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Continental Drift

Is the Church going south on Buffalo?

St. Gerard's Church (photo by Dave Torke)

Is there a compelling public interest in preserving the artifacts and sacred sites of an ancient civilization?

The United Nations answers that question with an emphatic yes. So does the United States when it comes to national treasures. And even if we don’t have a Japanese-style “irreplaceable cultural masters” program to support living folk artists, we do have aggressive enforcement of the National Historic Preservation Act and five or six laws focused on Native American religious issues, especially graves and sacred sites. The United Nations designates and supports world heritage sites, a majority of which are religious—cathedrals, monasteries, temples, even whole communities shaped by old beliefs.

So it would seem that official respect for religious expression, especially in visual and plastic arts and architecture, is pretty well established policy. Tourists aren’t allowed to take a chunk of the Parthenon home with them anymore, unlike Lord Elgin, who bribed the Ottoman voivode of Athens in 1806 and plundered unique, irreplaceable statues in the name of preserving them from folks who were burning marble statues to make quicklime for concrete. The Greek government is now pursuing repatriation of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum. Similarly, if you’re out West and you find a circle of stones, or in Egypt and you find a hawk-headed statue you fancy, you can’t just do what the folks at the Chicago Tribune building did, and transport chunks of temples or tombs to your new place, stick them on your exterior wall, and invite passersby to see your trophy.

The notion of what can be “collected” has shifted away from the museum-filling traveler of old, who would shoot a lion or scoop up a fresco and ship it home to the Oriental Institute, the Getty, or one’s mantel. Now there is a nearly universal sense, expressed in national and international law, that it’s better to preserve the art, the artifacts, and the structures in their own places.

So what is to be done about the Catholic Church in the Rust Belt, which has not only abandoned religious and cultural sites, but is now actively involved in stripping art and artifacts from its own old buildings and shipping them out of town?

Too far to commute?

The case of St. Gerard’s church in Buffalo made national news because of a plan that has been explained as “preservation by relocation.” Supporters claim that the up to 80 percent of the physical structure of a large, closed church will be expertly dismantled and transported from a neighborhood where there are few Catholics to a city in Georgia where there are many.

Detractors argue that that’s all spin, and that the Church-sanctioned “relocation” is just a gutting. Stained-glass windows, pews, altarpieces, statuary, and paintings can be hauled away in the usual manner, they say, leaving behind a hulk of a masonry building in a cluster of buildings that includes a fairly large school, a big community hall, and a rectory.

“People used to go to jail for stripping Buffalo churches,” Common Council President David Franczyk told Artvoice. “This is our version of the Elgin Marbles. This is an assault on our cultural and historic fabric.”

Preservationist Tim Tielman shared similar sentiments with USA Today, and scoffed at the notion that the Buffalo church would be dismantled, stone by stone, and moved to a new home. “It’s just a looting,” he said.

The policy question for this depopulated, sprawled-out city is what to do when even more of the critical social infrastructure built by a multi-ethnic religious group over the past 150 years is about to be abandoned.

There is a huge economic cost of Catholicism’s urban collapse. A recent meeting of school-choice advocates grappled with the problems created when a Catholic diocese decides to close many of its urban schools, as the Buffalo diocese did on the poor East Side of town. Tuition costs that were $2,500 per student a decade ago are now quadruple that number, and a group like the Buffalo Inner-city Scholarship Opportunity Network and its national affiliates have to stretch to help poor families send kids to a shorter list of Catholic elementary and secondary schools. Priests and nuns who used to work for next to nothing are now in much smaller supply; teachers must now be paid, and tuition has to be higher.

Meanwhile, there’s urban suspicion of suburban preference: urban Catholics complain that it’s not only their buildings but their families that are being scrapped. This is happening in all the Great Lakes cities, as the phenomenon is everywhere where there was once heavy industry and settlements of European Catholics to work in it. Google “abandoned churches” and you’ll get plenty of heart-rending pictures—and lots of evidence that what is happening in our cities is nothing new. In faraway western Romania, in the last 20 years the small but ancient communities of ethnic Germans and Hungarians have emigrated en masse to escape what they feel is intolerable ethnic oppression—and what they’ve left behind are pictures of abandonment that look like Gary, Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo, and 700-year-old churches that no longer have parishioners, priests, or even preservationists to tend to them.

But wait a second. There wasn’t any Communist oppression here in Buffalo. Most Rust Belt Catholics today live within a 20-minute commute of their jobs, which also means a 20-minute commute to the churches that their ancestors grubbed pennies to build. Why doesn’t the Catholic hierarchy lead, guide, entice, or even suggest that these classic structures continue to serve the faithful?

Flocks, shepherds, and wolves

There are plenty of examples of churches—like Buffalo’s Corpus Christi, in a formerly Polish neighborhood that is now mainly African-American—where the neighborhood may have changed, but where the church art isn’t being chopped off and shipped anywhere. Ecclesiastical structures intellectual and physical, music and their ornaments alike, and in some cases even the congregation’s immigrant language, are all being refreshed, every week, by the active participation of people whose voting addresses are outside their church’s ZIP code. Why there and not elsewhere?

As the Catholic hierarchy seems to be following rather than leading, secular activists are stepping in to treat cultural infrastructure, including church art, as part of the urban fabric. Right now in the Pittsburgh area, a series of Depression-era murals by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka is the target of a preservation campaign—a very difficult campaign, because the murals are in a church: a church with a shrinking membership, a church in a diocese that closes churches, but a church that nevertheless seems to be being kept open precisely because of its art. A recent article by Kate Giammarise in the Pittsburgh City Paper quotes art historians about the uniqueness of the murals, but also quotes philanthropists on the difficulty of raising money for a church-oriented project. The story is reminiscent of the Josef Slawinski mural of Calasanctius in Buffalo, where major funding from Erie County and New York State, and some private help, helped preserve a mural and relocated it to the Buffalo State College campus, largely because public officials decided that there was a public purpose. Ditto the efforts to save the Michigan Street Baptist Church, an active parish with a very determinedly religious pastor: A public purpose was easy to find in a well-documented Underground Railroad site.

But the rare successes in preserving individual works of religious or religious-inspired art remain difficult expressly because they are religious. Public dollars spent on them are always controversial, even if they are comparatively tiny: The total cost of preserving the Slawinski mural wasn’t much more than $200,000. Public officials haven’t had too much trouble finding the money to conserve and even expand secular art like Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings, which in Buffalo alone have enjoyed more than $25 million of direct taxpayer support, or work like the Buffalo Psychiatric Center by H.H. Richardson, with its initial allocation of well over $75 million, or the millions in indirect public support for the Sullivan-designed Prudential building.

The question remains: What’s the public interest in keeping native cultural artifacts in place? The Great Lakes states figured out that there’s a compelling public policy in not allowing individual landowners to pump Great Lakes water out to sell to the Sunbelt. We have figured out that it’s just not appropriate anymore to go around looting our neighbors’ antiquities. Soon we should figure out whether there is a Buffalo public interest, or a Pittsburgh public interest, or a Detroit public interest, in being like an old city called Rome, whose population in the heyday of Caesar Augustus was a million, but which endured 1,700 years of abandonment before re-emerging as an international capitol of art, culture and commerce. The Athens from which Lord Elgin shipped the Parthenon marbles was a city of 10,000 in 1806. It is now a city of well over a million. It wants is marbles back. Public funds will protect their heritage. Will public funds protect ours?

Bruce Fisher is a former deputy executive for Erie County and currently visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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