By Kevin A. Keenan
Several letters to the editor have appeared on these pages in recent weeks extolling the history and beauty of St. Ann Church, and it is very fitting that people would express their appreciation and concern for such a grand and historic sacred site.
Unfortunately, few are aware of the true condition of the church edifice. Attendance at a weekly service, or a walk-through to examine the interior of the church, would not reveal the structural defects, some dating to the original construction, or the extent of deterioration to the infrastructure.
The congregation of St. Ann Church was merged with the congregation of SS. Columba-Brigid Parish in 2007. As the gentleman whose letter appeared in the News on Sept. 24 acknowledged, only 20 people were attending Mass (the church seats 1,200) and there was no fund balance.
In that same letter to the editor, the writer claimed that he and others have been tasked by the bishop to produce results that will render the building a safe worship site for many years to come. Not true. Bishop Richard J. Malone has stated quite clearly that St. Ann Church will no longer be used as a Catholic worship site, and no group in support of St. Ann’s has been directed by the bishop to take responsibility for the safety of the building.
In 2012, there was a prospective buyer for the church and the diocese contracted with an area firm to update repair estimates. What was discovered caused the diocese to temporarily close the church while a much more extensive examination of the church structure was conducted by one of the most prominent engineering firms in Western New York. That very thorough study took six months to complete and the findings resulted in the permanent closure of the church.
The $8 million to $12 million repair/renovation cost estimates, if not accurate, are more likely understated. The dangers presented by improper original construction, mortar turned to sand, rotted wood, extensive water infiltration and fractured and shifting stones are realities. If there is a developer or individual purchaser willing to invest in the church in spite of the engineering assessment, the diocese is most willing to pursue the sale of the St. Ann complex for adaptive reuse and is currently working with Preservation Buffalo-Niagara toward that end.
The Diocese of Buffalo, however, cannot pursue a solution to the future of St. Ann’s from a single perspective. Many good options must be held in balance: historic preservation of buildings; ministerial service to people in need; stewardship and just allocation of church resources; public safety; liability concerns, even empathy and rationality.
Solutions to complex issues are rarely simple.
Kevin A. Keenan is communications counsel for the Diocese of Buffalo.