The Church of the Transfiguration is an abandoned Catholic church at Mills and Sycamore streets in Buffalo, New York.
The Church of the Transfiguration was constructed to serve the rapidly growing Polish community in Buffalo’s east side. The population of Poles had grown from 6.5% of the city’s total population in 1881 to nearly 20% by the turn of the century. 1 The wave of immigrants, from Prussia, Austria and Russia, saw friction from not only Americans, but from other early immigrant groups, such as Germans.
Early Polish immigrants worked as general laborers, hired for canal and street construction. 1 Over time, the Poles developed a strong economic and cultural base in the eastern side of Buffalo.
Two existing churches, St. Adalbert on Stanislaus Street and the Assumption Church on Amherst Street, were soon overwhelmed with the newcomers. 3 On May 14, 1893, the St. Joseph’s Society of St. Adalbert and the Rev. James Wojcik of the Assumption Church met to discuss the need for another church to serve the Polish community. The groups met at St. Mary of Sorrows and came to the conclusion that they needed to seek the advice of Bishop Ryan.
The bishop gave the proposal his approval on July 20. 3 The parish was organized on July 23 at a meeting held at St. Stanislaus Church where the name Transfiguration of Our Lord was chosen for the new facility. Property was then secured on the south side of Stanislaus Street between Beck and Mills streets.
The cornerstone of a wooden frame church and schoolhouse was laid on August 27, and the new building was completed in October. 3 It served approximately 50 families in the parish.
By the end of November, the parish had grown to over 150 families. 3 Extra masses were held but the small building was soon overwhelmed with worshippers.
Planning for the construction of a larger facility began in 1895 and land was purchased across the street. 3 Ground was broken on June 30, 1896 with the cornerstone laid on August 2. Designed in the Gothic Revival style by Carl Schmill, 14 the new Church of the Transfiguration building was dedicated on July 5, 1897. 3 Costing $76,000, the new 1,400-seat facility boasted a 180-foot bell tower as its showpiece and stained glass windows with pinwheel mullion patterns, the only such occurrence in the city.
One of the interior murals was painted by Joseph Mazur, depicting the 1920 “miracle over the Vistula,” an appearance by the Virgin Mary over the river that flows through Warsaw, and the turning back of Soviet armies trying to capture the city. 15 Another, by an unidentified artist, features the successful defense of the Czestochowa monastery against Swedish besiegers in 1655.
The schoolhouse was rebuilt in 1914 2 and a new rectory was constructed in 1925. 21
Dynamic shifts in the economy and demographics plagued Buffalo during the latter-half of the 20th century. Many of the factories that once sustained the Polish community, and the city, were downsizing or closing. Likewise, the congregation at the Church of the Transfiguration declined.
In 1985, the school was closed, followed by the church building in 1990. 5 Mass was held in the former parish school chapel. 6 16
In August 1992, the Archdiocese revealed plans for eight east side parishes: 18
- Transfiguration, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, St. Luke’s and St. Joachim’s would be closed under the consolidation proposal. Transfiguration and Queen of the Most Holy Rosary would be merged into St. Adalbert’s, while St. Luke’s and St. Joachim’s would be merged into St. John Kanty. St. Stanisiaus and Corpus Christi would be unchanged.
- Transfiguration, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary and St. Joachim’s would be closed under the mission proposal. St. John Kanty would remain open, with St. Luke as its mission, and St. Joachim would be closed; St. Stanislaus would remain open, with St. Adalbert’s as its mission; and Transfiguration and Queen of the Most Holy Rosary would be closed.
- Under the cluster plan, all eight parishes would remain open but only three priests would be assigned to serve them. St. Adalbert’s, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary, Transfiguration and St. Stanislaus would be grouped into one administrative unit; St. Luke’s, St. John Kanty and St. Joachim’s would be grouped into another; and Corpus Christi would be its own independent unit as the parish property and buildings are owned by the Conventual Franciscan Order and staffed by Franciscan priests.
It was decided to consolidate the churches on May 1. 20 The Church of the Transfiguration, with membership down to about 50 people, closed on August 22, 1993, the parish’s 100th anniversary. 13
The rectory was leased to Paradise Ministries, a transitional home for paroled women and their children, in October 1993. 21 , and the convent was leased to Friends of Cazenovia Manor, an alcohol rehabilitation center. 15
Demolition and Reprieve
Due to its deteriorating condition, the Archdiocese of Buffalo requested permission to demolish the building in 1994. 4 Work was set to begin April 6 but was delayed until June 15 16 while preservationists attempted to save two large murals atop the church arches and at least one stained glass window. 13 Pauline Nowak and her son, Francis Trezevant, of Paul Francis Associates, filed suit against the Archdiocese on April 22 14 to block the demolition from resuming. 6 The pair claimed that plans to tear down the church failed to comply with state laws dealing with landmark structures and with Roman Catholic Canon Law regarding demolition of a church. 14
The state supreme court ultimately cleared the way for the demolition. 6 On May 4, Bishop Edward D. Head announced that he would delay tearing down the church until June 15 to enable community groups to submit proposals for preserving and reusing the building. Negotiations with Paul Francis Associates began on June 14.
Based on the recommendation of the Buffalo Common Council, the church agreed on July 1 to sell the property to Paul Francis Associates for $7,000. 4 6 The company pledged to restore the building and reuse it as a Montessori preschool. 5 The group was named “Citizens of the Year” by a local community newspaper. 4 On July 12, 8 the city passed a resolution naming the Church of the Transfiguration building a local landmark. 5 7
As part of the sale, Nowak and Trezevant renamed the Church of the Transfiguration to the Sounds of Joy Building, a change stipulated by the Archdiocese. 10 19
The sale was plagued with issues, though. The Archdiocese delayed in providing state Division of Safety and Healthy asbestos-clearance certification documents to Paul Francis Associates and in returning six windows that were removed as a prelude to the planned demolition. 5 7 The original closing date was set to be October 3 or 4, which was delayed for a month. Additionally, the company’s general commercial liability insurance policy on the building was then cancelled in early 1995. 5
Paul Francis Associates pledged to use $100,000 in community block grant funding that was to be dedicated towards the restoration of the church. 4 All but $25,000 was diverted to other projects and only some of the money was used to repair the roof and board up the stain glass windows.
Paul Francis Associates debated with the city on how to preserve the church. 9 The owners were in receipt of two massive stained glass windows in 1996 that were removed by the Archdiocese but could not install them because the federal historic preservation standards required the building to use boiled linseed oil putty on the windows, as it was done when the church was originally built. Nowak and Trezevant wanted to use silicone caulk as it was cheaper.
Beginning in September 1996, 12 the local Housing Court cited the church property for numerous violations of the city code. 11 In October 2002, an arrest warrant was issued for Nowak for not responding to any of the Housing Court orders.
Paul Francis Associates was again in the city’s crosshairs in 2007 after an inspection found the church to be in poor structural condition. 10 The city forced the owners to repair the stained glass windows, stabilize the steeple and patch the roof. Work began in October 19 and was 75% complete by November. 17 As part of the repairs, the Housing Court dropped the arrest warrant for Nowak on November 14. 19