Buffalo’s rich ethnic heritage is reflected in the many churches located throughout the city. Early settlers, including those from Germany, Poland, Italy and Ireland, brought their style of churches from the “Old Country.” Most of them were working class people who donated what little extra money they had to help build these magnificent church buildings that have features such as beautiful murals, stained glass windows and statues.
However, in 2007, a number of these mainly Roman Catholic churches were slated to close during a massive reorganization of parishes in the Diocese of Buffalo. Mary Holland read about these closings in the newspaper and felt compelled to visit each church before it closed.
“As I sat in these churches, I thought how sad it was for the people,” Holland recalls. “Then I thought, what’s going to happen to the artwork, statues and stained glass windows?”
She realized that if no one in Buffalo stepped forward to save these items, they probably would be sold to buyers out of the area.
Inspired by a visit to the renowned E.B. Smith Stained Glass Art Museum in Chicago, Holland founded the Buffalo Religious Arts Center in 2008, with the mission to preserve the artistic and historic legacy of Buffalo’s immigrant culture and religious heritage. The center, which collects religious art from all denominations, is located in the circa 1912 former St. Francis Xavier Church in Buffalo’s historic Black Rock section. It is in the perfect location according to Holland: “It’s just off the expressway, easy to find and close to downtown.” The center is one of the first galleries in the United States dedicated to the preservation of religious arts that is housed in a former church.
The first thing you notice when you enter the center is the mural work behind the altar. The upper level depicts the Holy Trinity, while the central portion portrays St. Francis Xavier. The lower level of the mural features other saints and the 12 apostles. There are also murals behind the side altar areas. Holland relayed an interesting story about one of those murals.
“One day I received a phone call from a professor in Austin, Texas, asking if he could use a picture of our mural that is located in the left front of the church,” said Holland, who was curious as to how he knew about the mural. “He said that a replica of that mural was used in the printing of thousands of copies of a pamphlet that were handed out in Washington, D.C., in 1920 when the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was celebrating the setting of the cornerstone for the building. Somehow the founders of the shrine saw a rendering of the mural, which was painted by a Bavarian born monk named Raphael Pfisterer, O.S.B., and decided to use it.”
To verify this information, Holland drove to D.C. to visit the National Shrine and speak to the curator.
“She told me that they have two copies of the pamphlet and they also have the passport of Raphael Pfisterer. His passport shows that he took trips back to Europe, we assume to visit family and also to study art.”
Holland added that the building and artwork is a blending of many cultures.
“The ceiling of the church was painted by a Hungarian, some of the statues are by Italians, some Polish and there is artwork by Danish born immigrants. This former church is a testament to the immigrant population who came to the United States seeking a better life and, despite their poverty, was able to leave us with an amazing building.”
One of the unique features of the center are the stained glass windows. Only a handful of churches in the world have windows like these, which depict the Stations of the Cross. The windows were crafted in Munich, Germany, by F.X. Zettler and have pieces of wood affixed to the upper crosses in the windows, as according to church law, there must be some wood in the Stations of the Cross.
Since the center opened, Holland and her staff of mostly volunteers have acquired items from more than 45 churches. The Buffalo Religious Arts Center is one of the first museums that specializes in artifacts from closed churches. When a church closes, the items from that church first go to other churches in the area that remain open. Items that those churches do not choose to keep are sold to other churches or priests, and then the remaining items are made available to the arts center. Sometimes the items are donated, and other times they must purchase the items.
So far the center has more than 50 stained-glass windows, including several from the now-closed Queen of Peace Church. Six of these windows are mounted in frames that are backlit; several are displayed in the confessionals.
“All these windows are stunning; stained glass as an art form is unique,” Holland said. “We also have over 100 items in storage awaiting restoration, including statues, crosses, artwork and windows.”
While the majority of items in the center are from Catholic churches that have closed, they accept items from any faith.
“We will preserve anything sacred from any church,” Holland asserted. “When Temple Beth El closed, we acquired a monument with the Ten Commandments in wood and brass and a Star of David.”
Buffalo Religious Arts Center is located at 157 East St., Buffalo; for information, call 481-2350 or visit www.buffaloreligiousarts.org. Tours are available by appointment. During the summer the center is open on Saturdays; see the website for times. The center can also be rented for weddings.