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Detailed History – Saint Ann’s Church & Shrine, Buffalo, NY


Martin F. Ederer

Updated 12/31/2011

The history of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine began with a conversation between a Mr. Stephen van Rensselaer Watson and Bishop John Timon as they rode together out Batavia Street (now Broadway) from Buffalo in 1857. By 1857, Timon had been Bishop of Buffalo for the ten years since Pope Pius IX had created the Diocese of Buffalo in 1847. Despite the fact that the United States had already expanded as far as California, Buffalo, as far as East Coast interests were concerned, was still very much on the howling frontier. But the city was growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which made Buffalo a major Great Lakes port.

Buffalo’s prosperity attracted people. From New England came Protestant settlers. From the German-speaking monarchies and duchies and principalities of central Europe came Catholic and Protestant immigrants. The 1848 Irish potato famine brought a large influx of Irish Catholic immigrants to Buffalo. A small African-American community—some of Buffalo’s oldest families among their number—had also formed. By the 1850s, a large German neighborhood had grown on the lands east of Buffalo into a whole new section of the city that would come to be known as the East Side. By this time, Buffalo’s first Roman Catholic parish, St. Louis, had become a solidly German parish, and numerous other German parishes had sprung up: the Redemptorists established St. Mary at Pine and Batavia Sts., in 1842. St. Boniface was established on Mulberry St. in 1849. In more distant places that had yet to become part of Buffalo, German Catholics established St. Francis Xavier in Black Rock and St. Joseph in Elysville (Main St. near the University at Buffalo) from 1847-1850.

In 1848, meanwhile, Timon had invited the Jesuits to the diocese. They established themselves in Williamsville at SS. Peter and Paul, which had been founded in 1836 by Fr. Johann Nepomuk Neumann, who later joined the Redemptorists and subsequently became the first bishop of Philadelphia. He was canonized a saint in 1977. What brought the Jesuits into Buffalo proper was an ongoing struggle between the trustees of St. Louis Church and the diocese over who would own that church building. Timon insisted that he should. The trustees insisted that, since they had paid for it, they should own it. Such an arrangement was not unusual in Alsace, where many of St. Louis’ German-speaking parishioners had come from. But Timon would have none of it. He placed St. Louis under interdict in 1851, and the diocese invited the Jesuits to establish a rival parish nearby to “break” St. Louis. The result was the establishment of St. Michael’s Church. The crisis at St. Louis passed, even if it did not get fully resolved until 1979, but St. Michael’s Church—and the Jesuits—were in Buffalo to stay. In 1870, Canisius High School and College grew up in the shadow of St. Michael’s Church.

By the late 1850s it was obvious that the German Catholic community in Buffalo was continuing to grow unabated, and the German East Side had continued its expansion eastward. More churches—along with everything else—had become necessary, and the creation of St. Ann was a response to those needs. In 1857, Timon asked the Jesuits to establish a second parish on the East Side. They had already eyed purchasing land there in the hopes of establishing a college. As things turned out, the college never materialized in that location. But St. Ann’s Church did, as a second Jesuit mission in Buffalo.

Work began in 1858 on a brick church facing Emslie St., at about the location where the school stands today.  Shovel went into ground on March 15, and the building was ready for use on June 20. At 55 feet wide, 56 feet high and 165 feet long, the new building immediately served as church, school and rectory. It cost the parish $7000 to build. The cornerstone laying ceremony of that modest church became a major celebration for all of Buffalo’s Catholics: all the rest of Buffalo’s Catholic parishes celebrated with St. Ann’s parish. The German parishes of St. Louis, St. Michael, St. Boniface, St. Mary, and St. Joseph in Elysville (now St. Joseph University Church) and St. Francis Xavier in Black Rock, all joined the celebration. The Irish parishes were also well-represented: St. Patrick and St. Brigid sent a delegation, as did the cathedral, which Buffalo’s German Catholics generally also viewed as an Irish enterprise. The French St. Pierre Church—“exiles” from German St. Louis—also sent a delegation.

St. Ann’s Church was a German parish from its very beginning. Its parishioners spoke German. The priests serving St. Ann’s Church spoke German and preached in German. Parish devotions and missions were conducted in German. Parishioners went to confession in German. The strange part about the arrangement was that the German speaking Jesuits who served both St. Michael and St. Ann were drawn from the New York-Canada Mission of the French Province of the Society of Jesus. In 1869, Jesuit operations in Buffalo were separated from the New York-Canada Mission and attached to the German Province of Jesuits, under its own name, the Buffalo Mission of the Province of Germany. That new mission extended from Buffalo to South Dakota and Wyoming, and consequently, the Buffalo Jesuit influence, and with it that of St. Ann’s Church, extended across the country. That remained the administrative situation until the Maryland-New York Jesuit Province was established in 1907. But not all Germans were the same. After Canisius High School opened at St. Michael’s Church (which was mainly Alsatian), fights were routine between St. Michael’s Alsatian students and St. Ann’s Bavarians and Austrians.

Meanwhile the parish continued to grow. By the 1870s, the existing church had become overcrowded, and the school arrangements were woefully inadequate. The parish considered building a bigger church. They began by buying up adjacent lots. Francis Himpler of New York developed designs for a massive neogothic stone church to replace the old brick church on Emslie St. The original design called for two identical steeples. The projected price was an astronomical $135,000. The pastor panicked, and the project was cancelled. Instead, new plans were developed for merely enlarging the existing church. In 1875, St. Ann’s Church got a new pastor, Fr. William Roether. He revived the plan for the new church, but accompanied his support for the new church with a stern admonition: “No money, no church.” He would support the new church project, but not if it meant putting the parish into debt. If the money ran out, the project would stop. The parish rose to the challenge. They started by finding ways to cut expenses. One way was to enlist the help of Br. Halfmann, a Jesuit Brother, as site engineer. Another way was to do much of the construction labor themselves. The parish then rented a stone quarry in Lockport for two years; the stone could be easily shipped by barge down the Erie Canal from Lockport to Buffalo. On August 25, 1878, the cornerstone was laid for the new church. After a splendid ceremony for the cornerstone-laying, hard reality followed as the parish struggled to keep the project advancing, and to keep the money for the project coming in. As the church arose, the west tower subsequently was redesigned, and ended up smaller than the massive east tower. Work proceeded slowly. The building was only completed 8 years later, in 1886. But when its doors opened it was fully paid for. The new church was consecrated on May 16, 1886. The ornate altars and the massive Johnson and Son organ were installed during Roether’s tenure as pastor.

Before Roether was finished at St. Ann’s Church, he had also constructed the rectory and the convent. The old church was renovated into classroom space. Roether’s tenure as pastor ended in 1888. Fr. William Kockerols succeeded him. He bought the Stations of the Cross and had bells installed in the east tower, six of them, ranging in weight from 500 pounds to a massive 7800 pounds. The big bell, named Sancta Anna, is the largest swinging bell in the city of Buffalo. Kockerols also affiliated St. Ann’s Church with the Shrine of St. Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec, which conveyed all the spiritual privileges to visitors to St. Ann’s Church had they made a pilgrimage to St. Anne de-Beaupre. Roether returned for a second term as pastor of St. Ann; in 1890 he purchased the stained glass windows for the church from the Royal Bavarian Art Works, F.X. Zettler, of Munich, Germany. The window sets were designed around three thematic cycles. In the nave, the windows depict the Apostles’ Creed. In the sanctuary and transepts, the upper row of windows depict scenes from the legend of St. Ann; the lower row depicts scenes from the life of Jesus and the Holy Family.

The basic parish plant was completed during the pastorate of Fr. Joseph Kreusch, who served at St. Ann’s from1891-1896. He directed the installation of the windows and completed much of the ornate woodwork of the church; he had the large wooden statues mounted over the columns, the work of woodcarver Heinrich Schmitt, who had a long career in Buffalo. He also decorated St. Mary of Sorrows on Genesee St. Kreusch installed a mechanical weight and pendulum-driven tower clock in 1895. That clock continues to function to this day. Kreusch also tore down the old church building to make way for construction of the massive school. Evidently, some parishioners criticized the magnitude of the new school project, which cost $107,000. But the gamble paid off. Not long after its completion, St. Ann’s School housed the largest Catholic grammar school population in the city.

From this time on, projects at the parish became more modest, and more of the parish’s energies shifted to repair and maintenance. The parish had a spectacular church: now it had to make sure it stayed that way. Electricity was installed in the church and school in 1904. Modern toilet facilities were added to the school in the 1910s. Fire damaged parts of the church attic in the early 1920s, which required repairs. The church interior was regularly cleaned and painted.

But the parish commitment to give their best to God by building a spectacular church is only part of the story. St. Ann’s parish quickly became a major neighborhood focal point that not only cared for the spiritual needs of its community, but also its social and economic needs. Parish clubs and societies proliferated. Among them in the early 20th century:

  • St. Francis Xavier School Society
  • St. Ann’s Men’s ClubYouth Sodality
  • Young Ladies’ Sodality
  • LibraryCatholic Workers’ Society
  • St. Elizabeth Society
  • St. Vincent Orphan Society
  • St. Ann’s Dramatic Circle
  • Knights of St. JohnYoung Ladies’ Sodality
  • St. John Berchmans Alumni
  • Ladies Auxiliary
  • Cub Scouts
  • Boy Scouts
  • Explorers
  • Girl Scouts
  • Scout Mothers
  • St. Ann’s Altar Society
  • Parish Council and Church Consultors
  • Catholic Benevolent Legion No. 197/Queen City Council
  • Catholic Workers’ Society Insurance Fund
  • Church Choir
  • St. Ann’s Musical Society
    • Brass Band
    • Orchestra
    • Liederkranz
    • Zither and Mandolin Club Men’s Sodality
  • St. Stanislaus (Kostka) Sodality
  • St. Ann Society
  • Christ Child Charity
  • St. Agnes Sodality
  • Ushers Club
  • Holy Childhood of Jesus Society
  • Catholic Mutual Benefit Society
  • Parent-Teachers Association
  • Bishop’s Committee
  • St. John Berchmans Altar Society
  • L.C.B.A, Branch 121
  • C.Y.C.
  • Married Ladies’ Sodality
  • St. Vincent de Paul Society
  • B.C.C.M
  • Holy Name Society
  • Apostleship of Prayer

The list of societies indicates just how complete St. Ann’s Church’s service was to its community. The Catholic Mutual Benevolent Society and the Catholic Workers’ Society Insurance Fund established a social safety net for struggling immigrants who often faced exploitation as expendable industrial workers. Many of the Germans at St. Ann’s Church had arrived in America very much imbued with a tradition of “Political Catholicism” from their German homelands. The powerful Catholic Center tradition there had long sought to steer a middle course between a growing Marxist-Socialist movement among the working classes and the vicious excesses of laissez-faire capitalism that had made Marxism so appealing to struggling workers. Those traditions continued at St. Ann’s Church, as it strove to keep its struggling congregation Catholic. A close alliance with the Buffalo Volksfreund, a secular newspaper, and the local Catholic Aurora und Christliche Woche, which shared a Catholic Center orientation, helped to keep the Germans at St. Ann’s proud of who they were as Germans and Catholics, and mindful of the important contributions they could offer America.

St. Ann’s Church also sought to elevate the cultural and intellectual life of its people. The school was the most important element of that plan. Crucial to the success of the school were not only the Jesuit priests and brothers who taught there, but also the many sisters. In the school’s first year, a Mr. Henry Lohman was the school’s only teacher. His wife joined him the second school year. In 1860, the Nardins took over education of the girls. In 1874, the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity took over the duties of staffing the school. Their affiliation with the school won for them numerous religious vocations from among the girls of the parish. Even more remarkably, their affiliation with St. Ann’s Church lasted through 2006, a remarkable history of service to the parish. In its earliest years, the school educated its students in German. By the turn of the 20th Century, the school offered a bilingual program. World War I bigotry and discrimination against Germans effectively ended exclusive German-language activities in the school and in the parish. Other societies also contributed to the cultural life of the community. The numerous music groups and the Dramatic Circle made the parish a self-contained cultural powerhouse. So too did its library. From 1901 until the Depression ruined it in 1932, the parish produced its own newspaper, the St. Anna Bote, or St. Ann’s Messenger.

More important charitable work also flourished: societies to help the poor proliferated. But bigger ventures also developed, many in response to the changing needs of the community. The parish opened a business school, St. Ann’s Commercial School, in 1918, which continued to train youth for careers in business until 1949, when the4program was amalgamated into the Bishop McMahon High School curriculum. The St. Rose of Lima Home was also established in 1918 as a safe rooming house for single young women who had come to Buffalo for work. It lasted until 1940. In 1941, St. Ann’s built a roller rink in the upper school hall, which became a social hot spot for the young and sometimes not-so-young of the neighborhood for many years. During World War II, when many women went to work to support the war effort, St. Ann’s Parish partnered with the Federal Works Administration to establish a Child Care Center where they could drop off their children while they worked.

St. Ann helped to create numerous new parishes from its original parish territory. St. Mary of Sorrows was created in 1870. Sacred Heart was created in 1875. Others followed: St. Agnes in Lovejoy was established out of St. Ann’s in 1883; St. Mary Magdalene in 1890; Holy Name of Jesus in 1896. St. Joachim, which actually was a mission of St. Ann’s Church from 1902 until 1905, was established as an independent parish in 1905.

By the 1940s much had changed at St. Ann’s Church. For one thing the parish had become much less German.  If World War I discrimination had started to beat the Germanness out of many parishioners, simple neighborhood demographics also far more benignly altered the ethnic makeup of the parish. By the 1940s, a large percentage of the parish had become Polish, a reflection of Buffalo’s large thriving Polish neighborhoods only a little to the east of St. Ann. In a sense, everyone in the neighborhood felt welcome at St. Ann, a tribute to its full list of services to the neighborhood.

After World War II, St. Ann’s Church began to feel the effects of prosperity after the Depression years and then the war years. Families began to leave the tired old neighborhood for the suburbs. The appeal of a soot-free environment, the easy affordability of automobiles and generous government programs, such as the G.I. Bill for veterans, made it easy for growing young families to build houses in the growing suburbs. St. Ann’s 1958 Centennial Jubilee Book—in a section entitled “The Challenge of 1958-2058.”—already indicates that the parish is feeling the pinch:

The centennial year of 1958 finds St. Ann’s at another decisive turning-point in its history. Modern conditions have brought new problems. The trend to suburban living has robbed the Parish of many of the old families who had been its staunchest pillars of support. Other families have moved in to replace the old, thus presenting the bold challenge to weld these new inhabitants into a unified, thriving, Catholic city parish, into a true earthly counterpart of the Kingdom of Heaven toward which all men are called to strive.

How will St. Ann’s meet this challenge? The answer is hidden from us now, locked in the secret counsels of God’s Loving Providence. But for anyone who can read the book of history and learn its lessons, there are many signs to justify optimism. Dynamic and foresighted leadership, dedication and devotion on the part of the parish priests and nuns, the unflagging energy and resourcefulness of the parish organizations, the unfailing loyalty of parishioners old and new—all these have made St. Ann’s the outstanding parish that it has been in its first 100 years. With God’s Grace they will continue to make it outstanding as it faces the challenge of its second century of service to God, Country, and the Catholics of the City of Buffalo.

The parish saw changes on the horizon, but nothing could have prepared it for the magnitude of those changes. As the old German and Polish families moved out and merged—and often lost—their identities into a new suburban culture, African American families moved in to take their place. Many of those families had come from rural lives in the South to seek wartime employment in northern industrial cities. World War I work opportunities had already swelled their numbers in Buffalo, adding to the very old, original African-American community that had grown slowly in the Michigan-Clinton-William area of the city. Buffalo’s prominence as a stop off on the underground railroad before the abolition of slavery in 1862 added to their numbers. During World War I and World War II both, many of these Black workers were housed on the fringes of Buffalo’s German neighborhood. Although the African Americans had longer histories in America than the German-American families they encountered there, the neighborhood viewed them as newcomers, and acceptance often came slowly, if at all.

Meanwhile, Buffalo’s growing African-American community both faced and presented new challenges in Buffalo. Their labor was welcome when there was nobody else to do the work. After World War II veterans returned home to reclaim their old jobs, African-Americans were increasingly pushed out of the job market and marginalized. Their lower East Side neighborhoods languished. Then they were forced out by well-meaning but heavy-handed government urban renewal that dislocated not only a large African-American neighborhood, but also Irish, Italian and Lebanese enclaves. One place for many to relocate was out Clinton, William, Broadway, and Genesee beyond Jefferson Ave. The heady rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and other social reform ideals of the 1960s—not always interpreted as originally intended—precipitated a riot on the East Side in 1967. Many frightened people left5neighborhoods that were too close to the action. Growing crime problems and school problems added to the overall misery. Then serious local economic downturns in the 1970s and 1980s ravaged the entire area.

All of these changes rocked St. Ann’s parish, but perhaps the biggest challenge was simply that the majority of African-American families who moved into St. Ann’s neighborhood to replace German-American and Polish-American families were not Catholic. There were a few, thanks to some early efforts based at St. Mary’s Church, St. Ann’s neighbor to the west. Still, St. Ann’s Church responded to the changes more successfully than most of the struggling erstwhile German parishes. St. Ann’s School gained a growing African-American student population, many not Catholic, but some who would become Catholic because of their experiences there. Many subsequently became the backbone of the parish as it entered its difficult years in the 1970s and beyond. Thanks to Jesuit and parish efforts, St. Ann also became an active center for community outreach to minister to a whole new set of needsits increasingly struggling neighborhood faced. Still, overall parish numbers continued to decrease through the 1970s and 1980s.

There were physical changes as well. A 1964 windstorm forced the shortening and the capping of both of St. Ann’s soaring spires. In 1966, in a far more avoidable tragedy, the great Johnson & Son organ was gutted out and sold for parts, its pipework now scattered all over Western New York and beyond. In 1988, the Jesuits decided to give up their old residence, building a more modest new house. The old rectory was remodeled into low-income apartments, that project launched in 1991.

Despite significant struggles, St. Ann’s parish soldiered on, a parish of highly motivated parishioners, a collection of older German-American and Polish-American and African-American families, who, true to the parish’s heritage, continued to do most of what needed to be done by themselves and at their own expense, a level of volunteerism that easily surpassed that of most parishes many times its size. New people were also added to the mix as troubles in Africa, especially Somalia, Rwanda and Ethiopia, sent new waves of refugees—some extremely well educated—to the Buffalo area. Many found a spiritual home at St. Ann’s Church, some temporarily, some more permanently. St. Ann’s Church continued to anchor its neighborhood.

Still, ominous signs loomed as the parish passed the year 2000. By the end of 2006, both the school and the small parish house that coordinated outreach activities were closed, and the remaining sisters in the convent were in the process of pulling out. Already by 2004 persistent rumors circulated that St. Ann’s would celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2008 and then be closed. By that time, numerous parishes had already been closed and merged, several in the 1970s and 1980s, and a large number in a central city reorganization in 1993. Hopes had been buoyed at St. Ann’s Church by the fact that Bishop Henry Mansell, bishop of Buffalo from 1995 until 2004, seemed to love St. Ann’s Church. After Mansell became Archbishop of Hartford, Bishop Edward Kmiec succeeded him as Bishop of Buffalo. Soon after his installation, Kmiec announced a major restructuring of the entire diocese based on shrinking area demographics, a shrinking number of priests and growing financial troubles. When his restructuring program—called “The Journey in Faith and Grace”—was unveiled, many people, despite the comforting title, knew what to expect. Downsizing plans had, in fact, been discussed for years before, and many of the people who had assembled the plans were still on the job in the chancery.

As parish cluster meetings and then vicariate meetings proliferated, it became clear that the criteria the diocese had established for evaluating parish viability were not kind to St. Ann. Representatives of St. Ann, led by Fr. James Joyce, the parish’s last Jesuit pastor, began to think that trying to establish St. Ann’s as an oratory because of its shrine affiliation with St. Anne-de-Beaupre, represented St. Ann’s best chance at having a future. A committee of parishioners and friends of the parish—the St. Ann’s Church and Shrine Revitalization Committee—formed in 2006to present what it considered a viable plan to the diocese. The other part of the story was that the Jesuits, who informed the diocese that they were facing a demographic crisis of their own, announced that they would pull out of the parish in September 2007. The diocese subsequently rejected plans for maintaining St. Ann as an oratory/occasional use site, and furthermore decided that St. Ann’s Church and Shrine should close and merge with SS. Columba/Brigid in October 2007, and hastily celebrate its 150th anniversary before the actual anniversary year of2008.

That diocesan recommendation elicited protests from the committee, which asked the bishop for a meeting. The diocese turned down the request. Only after vigorous lobbying by Fr. James Joyce and Fr. Roy Herberger of SS.Columba/Brigid Church, did the diocese relent, agreeing to give St. Ann’s Church its anniversary year before6ordering it closed in Fall of 2008. Still the future looked bleak. The Revitalization Committee developed into the Friends of St. Ann’s Revitalization Committee, which worked to hold parish life together after September 2007, once that there was no longer a resident priest. Fr. Roy Herberger, St. Ann’s new pastor, and the committee continued to try to find a good solution to what would become a troubling and expensive problem to the parishioners of the new merged parish and to the diocese if St. Ann’s were simply shuttered, stripped and left to go derelict in a neighborhood where no buyers were likely to show interest. The committee and the parish got busy and planned a full calendar of events for 2008, the parish’s 150th anniversary year, which included special reunions for the school and for the Knights of St. John. An annual German Mass became a regular staple of parish life at this time. Thanks to the efforts of dedicated parishioners and volunteers, the parish calendar grew busier as concerts, participation in Doors Open events, church tours and special liturgies multiplied. Sunday masses continued. Numbers of visitors grew, and finances solidified.

As activities multiplied, a potential solution developed when a group approached the diocese about establishing a religious arts center at St. Ann’s church, inviting interested parishioners to join the initiative. In the meantime the Buffalo Religious Arts Center was established at St. Francis Xavier Church in Black Rock, which had been closed in 2007. The mission of the Buffalo Religious Arts Center was to preserve at least some important artifacts from all of the churches the diocese was closing, and to preserve an important cultural heritage that belongs to all of Western New York. The vision of the Arts center was to eventually include St. Ann’s Church and Shrine as part of its holdings. According to that vision, St. Ann’s church would remain intact. In the meantime, the parishioners of St. Ann’s Church faced growing pressure from the diocese to establish a closing date. As the bishop readied a formal decree merging St. Ann’s parish into SS. Columba-Brigid in early 2011, the parishioners responded with an appeal to the Vatican. A letter to the parishioners and the community stated the reasons for the appeal and the spirit guiding it:

As most of you are probably aware, the Diocese of Buffalo recently announced to the parishioners of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine that St. Ann’s Church would be secularized effective July 27, 2011 the day after the Feast of St. Ann, in order to sell thec hurch to the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. Granted, there is good news in all of this. In the worst possible case, St. Ann’s Church could end up being sold to an organization that intends to keep the church intact, and has a real interest in maintaining the place. And the diocese seems to have developed some sense of the cultural and historic significance of St. Ann’s Church. That’s progress.

But still, when a church gets secularized, that changes things. Many members of our group have occasionally found ourselves in situations where we visited churches that had been secularized as a result of the Journey of Faith and Grace. It is a strange feeling to enter a former Catholic church, even if it has not yet been stripped out. Once Jesus in the Eucharist is no longer permitted to reside there, the church loses its spiritual power. There is a sense of desolation, and nothing is as beautiful about the church anymore. A bridge between God and humanity has been destroyed, and what was once the house of God has truly become only some old building. There is a sense of desolation once Jesus has been—in a sense—evicted, and a parish community has been scattered. For this reason, the parishioners of St. Ann’s parish have decided to appeal to the Vatican in order to preserve St. Ann’s Church as a parish church and as a shrine so that it can continue to be an important spiritual presence in Western New York. Parishioners have a right under Canon Law to appeal diocesan decisions to close parishes to the Vatican, and the parishioners of St. Ann’s Church and Shrine have chosen to exercise this right. We intend to do so in a faith-filled spirit of respect and Christian charity.

We do not know how much longer St. Ann’s Church and Shrine will exist—or in what form—as both the parish and the Buffalo Religious Arts Center await a ruling. We do not know how much or what kind of history will be able to be written about one of Western New York’s most magnificent churches. We do not know how much more history will be able to be written about St. Ann’s storied and remarkable parish community whose sense of service and sacrifice is second to none. The uncertainties remain great. But so are the faith and hope.

St. Ann, pray for us.