Saving the Basilica: Historic Preservation a Question of Values

August 8, 2011

St. Adalbert Basilica in Buffalo, NY

Historic preservation is an issue that tends to tug at one’s heartstrings. I’m sure that many of you have experienced the loss of some beloved architectural treasure in your own community  – perhaps an old historic train station boarded up and looted, or a stately home sold and closed to the public, or an old library torn down. And, I can imagine that people’s reactions vary greatly when these losses occur. Often, a small, dedicated group of community activists will step forward and defend the building that is set to be destroyed. Others – perhaps citing the community’s budgetary limitations as a reason – will argue that it cannot be maintained. Meanwhile, I suspect that in these cases many people will remain indifferent. “It’s a real shame,” they might say, but in a time of economic crises, global wars, looming environmental concerns and so many other major world issues, is trying to save old buildings really that important?

Ultimately, historic preservation is a question of values. For some people, history is valuable in and of itself. History is what gives us our identity, rooting us in space and time, helping us to construct meaningful narratives of who we are and where we’re going. By looking toward our ancestors’ experiences, by familiarizing ourselves with the struggles which they had to deal with, we become better equipped to face the challenges of the present day.

But for others, history does not have any deep inherent meaning beyond a few sentimental memories of days gone by; preserving the past is not crucial to understanding present situations and working toward the future. For the many people of  this mentality, it is difficult if not impossible to see the value in preserving old buildings for their own sake.

My hometown of Buffalo, NY has seen many such losses over the years. First there was the closure of the Buffalo Central Terminal, a beautiful art deco train station, in 1979, after which it was completely looted and destroyed. Then, there were the churches.  As residents fled the city of Buffalo for the suburbs during the ’70’s and 80’s, many  Catholic churches – most of them built in the nineteenth century by Polish immigrants to Buffalo – were either boarded up and sold or else left to struggle with meager attendance and a barely sustainable budget. Now, entire neighbourhoods of Buffalo are reduced to urban ruins: boarded up businesses, empty lots left behind from torn-down houses, poverty that shouldn’t exist in a country as wealthy as the United States.

The reasons for Buffalo’s decline are complex and beyond the scope of this post. Many of them stem from Buffalo’s status as a post-industrial city; after the steel and grain industries were outsourced to other locations, no new private-sector jobs were created. Other factors include government corruption, organized crime, a police force which does the bare minimum toward stopping gang violence and drug trafficking, racism, and many other ingrained social problems. Many Buffalonians who were raised in ethnic city neighbourhoods in the 50’s and 60’s grew up with the desire to leave their communities of origin and achieve a higher social status; they moved to the suburbs and never looked back.  It is understandable that many of these are the same people who simply cannot see the value of historic preservation.

However, not all Buffalo residents are content to witness the deterioration of their hometown. One group is working to restore the Central Terminal and find new uses for it, if not as a transit centre than perhaps as an art gallery. In 1993, two idealistic Buffalo Catholics  bought the abandoned St. Luke’s church from the Diocese of Buffalo and transformed it into St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, a nonprofit organization which operates completely without government assistance and serves Buffalo’s poorest. Individuals and groups like these know that historic preservation is much more than a matter of sentimental concern for the past. Instead, it involves retelling  past narratives in a way that makes them relevant to the present and the future.

Buffalo’s latest historic preservation challenge concerns St. Adalbert Basilica, which,  despite being the oldest basilica on the East Coast of the United States, is now part of a diocesan downsizing plan. When threatened with closure four years ago, the church approached the Vatican  and requested a confirmation declaring that it is indeed a basilica worthy of remaining open for worship. Although the church did receive this confirmation, Buffalo’s Bishop Edward Kmiec is determined to close St. Adalbert for regular Sunday worship, allowing it to be used only for special occasions such as weddings and funerals. Parishioners argue that such an arrangement is not viable – economically, socially or spiritually. According to Janet Kniazuk in her August 5, 2011 letter to the Buffalo News,

“The Vatican ruled that the basilica must remain open and accessible as a place of worship, and that it is up to the Diocese of Buffalo to integrate this ruling into its plans to merge St. Adalbert and St. John Kanty parishes. Rather than embrace the spirit of the ruling and give the merged parish the best chance for success moving forward, Bishop Edward Kmiec has instead ruled the basilica will become an oratory that can be used only for rare special occasions. This will go into effect after the Sept. 18 Mass celebrating the 125th anniversary of our parish.

This is simply setting us up for failure. Without a regular weekend Mass, the merged parish won’t have the resources to maintain the building, And, yes, it will be up to the parish to maintain the basilica, not the diocese. So St. Adalbert is to have no regular Mass and no diocesan responsibility, despite Kmiec’s recent ruling that St. Casimir parish was to become an oratory as well, but would have a regular Sunday Mass and would be under the direct care of the diocese.

Kmiec and the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo are clearly creating a double standard, and in the process are putting at risk the oldest basilica on the East Coast and the faith communities of both St. Adalbert and St. John Kanty. I cannot imagine the Vatican had any of that in mind when it issued its ruling.”

Upon hearing this news, my mother and I decided to join the campaign to save Saint Adalbert by contributing our own letter to the Bishop, in which we stated the following:

We know that you are not a native Buffalonian, but for those of us who are, your decision to close St. Adalbert Basilica is a thorn in the side not only of the Catholic Church, but of our entire Western New York community.

Our concerns extend well beyond sentimental memories of St. Adalbert’s long and rich history (though we certainly believe that this history is worth preserving). We are very worried about the future of what is clearly the most vulnerable and threatened part of our diocese: the East Side of Buffalo.

As you may have read in The Buffalo News, the West Side of Buffalo has recently started to make a comeback; the North Side is strong; the loyal South Buffalonians take pride in their neighborhood. Unfortunately, no one is taking pride in Buffalo’s East Side, which continues to be home to some of Western New York’s most impoverished people. Our hearts break every time we drive through the East Side and see another abandoned lot from a torn-down house or another boarded-up business. However, amid the poverty and dilapidation that characterize almost every corner of the East Side, there are two savings graces: the Broadway Market and the gorgeous churches established by our ancestors.

These churches – whose beauty arguably rivals that of many of the cathedrals found in Europe – are more than just monuments to Buffalo’s prosperous past. In a neighborhood characterized by ruin, a basilica such as St. Adalbert is a beacon of hope for the present and the future.

Western New Yorkers do support the East Side when given encouragement. While making our annual pilgrimage to seven churches this past Holy Thursday, we found the neighborhood bustling with more pilgrims than we’d seen in years. A recent social media campaign to boost attendance at a Sunday Mass at St. Adalbert proved successful. These signs may be small, but they are a definite step in the right direction toward rebuilding the East Side community.

As Janet Kniazuk pointed out in a recent letter to Everybody’s Column of The Buffalo News, the diocesan plan to keep St. Adalbert Basilica open as an oratory is not viable. She also points out the discrepancy between diocesan treatment of St. Adalbert and St. Casimir parishes. The latter, also to become an oratory, will continue to have regular Sunday Mass and be under the direct care of the diocese. We cannot understand the inconsistency in the treatment of these two cases, particularly when St. Adalbert Basilica has received a ruling from the Vatican that it must remain open and accessible as a place of worship.

The current plan to close the Basilica for Sunday Mass compromises the Diocese of Buffalo’s moral integrity and credibility as a reliable spiritual institution. We hardly feel the need to ask you “What would Jesus do?”; instead, we urge you to look at your own conscience. The future of our Western New York communities – and the role of the Catholic Church as a credible agent in those communities – is at stake

Will this letter make a difference? To be honest, I am not so sure. The Diocese of Buffalo is determined to close this church, and at this point only a small group of people – mostly parishioners of the church itself – are stepping up to save it. And for me, this is a major concern. Why are the wealthy suburban Western New York parishes not adding their voice in support of St. Adalbert? Why is it that so many people are content to see yet another cultural, architectural and spiritual gem thrown in the ditch?

It all comes down to the question of what people value, and it’s hard to convince people who pride themselves on having gotten away from what they view as nothing more than a rotting, dilapidated urban neighbourhood to turn around and come to its defense. Nevertheless, this is exactly what the parishioners of St. Adalbert need to do if they are going to save their church. We need to show people that history is indeed worth preserving, that past narratives are beautiful and deserve to be honoured, that only by understanding where we come from can we know where we can go. St. Adalbert Basilica may be taken from us, but we’re not going to let it go without a fight.

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5 Responses to “Saving the Basilica: Historic Preservation a Question of Values”

  1. joan roberts said

    we can sympathize with your agonized pleas for your church–but what sorts of terrible choices does the bishop face?? can you come up with a viable, continuing source of financial support for St Adalbert’s??

  2. Yes, the question of finances is important. Another issue is the shortage of priests – there simply aren’t enough priests to staff all these parishes, which is why bishop feels compelled to close some of them. Nevertheless, I still believe that preservation is a question of values – if people truly value something, then they find the money to keep it going. St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy in Buffalo has subsisted for nearly twenty years without government support simply because the whole Western New York community values the work that they do, and so private and corporate doners/volunteers have come together to support it. St. Adalbert is just as valuable for similar reasons – it is home to a mission called the Response to Love Center. However, it is also valuable for the other reasons I’ve mentioned – its history, its beauty, and its potential to become a more active force in the community. I have heard of other diocese in the United States that, when faced with similar problems, have launched programs in which wealthy suburban parishes are urged to donate a small portion of their income to support struggling urban ones. I am sure that something similar could be done here, but in that case it’s a matter of persuading suburb-dwellers that these city parishes are worth saving.

    I should mention that St. Adalbert is not actually my parish. My family is from the suburbs, and I was raised in a local suburban church, but my parents took me to Mass at various city churches at least once per month when I was growing up. My parents also recently signed up as parishioners at another city church (which shares priests and an administration with St. Adalbert). If more suburbanites would take the initiative to come to the city and support it, we wouldn’t have this problem.

    • Cathleen Szczutkowski said

      Of the 3 parishes that our pastor is in charge of, St. Adalbert’s is the most financially sound. And please do not associate the Response to Love Center with the parish of St. Adalbert’s Basilica, as any parishioner of St. Adalbert’s Basilica is no longer welcome as a volunteer at the Center. There are several rather large suburban churches that are fully aware of the situation, but they dare not speak out for us for fear of the same happening to them.

      • Cathleen, please forgive my error in associating the parish with Response to Love. Yes, I was aware of the disconnect, but I was NOT aware that St. Adalbert’s parishioners were no longer welcome as volunteers. That is nothing short of scandalous. The more I learn about this situation, the angrier I get. My family actually belongs to St. Stanislaus, but we strongly support St. Adalbert and indeed all of the East Side churches that are under threat.

        I really wish that the suburban churches would speak out on behalf of St. Adalbert. If the whole diocese were to speak out, we would have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Bishop Kmiec is only one person (along with the small group of people around him making this decision) but we are many. Bishop Kmiec, what would Jesus do?

  3. […] as I have already mentioned in this blog, several of Buffalo’s urban churches are under threat of closure by the diocese, and many […]

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