From Baptist to Catholic to Orthodox, and every denomination in between, Buffalo, New York, is awash in houses of worship. Largely built to accommodate the spiritual and often social needs of masses of immigrants from some very devout European nations, including Germany, Ireland, Italy, and Poland, well over 100 churches can be found throughout the city. Although some have closed due to decreased attendance and a plummeting population, they still maintain a crucial component of Buffalo’s architectural heritage. These are my favorites.
#1 St. Joseph Roman Catholic Cathedral
Downtown Buffalo’s most beautiful church was new, then old, then new again throughout its history. The cornerstone of what was designed to serve as the cathedral church of the city’s Roman Catholic Diocese was laid in 1851. On the advice of Pope Pius IX, the cathedral was dedicated to St. Joseph in 1855. The south tower went up in 1862 (a north tower was planned but never constructed), and the completed cathedral was consecrated in 1863. The exterior of this handsome, gray dolomite, Gothic-style cathedral features a steeply pitched slate roof with both rectangular and fish-scale tiles; a central bay with rose window with a pelican in the central circle, flanked by lancet windows; a compound Gothic arch at the main portal, with an ogee arch above it, housing a statue of St. Joseph holding his baby stepson; and a clock tower with four clock faces set into blind arches, topped by a broached spire with four lucarnes and three horizontal bands of trefoils and quatrefoils. The tower once contained a 43-bell carillon, the largest in the United States and third largest in the world when it was installed in 1970. Unfortunately, the bells of St. Joseph Roman Catholic Cathedral never worked properly, too large for their allotted space, and now only two remain. It was no surprise to me that the interior was just as beautiful as the outside. Its pointed arches, ribbed vaulting, angel corbels, finely sculpted cathedra (bishop’s chair), and a mosaic of St. Anthony preaching to the fishes provide plenty of visual stimuli. The wonderful stained-glass windows feature such popular saints as Patrick holding a shamrock, Stephen being stoned, and Michael slaying the dragon. The great sanctuary windows, illustrating the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ, were the first illustrated windows to be installed in the cathedral, a critically important instructional piece of art for the uneducated worshippers who couldn’t read. The windows won first prize at the Munich Exposition in 1854, and, thanks to the then bishop’s negotiating skills, King Ludwig I of Bavaria gifted them to the cathedral. After only 40 years, it was determined that a new cathedral was necessary, so a new St. Joseph Cathedral was built in 1915. That cathedral, however, seemed plagued by bad luck: Over the decades, its poor construction led to major repairs, the removal of both towers, and exterior marble dangerously separating from the brick. In 1977, it was demolished, and the original St. Joseph, which had become known as St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral during its successor’s run, was suddenly the new one again. Its rebirth, combined with its location, have made it an important player in the city’s revival efforts, drawing in worshippers who are undoubtedly attracted to one of the cathedral’s most impressive fixtures—the 3,627-pipe organ painted in colors that reflect those of the rose window above it. Like the sanctuary windows, the organ, too, was an award winner, nabbing first prize at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia before finding its way here the following year. Since then, it has been an integral part of more than 50,000 liturgies.
#2 St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral
Buffalo’s tallest church, topping out at 275’ at the point of its highest spire, occupies a prominent triangular location downtown. Designed by early starchitect Richard Upjohn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral was completed in 1851, much to Upjohn’s satisfaction: He considered it his finest work. But his pièce de résistance came to a devastating end in 1888, when a gas explosion and ensuing fire destroyed the church’s interior. Rebuilt by another architect, who retained Upjohn’s Gothic Revival sandstone exterior that had survived the tragedy, the church reopened in 1890. That beautiful façade features a fabulous display of fine quatrefoil tracery on the east window, finials on pinnacles, Gothic arches, lancet windows, buttresses (and Buffalo’s only flying buttress), and corbel tables. Sturdy oak doors welcome visitors and dutiful worshippers fulfilling their hebdomedal attendance at services through three separate entrances. Upon entering, I immediately looked up at the fantastic hammer-beam timber roof, the spandrels of which are pierced by trefoils and the beams of which terminate in carved, gilded angels. The rebuild added a clerestory, but its stained-glass windows of saints like Andrew and Agnes were added only in 1958, a noticeably more modern contrast to the stained glass along the nave that present key Biblical events such as the feeding of the five thousand and the baptism of Christ. I made my way farther into the church, along the colored slate floor and past oak pews, to the magnificent stained-glass window, heavy on reds and blues, that soars above the altar and mosaic reredos to the blue-panel ceiling. To the right stands the lovely pulpit; on the left, a marble Baptismal font features Noah’s ark, with a dove carrying the olive branch to the mighty ship. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, the cathedral received National Landmark Status 15 years later.
#3 Saint Louis Roman Catholic Church
I had only about 30 minutes for a visit to St. Louis Roman Catholic Church before the funeral started — certainly not enough time to take in all the beauty of this wonderful red sandstone Gothic church, but enough to get a good feel for the first Catholic church built in the city. Completed in 1889 and patterned after Germany’s incomparable Cologne Cathedral, the church’s interior is adorned with impressive rose windows, a finely sculpted wood pulpit and canopy with reliefs of the Four Evangelists, great pointed arches, and wonderful mosaics on the high altar. The nave, divided from side aisles by terrific polished-granite columns with richly carved capitals, accommodates 275 pews. Above them, the groined vaulted ceiling features bosses of foliage with a variety of designs at their intersection. Stained-glass windows, made in both Buffalo and Munich, depict scenes from the lives of such saints as Augustine, Gregory the Great, Dominic, and Rose of Lima, as well as from the life of St. Louis IX, the beneficent French “peace king” known for his personal interest in the poor, patronage of the arts and architecture, and scrupulous honesty. A statue of Louis stands in the tympanum over the center front doors, which I noticed upon slipping outside as the mourners started to arrive. Here, I was free to linger in admiration of the church’s beautiful and restrained exterior as well as its signature feature: the main tower, at 245 feet, topped by the fantastic 72’ open-laced stone spire, the highest such spire in the United States and a key element of the Buffalo skyline.
#4 Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church
Like a medieval church straight out of Europe, Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church looks like a 12-century northern Italian house of worship. Indeed, it is uniformly regarded as one of the finest and purest replications of Lombard-Romanesque architecture in the United States. Only 49 years after it was completed in 1928, the church was recognized as a city landmark by the Buffalo Preservation Board; two years later, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The interior impresses with its wide organ and deep choir loft, coffered octagonal dome, murals, wood carvings, and columns and arches, but I was more enthralled by the exterior. At first, you’ll notice the grander elements: the blind arches and arcades, rose windows, buttresses, dome, and lantern. But then you’ll start to fall in love with the two features that make this church exceptional.
The first is its peculiar brickwork, unique to Buffalo churches, that forms the building’s two-feet-thick walls. During medieval times, bricks were made without molds, and in keeping with the design for Blessed Trinity, these so-called Harvard bricks, irregularly shaped and varied in color, were employed — but the bricklayers didn’t know how to use them. The architect stepped in, trained them by personally showing them how to lay the bricks by doing a series himself, and then let them have free reign with their own designs. The result is a seemingly lopsided and misshapen design, with bricks, sometimes with their stretcher face and sometimes with their header face, at odd angles, yet it manages to create a truly homogenous look.
The second defining characteristic of this church is, by some accounts, the largest collection of colored architectural terra cotta decoration in an ecclesiastical structure. Nearly 600 handmade terra cotta corbels and accents — all different — adorn the façade in a profuse use of this material. They depict all aspects of Christianity, from vices and virtues to graces, sacraments, and commandments: An angel with a finger over its lips, for instance, cautions against bearing false witness; one with a hand over its eyes warns not to covet your neighbor’s wife. Above a side door, a terra cotta Moses points to his two tablets of Ten Commandments, flanked by angels blowing horns. The main entrance is particularly awash in terra cotta. Surrounding the red oak doors, the Romanesque compound aches and columns, each unlike the next, boasts an abundance of such symbols as serpents and crosses, doves and skulls, fishes and crowns, lilies and harps. Four angels, each clad in a different colored robe and each holding a different Christian symbol, stand between columns with different capitals with different objects, such as a chalice and a sword. In the tympanum over the main door, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove with outstretched wings, soars above God, holding the alpha and the omega, who sits behind a crucified Jesus, with two horrified angel faces at Christ’s knees. Below it, you’ll find bread on an altar, for instance, and clasped hands asking forgiveness. On either side of the main doors, a dozen symbols bring the Apostle’s Creed to life: an open coffin (“The third day he rose again from the dead”), the Holy Spirit represented as a dove (“I believe in the Holy Spirit”), and souls entering the gates of heaven (“And life everlasting”). The thoughtfulness behind all this Christian iconography will truly make you appreciate the work of only two men who spent two full years installing these irreplaceable pieces.
#5 Trinity Episcopal Church
Trinity Episcopal Church has been a brawny presence on historic Delaware Avenue since 1886. The Victorian Gothic–style church achieves its hefty presence via the uniform use of sandstone across the entire façade, the sturdy buttresses, and solid compound arches. Relief is provided through its rose, lancet, and multifoil windows, pinnacles, and foliate designs on capitals. The doors were closed when I arrived, but I snuck around the side and entered the office, where the accommodating docent was kind enough to open the house of worship just for me to look around and admire. The wide-open nave allowed me to take in everything all at once. The timber roof grabbed my attention first, an intricate arrangement of hammer posts, beam, and braces. The mosaic floor mixes abstract design with Christian symbols. Beautiful mosaics cover the ceiling of the chancel, above the five stained-glass windows depicting the Epiphany, the repose in Egypt, the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. Indeed, the windows are the most important feature of the church. Windows produced by both Tiffany studios and John La Farge are found throughout the building —one of the few churches in the United States to have both masters represented.