The History of Our Lady of Lourdes Church- Buffalo, NY

Its origins trace back to the first Catholic Congregation in Buffalo

By George Thomas Apfel and Paul W. Apfel

I have a personal interest in the abandoned Catholic Church at the corner of Main and Best streets as this was where I was baptized, and where my older brothers attended school and were alter boys. The church was clearly visible from the bedroom window of our house on Ellicott Street; it was only a block away. Our Lady of Lourdes was more than a house of worship; it was the neighborhood community center, offering a place to keep kids off the street. It did that with a combination of sporting and social events and even had bowling lanes in the basement, one of the few churches with such a luxury.  
In chronicling the history of Our Lady of Lourdes, the very beginnings of this parish go back to the very first Catholic congregation in the city of Buffalo. In 1832 a mixture of German, French, and Irish immigrants all worked together to build and dedicate the Lamb of God Church. The construction of the church was about the only time the diverse ethnic groups would work together, as immediately the Germans complained of the pastor not allowing them to manage the financial affairs of the church. In 1837, the Irish members seceded from the church to establish St. Patrick's Church, where they could worship in the English language. In 1843, a group of recently arrived German immigrants, unhappy with the attitude of the Board of Trustees, left to form St. Mary's Church. In 1850, the French members left to form St. Peter's French Catholic Church.1

The French built St. Peter's on the present site of the Hotel Lafayette on Lafayette Square. The congregation outgrew this building as the city boomed towards the end of the 19th century, the little old church was falling to decay and the site was valuable for business. The congregation finally approved of the site selected by Bishop Quigley and the pastor, at the corner of Main and Best Streets.2

Lourdes as it appears today

   

The November 19, 1898 Buffalo Morning Express carried a story of the new church:

NEW FRENCH CHURCH

It will be finished in about a month

NOTRE DAME DE LOURDES

Edifice is very handsome and will cost $100,000

Franco-American Bazaar will be held at the church beginning tomorrow night.

 

    Ca. 1902 Map of Buffalo

 
The new French Catholic Church, built at the corner of Main an  d Best streets by the congregation of old St. Peter’s Church, will be finished and ready for dedication within 30 days. The corner-stone bears the new name of the church in both French and English-“Notre Dame de Lourdes” and “Our Lady of Lourdes.” When finished, it will be one of the most beautiful churches in Buffalo.

Most of the money used in building the new church was secured through the sale of the old church property at the corner of Washington and Clinton streets. The old church was built in 1850 when the congregation was comparatively poor and the architect who designed it had all he could do to plan a building sufficiently large to accommodate the neighborhood without wasting any money on architectural beauty. The old church, therefore, was extremely plain. The new church is a monument to its neighborhood. It is expected that over $100,000 will be required to finish it, including the interior furnishings.

The style of architecture of the new church is a happy blending of the Romanesque and Renaissance, the Romanesque largely prevailing. The material used is Medina Sandstone, with the exception of the stone used in the arches and trimmings. The front, which is on Main Street, has a large arched entrance with a smaller one on each side. The general effect is that of massiveness. The little stone carving that has been done is along simple lines and the absence of "gingerbread work" is creditable to the architect and the committee that passed upon the plans.

There are two steeples in front. The one a little north of the center is fitted with a bell fry which some day, it is intended, shall contain a fine peal of chimes.

Excellent taste has been displayed in the interior design. There is a large corridor just within the entrance which is vaulted and floored with marble. The body of the church has no pillars which are a nuisance in so many churches in the city, and the decorations are to be of the most simple character. The ceiling is vaulted and of a rich design. Everything above the oak wainscoting is to be pure white with the exception of a delicate buff used on the trimmings. The effect is as grand and artistic as if gold leaf and many rich colors had been used. In the front of the church in the choir and organ loft finished in quartered oak. The windows are to be of stained glass.

The new church will have a seating capacity of 750.

A Franco-American bazaar will be opened at the new church tomorrow night and will continue until December 2nd. Some exceedingly novel features in booths, decorations and costumes are promised. The entertainment committee also announces many unique features. The bazaar is to be held more for the purpose of interesting the people in the neighborhood in the new church than for the purpose of producing any large income. The proceeds will be used in furnishing the church."4


There are four cornerstones on the Main street side of the building which represent the history of the parish, “Notre Dame De Lourdes” which pays homage to its French roots; the order of nuns who taught at Lourdes were Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. A 1924 remodeling of the church by Rev. Albert Rivers enlarged the sanctuary and placed pillars in the Basilica style which enhanced the beauty of the building and gave more room for the congregation. If you look closely at the ca. 1902 Map of Buffalo you can see “Notre Dame de Lourdes” at Main and Best. Other cornerstones "St. Pierre's 1850-1898" and "St. Peter's 1850-1898" are on the southwest corner of the church.

 

I find it curious as to how a French church would occupy a mostly German neighborhood. In the 1890 Buffalo City directory and 1900 Federal Census the residents of the neighborhood are predominantly German. There are some clues to this in looking at Buffalo of the late 1890’s, this was at the edge of town where land most likely was cheaper; plus it was close to North Street where a number of influential Buffalonians of the 19th century had grand homes. One of these was prominent Buffalo Postmaster and Brewery owner George J. Meyer at 279 North Street who became a member of Lourdes congregation. After being married at St. Michael’s in 1888, his funeral was held at Lourdes. There are indications that the generous Meyer was a major financial backer of this parish.

 

Early parishioners recall the interior of the church a beautiful blue, it was adorned with murals painted by Italian artist Carlo Antonia Nisita who’s works also grace St. Anne’s church. Lourdes was one of the smaller Catholic parishes in Buffalo, it’s church and school modest in size in comparison to the larger Catholic parishes. Thomas J. Murphy in his book “Growing Up and Growing Old in Buffalo, NY” describes Lourdes Parochial school in the 1940’s as very small, the nuns in most cases would teach combined classes of two grades, and Murphy’s 1946 graduating class only had nine boys. But there was a great deal of learning with the low student/teacher ratio. Murphy said each year the two premiere boys Catholic High Schools, Canisius and St. Joseph’s Collegiate institute held entrance examinations for eighth grade boys and each school awarded scholarships to the four students with the highest test scores. Four of the nine members of the class of 1946 ranked in this “top 25.”3

1952 Lourdes Diocesan CYC softball champs- Paul on bottom row on the right, next to him our neighbor across the street on Ellicott--Donald Biggie


My brother Paul Apfel provided much information about the neighborhood surrounding Lourdes as he grew up attending Lourdes through the eighth grade.  His eighth grade teacher, Sister Marie Thomas was a sibling of Canisius College graduate and basketball coach Joe Niland; both were cousins of the Niland brothers made famous when their story was fictionalized in the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Our Lady of Lourdes of the early 1950’s is remembered by my brother for more than a place of worship and school; it was his neighborhood cultural center, featuring primary education, religion, and social activities. Paul recalls, “Other than family, it was the center of our lives.” Pickup games on the church’s asphalt basketball court routinely involved high chool and collegiate players. And Lourdes was one of the very few churches that had a bowling alley, it was in the basement of the school. My brothers Paul and Bob--who were also alter boys--often worked as pin-setters for the “Lourdes Lanes.” What the church lacked in size it more than made up for in scholastic and cultural amenities.  Paul would go on to attend Bishop Fallon High School and worked the largest Courier-Express newspaper route in the city of Buffalo to pay his way through school.  He also earned extra money selling Sunday papers in front of the church after mass to parishioners. The Lourdes neighborhood my family lived in the 1940’s and 50’s was mostly residential with some industrial, Osmose an example of the latter on Ellicott street. Paul recalls the corner of Ellicott and Best next to our house, “There was a Mom & Pop grocery store on that corner where my school chums and I used to get penny candy. The owner was a fellow named George, who I believed lived over the store and who suffered from some illness that caused severe blisters on his legs. I recall him often sitting in the store’s yard, which paralleled Ellicott Street, with his legs exposed to the sun in what I believe what a vain hope for a cure. The house immediately next door to the store on Best St. housed the Anthony family. Their mother was deceased and the father ran the house. I believe – and this is speculative - the family had middle-eastern roots, possibly Lebanese with an impossible-to-pronounce last name. In the interests of blending in with the American culture, the family changed their name to a more-pronounceable Anthony. Ronald Anthony was a year or two ahead of me in school."
He ultimately attended Canisius College, majored in physics and went into the Army as an officer after having attended the Platoon Leaders Course (PLC) during one of his college summers. "Civic Stadium aka War Memorial Stadium was also in the neighborhood, I still remember hearing the bands play and the crowds cheer from our house. Paul recalls “I used to attend midget auto races there, and one of my classmates lived across the street from the stadium where they parked cars in their driveway and on the lawn to bring in extra money. I was also known to have scaled a fence occasionally to get into the stadium without paying.” To help pay his way through Bishop Fallon high school, he worked the largest Courier-Express paper route in the city which was three routes combined.  Paul recalls, "I also sold Sunday papers in front of Lourdes, including those Sundays in the midst of winter, some of it pretty miserable" 
It was the church’s small size which would ultimately contribute to its demise, with the city shrinking in population and the surrounding neighborhood vanishing Lourdes was one of the first ten parishes boarded up when the diocese performed mass closures in 1993, it’s congregation merged into other nearby parishes. The statuary was sold off, one of the pieces rescued by two local catholic priests according to Joe Hayden. The bowling alley lies silent, the basketball court no longer exists, and the magnificent building remains as a vacant shell at the corner of Main Street and “Old Best.” With a number of different owners, there are no present plans for re-use. The resurgence of the area and the fact this is not a gargantuan structure perhaps holds promise for its rebirth.

 

Our Lady of Lourdes Statues now are in the "Garden of Our Lady" in a Catholic Cemetery near Buffalo


*Update* On July 3, 2014 Carl Paladino, the current owner of the church, school and rectory, had the rectory demolished.  The school is next for the wrecking ball.  Paladino purchased the properties after a failed auction on September 13, 2008. 

(Click the thumbnails to view full size)

Only one bid of $24,000 was submitted for the property which was not accepted by the current owner.  A previous owner hired a salvage company which gutted the building of most of the contents.  It's future remains unknown. 

Many thanks to

David Torke's fixBuffalo blog:

http://fixbuffalo.blogspot.com

 

Interior photos courtesy of David Torke's fixBuffalo blog


References:

1 James Napora, “Houses of Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York”

2 Rev. Thomas Donohue, D.D., “History of the Diocese of Buffalo” (Buffalo, New York: The Buffalo Catholic Publication Co., Inc., 1929), pp. 213-214.

3 Thomas J. Murphy “Growing Up and Growing Old in Buffalo, NY” (iUniverse, Dec. 2004)

4 Buffalo Morning Express, Sunday November 19, 1898

Joe Heyden website, “Faith Elevators” http://www.faithelevators.us/fe006.html

Paul W. Apfel, Our Lady of Lourdes student 1944-1952

The Apfel family, residents of the neighborhood and Our Lady of Lourdes Parishioners 1939-1957.

ca. 1902 Map of Buffalo link:

More early history

Bibliography

1850-52 baptisms and marriages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contents © 2008 George Thomas Apfel

Updated May 28, 2014