There are times when it pays to take a step back, take a breath and consider the long view.
For the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, which has been on a misguided campaign to erase an important architectural and cultural landmark from Buffalo’s streetscape since 2012, that time is now.
Earlier this month, a tenacious group of former parishioners from St. Ann’s Church and Shrine on Broadway won an important legal battle, when a Vatican court decreed that the church could not be deconsecrated – a demotion in religious status that would have allowed the diocese to demolish it.
The decree from the Vatican, which knows a little something about the importance of preserving churches as cultural and architectural treasures, should have given pause to the Diocese of Buffalo. At minimum, it should have caused local Catholic leaders to reconsider their plan to tear down the priceless 1886 structure, which grew out of a 2013 analysis that put the cost of repairing the building at as high as $12.4 million.
But in a decision that boggles the mind, the diocese appealed the decree, charging ahead with its plan to reduce the church to rubble and leaving its immediate future in limbo.
Western New York has suffered greatly from decisions to eliminate striking and important pieces of architecture from the landscape with no concern for their cultural or historic relevance. These range from great acts of cultural vandalism such as the abandonment and subsequent destruction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building in 1950 to the maddening demolition of Lackawanna’s Bethlehem Steel Administration Building last year.
In a release announcing its decision to appeal the Vatican decree, the Diocese of Buffalo paints a picture of a building that is far beyond repair. But former parishioner Martin Ederer, a SUNY Buffalo State professor and expert on the history of Buffalo’s Catholic churches, argued for taking a longer view.
“We’ve been very clear from our side that we don’t disagree that there’s some significant work that needs to be done there,” Ederer said. He suggested a gradual, European-style approach to repairing the European-style church, which begins by addressing the most vital safety concerns and then unfolds in phases over a decade or more as the burgeoning downtown development inevitably stretches eastward.
“I think the diocesan approach is more to lock the church and do all the repairs within the span of a year or two and then reopen it perfect and pristine. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer, but there is a philosophical difference,” Ederer said. “Sometimes projects worth doing are going to take a lot of time.”
In response to a request for more information on the philosophy of the diocese, communications manager Kristina M. Connell wrote in an email that “the church is still closed due to safety issues/concerns, the diocese is not able to sell the church and the church cannot be razed.” She declined to provide a copy of the Vatican decree.
It doesn’t take an expert to see whose approach makes more sense. It’s a false dichotomy to suggest, as the Diocese of Buffalo has done, that the only viable options are to immediately repair the building or knock it down. It would be much more logical to develop a long-term strategic plan, in tandem with former parishioners like Ederer, to repair the physical state of the church and develop it into a cultural as well as religious destination.
In an era of declining population and shrinking parishes, this is sure to be a great challenge. But it is not insurmountable. In fact, if the diocese, the City of Buffalo, the proud supporters of St. Ann’s and the city’s active preservationists teamed up, it could become a model preservation project.
“At this point, well, the diocese owns it and we’re Catholics, and the bishop is our shepherd and we’re his people,” Ederer said. “We always try to proceed in charity and we hope to continue to do so. That’s always our hope. It’s always our intention and it’s always easier to collaborate on things than to butt heads.”
It would be great to see the diocese come around to that way of thinking, to see things not only in terms of its current fiscal year but in the grand scope of the region’s history.
No less powerful an institution than the Vatican, now in the midst of its own renaissance of historical consciousness, has encouraged it to do just that. The advice is worth heeding.