Faced with potential repair bills of $8 million to $12 million, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has “found it necessary” to raze historic St. Ann Church on Broadway in Buffalo, Bishop Richard J. Malone announced Sunday.
The 127-year-old church building was officially closed last year, but in recent months a small group of longtime parishioners has been attending Sunday Masses in a chapel they set up in the basement of the nearby St. Ann school building.
Those Masses must end, too, said Malone, whose news came as a crushing blow to about 35 Catholics who attended Mass in the school chapel Sunday morning.
“It’s devastating,” said Dick Joya, 79, of Cheektowaga, who was at the Mass with his wife, Shirley. “My wife and I went to grammar school at St. Ann. We got married there on Aug. 25, 1956. It’s our church. It’s been a part of us all these years.”
“It is always a sad day when we have to acknowledge that a church can no longer be used, and sadder still when the church must be razed,” Malone said in a letter read at weekend Masses.
The bishop’s decision was a painful one, and it followed lengthy engineering studies to see if repairing and reopening the church was a viable option, said Kevin A. Keenan, a spokesman for the diocese.
“This was a very difficult decision,” Keenan said. “This is the last decision you’d want to make, but after very extensive studies of the deterioration, it has been determined that the church is just not safe.”
Estimating potential repair costs at $8 million to $12 million, Keenan said the diocese cannot justify spending that kind of money to restore St. Ann.
“To put it into perspective, Catholic Charities raises $10 million to $11 million a year with its annual appeal,” Keenan said. “The bishop has to be a responsible steward of the finances of the diocese.”
Although the existing St. Ann Church at Broadway and Emslie Street was built in 1886, the parish dates back more than 150 years. The gothic-styled church features intricate woodwork and colorful stained-glass windows.
In 2007, St. Ann was merged with SS Columba & Brigid, located on Eagle Street, as part of a diocesan consolidation plan that resulted in the closings of 70 churches in eight counties of Western New York.
The church at St. Ann remained open until April 2012 as a “temporary worship site,” when the diocese closed it, citing structural deficiencies that made the building dangerous. After that, some parishioners continued their worship in the school basement chapel.
Parishioners have been trying to convince the bishop – and also church leaders at the Vatican in Rome – that repairs could be made for a lower price than $8 million and that the church could be reopened.
“We’ve been sending letters to the Vatican, and apparently, the leaders at the Vatican have thrown it into the bishop’s lap and said, ‘You handle this,’ ” Joya said.
Joya said attendees at Sunday’s Mass became deeply emotional when the Rev. Roy Herberger, pastor of SS Columba & Brigid, read a decree from the bishop saying the church will be closed forever and torn down.
“There was a sudden silence. You could have heard a pin drop,” Joya said. “It was a very sad moment.”
After Mass, many parishioners were crying and hugging each other, he said.
The bishop’s decree said no religious services would be allowed on the property after today. Shirley Joya said that, to her knowledge, no Mass is scheduled today.
Why can’t the last few parish members continue to enjoy services in the school chapel? At this time, the bishop feels “it is important for the spiritual lives of the people that they join SS Columba & Brigid or some other parish that can meet all their needs,” Keenan said.
According to the diocese, an engineering study completed in April of this year found “significant restoration work” would be needed throughout the stone church, especially to stabilize the east and west front towers of the building.
“Design and construction flaws of the original church have resulted in a building less durable than other churches of the period,” the diocese said in a statement released late Sunday morning.
No timetable has been set for razing the church, Keenan said.
“The next step is having people from the diocese go in there and evaluate and decide what will be salvaged – statues and other religious artifacts,” Keenan said. “Everything in there is the property of SS Columba & Brigid Church.”
According to both Richard and Shirley Joya, diehard St. Ann Parish members are determined to fight to save the building from the wrecker’s ball, even if Masses are not held there.
“This church is a beautiful landmark, for God’s sake,” Shirley Joya said. “We’re going to keep appealing to the Vatican.”
Parish members who spoke to The Buffalo News earlier this summer told of their deep devotion to St. Ann and all the memories that surround it.
“You don’t leave St. Ann, and St. Ann doesn’t leave you,” said one parishioner, Esther Kehoe of Synder.
“The fight to save St. Ann’s is not over,” said David Hirschbine, a former parish council president who is one of the leaders of efforts to save the church.
“What the bishop did was based on half-truths. Yes, it would cost many millions to restore the church to its pristine condition of the 1800s, but for $250,000 to $500,000, we could restore it to the point that it would be a safe place for church services.”
Hirschbine, 77, a retired cemetery groundskeeper who lives in Amherst, said he is Jewish but has been “hanging around St. Ann’s since I was a kid.”
“I got involved with the parish council because I married a Catholic, and my wife was a member of the church. When I was growing up, it didn’t matter if you were black, white, Jewish or Catholic, if you lived in that neighborhood, you hung around St. Ann’s. You played on the playground or you played basketball there.”
He complained that, in his view, the bishop has “turned a deaf ear” toward efforts to save the church.