All of the parish restructuring in the Diocese of Buffalo has been completed for years now, but some local Catholics still wonder what happens to the physical presence of a church when it closes its doors. Through a variety of methods, the diocese has worked with several partners to find reuse for these religious facilities, both inside and out.
"We've been fortunate," said Steven Roth, associate director of Buildings and Properties for the diocese. "When a church closes, it usually merges with another church, so the (merged) church takes whatever they can take. Once they do that, they then open it up to other parishes in the diocese. That pretty much takes care of it."
Take the former St. Gerard Church in Buffalo. Closed in 2008, the church was the center of a plan to move the entire building - brick by brick, piece by piece - to Norcross, Ga., where it would live on as a Catholic parish. However, the Catholic community in Georgia was unable to raise the millions of dollars it would take to move everything down south.
The Georgia community bought some of the interior items, such as pews, windows and the altar, of St. Gerard's for their new parish. The Buffalo church was then recently sold to a Muslim owner, who plans to turn it into a mosque.
"If you take a general church that has closed, the plan is to move everything out of it to the merged parish, then we put it up on the market like a regular real estate sale," Roth said. "We don't have a preference, as long as its put to good use. I'd say about 80 percent have been sold to other religious orders."
In another example, St. Mary Church in Lockport has seen a reuse revitalization since its painful closing process over the past few years. The church itself is currently leased to the Chapel, an Amherst Christian community. However, the Chapel was interested in renovating the interior of St. Mary's and wished to dispose of some items, such as the pews, last summer.
Ann Marie Zon came to the rescue. A native of Western New York who spends a significant amount of time traveling for missionary work, offered to take the pews and ship them to Nicaragua. Once there, the pews will be used to construct a new Catholic church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boaco.
"They were really good pews; they don't make them like that anymore," said Zon, who has served as a missionary since 1979.
Several students from Canisius High School in Buffalo helped Zon remove the pews, Stations of the Cross and candle holders from St. Mary Church. She then paid $5,000, raised through donations, to ship them to Nicaragua. The shipment arrived the day after Zon returned to Buffalo for Christmas, along with clothing, school and medical supplies, religious and household items.
"You know how it is when you close a church," she said. "The people ache that this is gone. For us, it was a big boom. Here, we're building churches, not closing them. Sometimes it works out the way it should as far as the need goes."
The Buffalo Religious Arts Center combined two methods of reuse. The organization first purchased the former St. Francis Xavier Church, which closed in 2007. They then transformed the church building in the Black Rock neighborhood to collect, preserve and display art and items from closed churches across the country, including 38 right here in the diocese of Buffalo. There are also items from cities like Boston and Philadelphia.
Today the Buffalo Religious Arts Center has collected between 500 to 600 pieces of religious items ranging from statues, prayer books and oil paintings.
Mary Holland, president of the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, said their collection not only retains religious artifacts, but also remembers the people who crafted these pieces.
"Who are these people," she asked. "It's actually a story about who all these people were."
Many of the pieces rotate in and out of public viewing. In the former baptismal room of the church, the center has displayed several complete stained glass windows lit from behind, so all of their beauty and art can be clearly seen.
"Stained glass windows are kind of the favorite (of visitors)," Holland said. "When you go into a church, they're usually way up high, and we've brought them down (to eye level)."
Among the best acquisitions is an altar from the former Ascension Church, and Stations of the Cross from St. John the Evangelist. While the Religious Arts Center acquired most of its collections during the Journey in Faith and Grace, they still obtain some items when people bring them in individually.
"The feeling is that somebody in Buffalo saved them so they wouldn't go on eBay and get sent elsewhere," Holland said. "It's not just Catholic churches, it's any church that had to close a big, beautiful building."
The Buffalo Religious Art Center offers tours upon request.