Buffalo churches open doors to celebrate religious art

Bill Koch looks over some stained glass at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, formerly St. Francis Xavier Church, on East Street in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Bill Koch looks over some stained glass at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, formerly St. Francis Xavier Church, on East Street in Buffalo. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Western New York's churches are rich in artistic and architectural treasures, and some of them are on view this weekend outside of worship hours.

Ten current and former churches opened their doors Saturday as part of a statewide Sacred Sites Open House Weekend organized by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

One of the prime locations whose doors were open Saturday was the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, the former St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church at 157 East St. in Black Rock.

Closed by the Diocese of Buffalo a decade ago, the building was sold to private owners and in 2008 became a museum for hundreds of examples of art and religious artifacts from closed area churches.

Normally open only by appointment, the building keeps most of St. Francis Xavier's original art and stained glass as well as pieces donated or acquired from other local churches or private owners.

"It's not just Catholic. It's any church that was forced to close for lack of membership," founder Mary Holland said.

An Episcopal altar and bishop's chair are on display, as well as a few artifacts from Jewish synagogues, but in line with Western New York's heritage of European immigrants, the overwhelming majority of the items are Catholic.

Holland said German, Hungarian, Polish, Italian and Danish artists and artisans are represented in the collection.

"It's all the immigrants that came here. It's their story," Holland said.

The oldest works are some wooden statues from the 1890s, and most of the collection was made in the early 20th century, when Buffalo went through a church building boom. The city's plummeting population after World War II eventually led to many of those churches closing.

Holland said she was especially interested in saving pieces that the churches themselves had forgotten about.

"When I went into a church, they'd say, 'There's nothing in the attic, there's nothing in the basement.' That's where the good stuff was," Holland said.

But active churches took part in the weekend promotion, too.

Delaware Avenue Baptist Church, 965 Delaware Ave., was open Saturday and will be open again from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

The red sandstone church, which opened in 1895, once hosted a congregation that included Buffalo's rich and prominent. It contains Byzantine-style mosaics and an enormous stained-glass dome beneath a skylight.

The lavish decoration is "for a Baptist church, extremely unusual," trustee Marilyn Woodin said.

The average attendance at the church for a regular Sunday service a century ago was 1,000 people. Today, the typical turnout is closer to 125, Woodin said.

The congregation is applying to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"We think we're going to get it," Woodin said. "We are very much in need of a roof. There's been a lot of patch jobs over the last 60 years."

Other Buffalo churches open Sunday for the Open House Weekend will include Blessed Trinity Catholic Church, 317 Leroy Ave.; Parkside Lutheran Church, 2 Wallace Ave.; and North Park Lutheran Church, 310 Starin Ave., all from noon to 2 p.m.

In Niagara Falls, First Baptist Church, 554 Main St., will be open from noon to 3 p.m. Sunday, and the former Holy Trinity Catholic Church, now Niagara Heritage of Hope and Service, 1419 Falls St., will be open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Other churches taking part Saturday included Kenmore United Methodist Church, Friends in Christ United Methodist Church in Fillmore and St. John's Episcopal Church in Medina.