The most Polish place in Buffalo
St. Stanislaus Church
Photos by kc kratt
Approaching St. Stanislaus church in Buffalo’s Polonia, a visitor can’t help but be overwhelmed. Even from a distance, from any angle, it is an arresting landmark. On drawing closer, one finds a historic marker that reads: First Polish colony settled here in 1873. St. Stanislaus Parish was established by the Rev. Dean John Pitass, who became the founder of the great Polish East Side of Buffalo.
Clearly St. Stan’s, as the church is affectionately known, looms as large historically over Polonia as visually. Among its claims to fame, according to Marty Biniasz of Forgotten Buffalo: it may be the oldest Polish parish in New York State. Many of its accomplishments were due to the efforts of Rev. Pitass to organize the growing energies and resources of Buffalo’s Polish-American community. Among Pitass’s achievements, Biniasz includes establishing the parish school, bringing the Felician sisters to Buffalo, founding the parish cemetery in Cheektowaga, cofounding the national Polish fraternal organization Unia Polska w Ameryce, and organizing the first Polish Catholic Convention in America.
Pitass used these connections to recruit Polish-American talent from other cities to teach in the parish school and to help Poles get involved in local politics. St. Stan’s, and the network of other churches and institutions it spawned in Polonia, served as a kind of settlement house for establishing generations of Polish immigrants and refugees. This continued for a full century, as Poles fleeing war and oppression sought a better life in Buffalo.
According to Buffalo church historian James Napora, it all started on December 12, 1872, when a group of Buffalo Poles “founded the Society of St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr, the roots of the present parish.” This is as close as you’ll find to a founding date of Buffalo’s Polonia.
Early the following year, a young Pitass arrived in Buffalo to be the group’s priest. About the same time, Joseph Bork, a Catholic real estate speculator, donated a church site in the middle of a large tract of land he owned. With a priest and church of their own, he figured, and land to settle, the Polish immigrants passing through Buffalo to other Great Lakes cities might be tempted to settle here. Thousands did.
That summer, the parish laid a cornerstone, and, by January 1874, the first St. Stanislaus church was dedicated. Within a year, it added a school. Within a decade, the parish outgrew the simple frame church and laid the cornerstone for the present church. Parishioner Robert Johnson, whose family ties go back to the beginning of the parish, claims the design was inspired by the Basilica of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Piekary Slaskie, Poland, a noted pilgrimage site.
But even before its dedication in 1886, parishioners knew even this large church wouldn’t be large enough, and St. Adalbert’s parish was formed. This was the first “daughter” church of the “Mother Church of Polonia.” Others would follow until eventually Polonia comprised a half-dozen parishes. Polonia became almost a diocese within a diocese, with St. Stan’s as its cathedral. In time, “granddaughter” churches would spread beyond Polonia, tracing their lineage back to St. Stan’s. At the center of all was Rev. Pitass, who was given the title Dean in recognition of his leadership of the Polish-American community statewide, according to St. Stan’s present priest, Father Mariusz Dymek. After four decades, Pitass’s nephew followed him as priest of St. Stan’s. A century and a half later, members of the family are still connected to the parish.
To house the Polish immigration wave that hit like a Lake Erie seiche, Bork and other developers built houses by the hundreds, struggling to keep ahead of the flood. Most were “Buffalo doubles,” enabling families to have rental income or offer a place to relatives in the old country looking to emigrate. Church and community grew together: a city-in-a-city, a Buffalo Hamtramck. It supported its own downtown, which became the second-largest commercial district in the city.
This legacy has made St. Stanislaus Church perhaps the single most Polish place in Buffalo. Names on stained glass windows, wording on the stations-of-the-cross, and even most names in the present weekly bulletin are Polish. The church offers a weekly Polish Mass, but even at the English Mass it is not unusual to hear parishioners speaking Polish. The parish is also the headquarters of the Chopin Singing Society, one of Buffalo’s oldest Polish civic institutions.
The beauty that awaits through the doors of St. Stan’s attests to generations of Polish-Americans finding prosperity in Buffalo. There is more beautiful religious art there than in any Buffalo church outside the now-closed St. Anne’s, as well as other rich ornamentation. Stained glass windows by the famous Franz Mayer studio in Munich depict scenes from the life of Christ, of St. Stanislaus, and other Polish saints. Outside, religious statuary adorns the roofline.
Yet, for a church that, with its 215-feet-high towers, overwhelms on the outside, St. Stan’s is unexpectedly warm and intimate inside. Wood floors and wainscoting contribute to the warmth. The sense of intimacy comes from having only two rows of pews in the surprisingly narrow nave, and an uncommon central altar, directly under the church’s prominent lantern. The original altar, altar rails, and gates, removed from many churches during misguided modernizations, remain and are among the most ornate in the diocese, as are the raised pulpit and canopy, from which Father Mariusz delivers his weekly homilies.
The central altar was created under the leadership of Bishop Edward Grosz, who, in 2003, became only the sixth priest of St. Stan’s. He made restoration of the parish campus his mission. Millions were invested, giving the church and buildings decades of additional life.
In 2015, a bittersweet year for St. Stan’s, the last Felician sisters remaining at the convent moved away. Almost from the beginning, the Felicians had been integral to the life of the parish and school, and also the neighborhood. Until recently, at the nearby Broadway Market, they stood out in their habits and sensible shoes, a reminder of times when priests and nuns were a regular, visible presence in Polonia. But the same year, another religious order became involved at St. Stan’s with the appointment of Father Mariusz, a Pauline, as priest. At the time of his appointment, Bishop Malone said, “the [Pauline] order has a keen understanding of and respect for the long-standing Polish heritage and traditions of St. Stanislaus. I am confident they will work tirelessly.” The parish remains under control of the diocese, Father Mariusz assures all who ask.
St. Stan’s still abides at the heart of the extraordinary community it created and nurtured. Despite an aging and dwindling congregation, the parish is financially sound. Its buildings are in good condition. People around the diocese tune in to its weekly live radio Mass. A half decade hence, when Buffalo celebrates the sesquicentennial of Polonia, expect the church named for St. Stanislaus, Bishop and Martyr, to be at the center of it.
Alan Oberst writes on development for Spree and Buffalo Rising.