St. Ann Church will not function as a Catholic worship space any longer, but the Diocese of Buffalo has agreed to explore possibilities other than demolishing the venerable East Side structure.
A diocesan committee will begin meeting in September with representatives from Preservation Buffalo Niagara, the area’s primary preservation group, to examine how the massive church complex at Broadway and Emslie Street might be preserved and reused for a different purpose.
“We’re going to continue to have conversation to see if they can broker a deal that leads to the sale of the entire complex – the church, the school and the convent – to a party that would have the ability to redevelop it,” said Kevin A. Keenan, a spokesman for the diocese. “We’re going to make one last try. Everybody’s got their eyes wide open with this project. It’s a long shot, but let’s attempt it.”
The move marks a shift from just 11 days ago, when Bishop Richard J. Malone announced plans to raze the church because the estimated cost of needed repairs reached $8 million to $12 million.
“We’re not talking the word ‘demolition’ right now, and we’re not talking about removing the contents of the building,” said Tom Yots, executive director of Preservation Buffalo Niagara.
Keenan emphasized, however, that the sanctuary will no longer be used for worship by a Catholic congregation. “Its days as a Catholic church are behind it,” he said.
The diocese will not wait long for a developer to surface, although a timeline has yet to be determined, he added.
Yots has contacted a Rochester-area developer to examine the property for possible redevelopment using state and federal historic preservation tax credits.
The developer transformed a similar complex of Catholic buildings in Rochester, said Yots, who declined to name the project and developer.
“This individual has not given a commitment other than to look at the building and see what could be done with it,” he said.
Preservation Buffalo Niagara also will try to find other possible developers.
“This is an unusual set of buildings. This is an opportunity we can’t let go by,” Yots said. “The community deserves one last chance with this.”
He reached out to Keenan shortly after Malone’s demolition announcement Aug. 18.
Malone agreed to reconsider in the hopes that an adaptive reuse of the complex could be “a win-win for everybody,” Keenan said.
The Gothic-style church, built by German immigrants in 1886, features intricate woodwork and colorful stained-glass windows.
St. Ann Parish merged in 2007 with SS. Columba & Brigid on Eagle Street, as part of a diocesan consolidation plan that resulted in the closings of 70 churches in eight counties.
The church at St. Ann remained open as a temporary worship site until April 2012, 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, with an eye toward raising funds to make repairs so they could return to the main sanctuary.
Those parishioners contended that the Vatican is still considering an appeal and that the diocese can’t shut down the church until a ruling is issued. They also argued repairs could be done far less expensively than the diocese has estimated.
“From our perspective, we’re still going in the direction of maintaining it as a Catholic church,” said parishioner Ronald Bates. “We are awaiting the results of our appeal. I don’t know as they have the information at this point that they can actually close this church.”
But Keenan suggested that the appeal had been handled. “The group from St. Ann’s initiated the temporary suspension of their appeal while the condition of the church was assessed. Once the assessment was completed, Bishop Malone then issued the decree to raze the building,” he said.
Removal of church statuary, pews and artifacts has been put on hold, although the Shrine of St. Ann ultimately will be moved to another church, Keenan said.
The diocese has no interest in mothballing the property until a developer can be found.
“The building structurally has a lot of significant issues,” Keenan said. “Sealing it up is not an option. We’ve got to find someone that can come in there, stabilize it and then invest in it.”
Yots agreed that a redevelopment plan needs to happen quickly because significant damage can occur if the heat is turned off during the winter.
But Yots expressed optimism because so many historic buildings, including churches, in the Buffalo area have been adapted for other uses.