A visit to the First Ward Neighborhood in the city of Buffalo to Our Lady Of Perpetual Help to learn about a historic church and to sit in on a Buffalo Mass Mob
by Chris Clemens
This trip was somewhat out of the ordinary for us. Typically we find a place we are interested in because of its history or uniqueness. Then we reach out attempting to arrange a time when it’s best to visit.
As part of our research, a few blogs and grassroots movements out of Buffalo have popped up on our radar. Most recently, a movement called “Buffalo Mass Mob” (BMM) has sprung up. The organization is a mutual effort of a few bloggers and community activists.
Buffalo Mass Mob
The concept is simple really. The BMM folks choose a few sacred sites that are particularly noteworthy and while at one time had large congregations, recently have decreased attendance. Lower attendance means less awareness. Ultimately that means less money to support structures need more maintenance as they grow older.
Once BMM has chosen four sites, they put them up on their website for the community to vote on. What happens next is even more simple. On a chosen date, people show up to worship and provide support to whichever sacred site received the most votes.
Over the years many have asked how you can join us in visiting many of the places we’ve gone. While we love the idea of having friends come along, we unfortunately just can’t take everyone!
When the Mass Mob concept popped up, we realized that it would allow us the opportunity to take Exploring the Burned Over District (ETBOD) to the next step in educating folks about Rochester’s diverse spiritual history and would allow us the opportunity to bring you along on some of our adventuring.
For a couple months we’ve been discussing how it would work but we wanted to attend a Buffalo Mass Mob ourselves. On January 12th we made the trek out to Our Lady Of Perpetual Help on O’Connell Street in the First Ward of Buffalo.
Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is in large part a church dedicated to Mary. The Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, 1897 was when Bishop Quigley established the parish. He did so by joining some folks from both St. Brigid’s and St. Stephen’s parishes.
The first pastor for the parish was Father Richard C. O’Connell for whom the name of the street was later changed to honor.
O’Connell immediately began building the parish and the church. He oversaw the laying of the cornerstone on the Feast of the Presentation which occurred in 1897 on November 27. From that cornerstone, the neo-Gothic Medina sandstone church was built by the Buffalo design firm of Lansing and Beieri. That team already had a reputation for noteworthy structures in the city.
A Mobbed Mass
As we found parking and began our ascent toward the church, before even getting inside it became immediately obvious that the efforts of the Mass Mob were a success. People were parking blocks away and all walking toward the church. There even seemed to be an excitement in the air.
An Associated Press reporter stopped us on the sidewalk and asked a few questions. It was then we realized that the reach of the grassroots social media campaign was a tremendous accomplishment. Clearly people from all over the city were paying attention.
Just inside the front doors of the church volunteers were handing out pamphlets and greeting visitors. Occasionally we’d overhear someone say something like, “Where did all these people come from??” and “Isn’t this fantastic!? Look at all these people in our church!!”
The ‘Pets’ (as the parish is affectionately known) on average have about 40 people in attendance in a Sunday mass. Saturday mass is slightly less, and a small daily mass often sees no more than five people gathered. On this morning estimates of over 300 people filling the sanctuary left standing room only.
Rochester To Buffalo
While still on crutches from an ankle break in November, I was grateful to find a seat near the back.
Some women in the pew behind me were taking photos and chatting about how wonderful it was to have all the new faces in the crowd and mentioned aloud that she wondered where we all had come from. I turned to butt into their conversation and said, “I can’t speak for the others, but my friend and I came from Rochester.” Her face lit up while she exclaimed, “Rochester!!! This is so great so many people want to see our church! Why would you come all that way?”
I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the few people that were now involved in the conversation and explained the purposes of this blog. Out of an entire sanctuary with a few hundred people, wouldn’t you know that we chose to sit in the one exact seat that remained near Bert (Bertha) Hyde, a pleasant, chatty older woman who was the historian for the First Ward and curator at their local museum.
Inside Our Lady Of Perpetual Help
As mass began the ornate sanctuary that the Pets have called home for over a hundred years started to become even more noticeable.
The stained glass above the main altar depicting Matthew, Luke, Mark and John, the transept shrines to St. Anthony and the Sacred Heart that each sit below more stained glass each featuring the Adoration of the Magi and the Resurrection and the warm glow of light that shone through, all giving the crowd a slight respite from the realization that outside the building it was grey and frigid.
The nave is flanked by even more stained glass. One side is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the other to Jesus Christ. Bert pointed out how proud they were of their stained glass from Australia. It’s obvious why they’re so proud, it’s all beautiful.
One other area of the sanctuary that stood out to me was precisely the opposite of the beauty I just attempted to describe.
A Church In Need Of Repairs
In one area of the sanctuary there was flaking paint, crumbling walls and pillars, grey and brown water spots seeping through the once robin’s egg blue ceilings. It all painted a picture of a building that once was the proud glory of this small Irish community, but now was in need of serious restoration with no one to cover the bill.
Bert mentioned that there was a leak in the roof somewhere and water had been joining them inside the building more than they’d prefer.
It’s a condition that we’ve seen countless times in our travels around sacred spaces. Congregations that were at one time bustling and vibrant built extravagant structures that were incredible works of art. Now for a myriad for reasons, the smaller still holding on congregations find it difficult to find the resources to maintain such restorative projects.
Why The Buffalo Mass Mob Works
The Buffalo Mass Mob initiative has set out precisely to bring attention and awareness to the greater denizens of the city about the landmarks that inspire pride in the history of their city. Some may not be Catholic, but that doesn’t mean a non-Catholic can’t appreciate the history of the building and the importance it has played in building that community. Indeed, I’m not a Roman, but I fully support the preservation of the Coliseum!
I gathered that many in the crowd that morning weren’t Catholic based on how many empty seats there were during the offering of communion, but the idea that bringing awareness and education about not only preserving the architecture of the buildings around the city is just as important as providing a platform for bringing awareness to a cultural and spiritual diversity that makes up the community of a city.
After mass I sought out the four members of the Buffalo Mass Mob team, but only got a minute to talk with them before they were whisked off for media photos and press ops. Luckily, the Pets had already planned a large refreshments/coffee hour at a community center around the corner and we got a chance to meet back up with them over coffee and snacks.
Wrapping Up The Day
Alan Oberst, Chris Byrd, Danielle Huber and Greg Witul sat and chatted, though we often were distracted when members of the congregation or even the pastor of the church would come over to share how grateful they were for the efforts of the group. It felt perfectly like a community coming together should.
To add even further to the feeling of making new friends, Bert insisted that we follow her over to the Waterfront Memories museum so she could open it up to show us all of the hard work she had put into collecting the history of the neighborhood. Alan and Greg were just as stoked as we were for the invite, so the lot of us continued the day in looking through binders and binders of collected photos and news articles and posters and artifacts from the area.
If you’re exploring the First Ward in Buffalo (you’ll know you’re there because of the unique grain silos everywhere) be sure to stop in to the museum and say hello to Bert!
Your next task is to make sure that you keep up on both the Buffalo Mass Mob happenings, and now the brand new ROC Mass Mob happenings! Yes…we have officially begun the process to make this happen here and we are getting ready to announce the very first one in the Rochester area. We are super excited about this and hope you all can join us. Checkout all of these sites to be sure you don’t miss any information!!
[UPDATE: There were two Rochester Mass Mob events, and both were met with trepidation, and even negative responses. After doing two, and getting a bad response, we decided not to try doing a third.]
Resources and Additional Reading
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens