The crucifix is gone, as are the large images of the Stations of the Cross that graced the walls of this former Catholic church in Buffalo’s Lovejoy neighborhood. ¶ Three massive statues, each weighing 2,000 pounds, have been added, along with colorful flags draped on the sanctuary’s stone pillars. ¶ The former St. Agnes Church has been functioning as a Buddhist temple for more than three years now, but aside from a few obvious changes, the space remains largely as it was when Catholics used it to celebrate Masses. ¶ The structure is one of 58 former Catholic churches in Western New York that have taken on new uses since 2007, when the Diocese of Buffalo launched its historic reorganization of parishes. ¶ The diocese has closed 74 churches over the past five years, but some of those are being used by parishes for other purposes and are not for sale. Nine churches remain on the market. ¶ The sales generated $12.6 million for Catholic parishes that remained open and at least partially eased concerns that many of the buildings would be left vacant, leading to blight.
Diocesan officials said they are satisfied with the quality of the new uses.
“I think we’ve just been very lucky,” said Sister Regina Murphy, diocesan director of research and planning. “A lot of these churches were smaller and were very easily adaptable to other circumstances.”
Churches have been turned into museums, single-family homes and an editing studio. The Town of Sheridan in Chautauqua County is using the former St. John Bosco Church as a town hall and court.
Many of the Catholic sanctuaries are now worship spaces for other religious groups – Church of God in Christ, Anglican, Baptist, Muslim and evangelical Christian, to name a few.
In some cases, Catholic human services agencies have stepped in to convert buildings for their needs.
Dennis C. Walczyk, Catholic Charities’ chief executive officer, said the agency made a strategic decision about six years ago to focus on reusing Catholic church properties when starting new programs or moving established programs.
The agency has purchased more former Catholic church properties than any other buyer, snapping up the former St. Mary of Sorrows on Buffalo’s East Side; the former St. Barbara parish hall in Lackawanna; the former Nativity Church, rectory and school on the West Side; and the former convent of St. Joseph Church in North Tonawanda.
“The buildings are in neighborhoods that we need to be in, and the properties have been in really good condition,” Walczyk said.
Transforming a church
The former St. Barnabas Church in Cheektowaga was transformed into the new campus of the Cantalician Center for Learning, a local agency dedicated to serving children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Cubicles replaced pews inside the former sanctuary, which is now home to the agency’s administrative offices. A school and parish hall were gutted for the center’s school-age program, and an addition scheduled to be completed in the spring will house an early-childhood center.
The 15-acre property turned out to be the ideal fit for the Cantalician Center, which will be able to consolidate all of its operations in a busy area of Cheektowaga on George Urban Boulevard near Dick Road, across the street from a Wegmans.
The agency has Catholic roots, having been founded in 1956 by the Felician sisters. It had been running programs from two locations, one in Buffalo, the other in Eggertsville – and the two outdated buildings required an estimated $20 million in improvements.
The St. Barnabas property offered the chance to start fresh, without a new-build price tag. A new building would have cost about $20 million. The bill for the building reuse project, including the $2.7 million purchase price, renovation costs and new construction, is expected to come in at $16 million.
“It was as if was meant to be,” said Terese M. Scofidio, the Cantalician Center’s executive director. “It was just one of those natural fits.”
Throughout the diocese’s restructuring effort, many Catholics have mourned the loss of their churches as they would a family member.
But Scofidio said former members of St. Barnabas were able to take comfort in knowing the buildings would be helping people with disabilities.
The Cantalician Center bought the property in October 2011, moved in less than a year later and held an open house for community members this past October. More than 1,000 people showed up.
“I think the community was grateful because, let’s face it, this could have been a big-box store,” Scofidio said.
Not all of the building conversions have progressed as smoothly as the Cantalician Center.
Vandals hit Buddhists
The International Sangha Bhiksu Buddhist Association, for example, has had its hands full with vandals, thieves and building maintenance issues since purchasing two former Catholic churches in Lovejoy in 2009 for $360,000.
In addition to St. Agnes Church and its accompanying rectory, school and convent, the Buddhist group bought the former Visitation Church a few blocks away.
Shortly after the Buddhist group moved here, a group of teenagers broke into the Visitation site and vandalized a shrine inside.
“Statues were knocked over. Windows were broken,” said Chuck Johnson, a local law student who helps tend to the properties. “There was just no respect. That’s really what it came down to.”
Buffalo police found the culprits, three girls and five boys between ages 12 and 15, some of whom had attended the former St. Agnes school.
But Johnson said it isn’t the Buddhist way to seek retribution, so the group declined to press charges against the juveniles.
Thieves stole Visitation’s copper downspouts, which cost $1,000 to replace.
Just last week, thieves took more copper, this time breaking the lock to a fenced area containing air conditioning units and an electrical box.
The Buddhist group has had other challenges along the way. A pipe in the old St. Agnes school burst, flooding the basement. Structural deficiencies have been found in the former St. Agnes Church, which also needs a new roof.
The issues haven’t deterred the Buddhist group.
Thinking long term
The association’s founder, Thich Minh Tuyen, a Buddhist monk originally from Vietnam, envisions the St. Agnes site as a monastery to train monks and the Visitation site as a convent for Buddhist nuns, said Johnson, who was raised Catholic in West Seneca.
So far, just a single monk, Minh Chan, lives in the monastery. Johnson resides in another building.
But Johnson said that Tuyen has a long-term commitment to the buildings. His Buddhist association also operates successful temples in Washington State; Washington, D.C.; California; and New Jersey. And when the buildings need additional help, other Buddhists willingly step forward, he said.
“They don’t look at a five-year plan; they’re more like 20- to 25-year plans,” Johnson said.
The Buffalo properties, with their proximity to Canada, have the potential to serve as a Buddhist retreat center for residents of two nations.
The former St. Agnes Church, built in 1901, is open for prayer and meditation on Sundays, sometimes drawing Buddhists from other temples, as well as curious neighborhood residents and former parishioners.
“We want to feel more connected with the community, and we want the community to be connected with us in some way,” Johnson said.
Inside, a huge pipe organ in the choir loft, sturdy oak pews and hand-carved confessional booths all sit undisturbed. Some votive candles flicker. Incense wafts from the altar. Beams of light burst through stained glass featuring various Catholic saints.
Tuyen has hesitated to make more major changes to the Lovejoy churches for the time being, out of respect for area Catholics still emotionally attached to the property, Johnson said.
“We understand what that is to them,” he said. “They still look at this as their home, and for as long as it’s been here, I can definitely see why.”
The pace of building conversions has varied across the diocese.
Sherry Charlesworth purchased the former St. Mary Church in Little Valley in March 2010 and within five months was able to move in her embroidery business, “The Monogram Shoppe.”
“It’s the perfect size. The location is perfect,” she said, noting the building’s spot on a state highway in the village.
All of the church’s pews and religious items were removed before Charlesworth took possession of the property. Only the stained-glass windows remained, although those have since been removed, as well.
Charlesworth gave one of the windows to St. Mary Church in Cattaraugus, the parish with which the Little Valley congregation merged.
The others were taken by former parishioners, who agreed to replace the stained-glass with regular windows at their cost, Charlesworth said.
“They were all donated to the church by families years ago,” she said. “Those families were more than grateful to have those.”
Big churches pose dilemma
Larger churches continue to present a challenge, however, and some community members said they remain concerned about the long-term prospects for urban sacred spaces.
“They did sell the stuff, and I’m somewhat surprised, to be honest. I think it even surprised them,” said Thomas Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
Yots credited the diocese with being “more careful” than other sellers to ensure that buyers have the wherewithal to maintain buildings.
But “we’re not necessarily seeing things happening with the buildings,” he said. “Oftentimes, the projects that people want to do there don’t materialize.”
A Catholic congregation in Norcross, Ga., still wants to buy St. Gerard Church and move it piece by piece 900 miles south, but the effort needs more than $12 million. The parish has been able to raise pledges of about $3 million.
But no other uses for the church appear viable, and the diocese recently agreed to extend its purchase agreement with Mary Our Queen parish.
At the Buddhist temple, Johnson is struggling to find uses for all of the buildings, particularly the former St. Agnes school.
A day care facility is a potential option, but Buddhists frown upon generating revenue for themselves, so they would have to work out a rental arrangement compatible with their religious norms, he said.
Nonetheless, the Buddhist group is firmly committed to keeping and maintaining the buildings, he added.
Johnson, who has seen many plans in Western New York languish, has a personal stake in reinventing the two former churches.
“I don’t want it to be another failed attempt at something,” he said.