They were ousted from their beloved church and told the repairs needed to get back in could cost as much as $12 million.
But a small group of plucky Catholics cannot let go of St. Ann Church on Buffalo’s East Side.
More than a year after being locked out of the church amid concerns about the building’s safety, a few dozen parishioners refuse to disperse to other Catholic parishes.
Instead, they meet on most Sunday mornings for Mass in the basement of the nearby former St. Ann school building – a space as Spartan as the church’s sanctuary is ornate.
“It’s different,” remarked Betsy Fisher, a longtime church member.
Vinyl chairs flank a small altar. A banner marking the 150th anniversary of the parish’s founding – one of the few adornments – stands in a corner, near a small keyboard. The hallmarks of a cellar are all around: exposed pipes, indoor-outdoor carpeting, fluorescent tube lights.
It is all a far cry from the intricate woodwork, vibrant stained glass and other exquisite architectural details in the Gothic-style sanctuary, built in 1886.
Parishioners hope the arrangement is temporary, but they are prepared to stay as long as necessary.
“You don’t leave St. Ann, and St. Ann doesn’t leave you,” said Esther Kehoe, who drives from Snyder for the Sunday services.
St. Ann Parish merged in 2007 with SS. Columba & Brigid, part of the widespread restructuring of Catholic congregations that resulted in 70 churches closing in the eight counties of the Buffalo Diocese.
St. Ann Church remained open for years as a “temporary worship site” until the diocese moved to close it in 2011. Parishioners forestalled the closing by filing an appeal with the Vatican and continued worshipping there.
But in 2012, they were forced to leave the building when Bishop Edward U. Kmiec issued an order suspending all operations at the church. Kmiec, bishop of the Buffalo Diocese from 2004 to 2012, cited structural damage in the building that posed a threat to safety.
The diocese released an engineering report last month the pegged the costs of fixing the array of problems at the church at $8 million to $12 million.
Parishioners acknowledge the building needs overdue repairs, but they believe the estimates are inflated and include work that does not need to be done immediately.
They received their own estimates that suggest the most pressing work to address safety concerns – mortar replacement, stone stabilization and other repairs on the two towers – could be done for less than $200,000.
“The things that they’re talking about are things that can be done into the future,” said church member Carol Robinson. “We agree that work on the tower has to be done. But their perspective is it’s all got to be done before we get back in the church, and that’s not true.”
Stunned by Kmiec’s order, some parishioners scattered to other parishes. But a core group of about 60 people has stuck around.
“I just can’t accept that we can never be back in there,” said Fisher, who has attended St. Ann for 45 years. “I’m never going to think that way.”
Initially, they held Masses on the lawn at the back of the church. They later moved into a former convent, but without any utilities, the space became impractical in the winter.
“You name the condition, we’ve been in it. This is a resilient group of people,” said John Sawicz, whose family has deep roots at St. Ann.
His great-grandmother made her first Holy Communion in the church in 1891, he said.
Parishioners finally settled in February on the school basement, even though at the time it looked more like a musty dungeon than a cheerful worship space. Sawicz and others spent several days scraping peeling paint from tin ceilings, repainting, and installing heaters and carpeting.
The group’s members fear if they stop meeting, any glimmer of hope for St. Ann’s reopening will disappear.
“We need to keep the core group of people together so that when the church is ready for us, we’re ready for the church,” said Ronald Bates, a Buffalo small-business owner.
“Besides,” he added, “we just enjoy being here.”
While longing to get back into the sanctuary, some parishioners said the quaint basement services have brought them closer together.
People who used to leave immediately after Masses now mingle to chat around the table in the corner, where pastries and coffee are served.
“People are really connecting with each other,” Robinson said.
The congregation also is racially integrated – a rarity in most churches.
“You know how it is. You go to some churches, and everybody’s going through the motions. People here, everybody seems to be a community,” said Herb Zimmermann. “You see something where there’s a good community spirit – that’s what it’s all about.”
Each week, the group recruits a priest to celebrate the Mass.
Monsignor John W. Zeitler, a retired pastor, is among a handful of priests who have responded.
Zeitler described the group as “full of faith.”
“They love attending Mass, they love praying, they love singing. The Lord is there and the Lord is in their hearts,” he said. “They’re God lovers and God loves them.”
Zeitler said the group’s quest to reopen the sanctuary is “a long shot.”
Still, no other local Catholic congregation has made it as far as the St. Ann group in thwarting an outright closure.
“They want us to give up,” said Frank Golinowski, who attends Mass with his wife, Marie. “We’re very strong parishioners and we’re going to stick together as long as we can.”
Golinowski added, “We’re all family here as far as I’m concerned.”
Dick Joya of Cheektowaga, who attended St. Ann School, said he does not want to see St. Ann go the way of the former Transfiguration Church, another architectural gem nearby on Sycamore Street that was closed in 1993 and fell into disrepair.
How can it be prevented?
“Money, I guess,” Joya said. “I think everybody in this room plays the lottery, so when they win they can say, bishop, here’s the money.”