomination no longer will have a presence in Erie County. The closest other “covenant” churches are in Jamestown in Chautauqua County.
The closure also will leave a hole in the hearts of many members.
“I just love this church. Gosh, it’s very upsetting,” said Trish Doherty of Kenmore.
Margie Accardi likes to tell people she’s been going to Buffalo Covenant Church since before she was born.
“My grandparents were members of the church, my parents and now my sister and I,” said Accardi of West Seneca. “It’s been my whole life.”
Years ago, Accardi invited a friend, Lynnie Delnagro of the Town of Tonawanda.“I dragged her here,” Accardi joked.
“Once I came, I didn’t have to be dragged,” responded Delnagro, who recalled how full the church was when she began showing up about 26 years ago.
Buffalo Covenant Church is hardly alone in seeing membership wane and age.
Earlier this week, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new report showing that one in five adults – and nearly a third of all adults under age 30 – have no religious affiliation.
Those are the highest percentages ever in Pew polling. And the trend appears to be accelerating.
Just five years ago, the religiously unaffiliated accounted for 15 percent of the population.
The most recent “religious census” released earlier this year by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies also showed that in the Buffalo Niagara region, membership in area churches and synagogues declined dramatically between 2000 and 2010.
Societal changes are part of it, said Delnagro, who acknowledged difficulty in getting her own children to church more than once or twice a year for holidays.
“People are so busy, and they don’t have the religious background anymore,” she said. “And today is so money driven. And it’s getting worse; it’s not getting better.”
Being a good Christian doesn’t require membership in a church, said Accardi, but “it certainly helps to have fellowship with other Christians.”
A group of a dozen or so women from Buffalo Covenant Church plans to continue meeting twice a month in their homes for Bible study.
Some members already have found new places to worship, while others said they’re not sure where they will go after this Sunday.
“I don’t think that Christianity is declining. What I think is going on here is that God has chosen to scatter us in other churches and bring strength to other churches,” said Peggy Stressing of the Town of Tonawanda. “I feel confident we’re all going to find a good fit someplace.”
The congregation voted in August to close the church. Closing had been a possibility for a while, as the congregation struggled to balance budgets and began dipping into reserve funds.
“A church is a family, and we did everything as a family would talking around a kitchen table. It was a process that took a couple of years,” said Robison.
When the building’s boiler system failed, members decided not to prolong what seemed inevitable.
Church members are taking comfort in the fact that proceeds from the sale of the buildings will be used by the denomination to fund the start-up of as many as four new church “plants” elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.
But there’s still plenty of sadness.
“I’m going to miss it. It’s been a very important part of my life,” said Robison. “This is no different than the death of a family member.”