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Saving St. Ann's

Preservation Buffalo Niagara says there are at least three potential buyers for St. Ann's on Broadway, which the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo has slated for demolition. (photo by David Torke,

About 50 St. Ann’s parishioners—wearing green t-shirts with the legend “We are St. Ann’s Church” and an image of the church—showed up at the Common Council public hearing Tuesday on a recommendation for landmark status for the recently shut-down complex. Many of them spoke, all in favor of the recommendation.

“Insane,” is how one of them described Catholic Diocese of Buffalo opposition to the designation, given that it would cost the diocese an estimated several million to demolish the structure, but landmark status would make it eligible for revenue sources that could make it attractive to a buyer, in addition to preserving a beautiful and culturally and historically significant building.

Though possibly somewhat half-hearted opposition. Based on a submission by spokesman for the diocese Kevin Keenan, the diocese’s opposition seemed not as much to landmark designation—though Keenan argued that landmarking church property violated a passel of religious freedom and independence laws, starting with the First Amendment of the Constitution—as to a current appeal to the Vatican by a parish group to reinstate St. Ann’s as a parish.

While the appeal to the Vatican is pending, Keenan said, the diocese can do nothing regarding the property. If an acceptable purchase offer came along, the diocese couldn’t sell. “It is Bishop Malone’s hope that in order to secure the future of the St. Ann’s complex, the appeal will be dropped,” he said.

The parishioners spoke with passion and emotion. Colleen Walsh called St. Ann’s “an oasis in the city” and “a sign of hope, peace, and safety in the community. We need St. Ann’s and St. Ann’s needs us.” Caroline Robinson pointed out some of the extraordinary features of the church, the 7,800-pound “Santa Anna” bell, and Bavarian-origin stained-glass windows. Ron Bates pointed out that “this high-Gothic icon, dating to 1886, proudly bears local design, Lockport stones” and that “all labor was local and volunteered.” Sister Rosemary Anthony, a former principal of the parish school, urged to keep St. Ann’s “as a church and a family and a community.” A former parishioner and employee at St. Ann’s, Terence Robinson, who also sits on the city’s Preservation Board, called the church “a landmark with or without the designation.” Fourth-generation parishoner John Sawicz, who said he has worked as a tradesman in various construction jobs, said of the $8 million to $12 million consultants’ estimate to refurbish the church, “no way,” and called the diocese’s opposition to the landmark recommendation “insane.”

Numerous other speakers doubted or ridiculed the diocese’s consultants’ estimate of cost to refurbish. Eric Lander, vice-chairman of the Preservation Board, the group that submitted the landmark recommendation, called the $12 million “an exorbitant and self-serving number,” calculated to underscore the necessity of demolition. He and Jason Wilson, director of operations for Preservation Buffalo Niagara, noted the presence of outbuildings—particularly the former school building—that are in good condition and would be readily convertible to other uses, enhancing the value of the property and attractiveness to a buyer.

Paul McDonnell, chairman of the Preservation Board, showed slide images of the inside and outside of the church while he listed the criteria—historic, aesthetic, cultural, etc.—based on which the board recommended landmark status, and again challenged the estimates for refurbishment. Tim Tielman, executive director of the preservationist Campaign for Greater Buffalo, called the church “an embodiment of our entire culture as Buffalonians,” and suggested setting up a restoration committee such as at the Darwin Martin House and the Central Terminal complex. Other speakers also suggested a restoration committee.

It was hard to determine the diocese’s ultimate strategy regarding the St. Ann’s complex. Keenan’s statement revealed no clear rationale for or decided purpose of the proposed but currently on-hold demolition. Rather, the statement described how when Tom Yots, Preservation Buffalo Niagara president, asked if the diocese would work with PBN to explore sale of the complex, Bishop Malone agreed, “and we have had several productive conversations with PBN. At this time, PBN is in conversation with at least two groups who have expressed an interest in purchasing the complex, and the diocese is in the process of arranging tours of the property. Separately, the diocese is in dialogue with another entity that is also seriously interested in purchasing the property.”

A vote on the landmark recommendation should occur at a near future Council session. Two councilmen present at the hearing, Fillmore’s David Franczyk and Ellicott’s Darius Pridgen, said they would vote in favor of the recommendation.

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