Buffalo News


Man of faith confronts time of change


People say South Buffalo never changes. And sometimes it looks as if that's true. An Irish flag flutters over Seneca Street near Cazenovia Parkway. The taverns, thrift shops and small restaurants seem, in a way, forgotten by the decades.

But change does come to South Buffalo. You feel it in a grand old house at the corner of South Park and Tifft Street.

Five men used to live here, and a housekeeper, too. The men ate together in the high-ceilinged dining room, beneath a chandelier, surrounded by stately dark woodwork.

Now, one man lives in this grand house, the rectory of the Church of the Holy Family. He is the Rev. William Bigelow. He is 68, with bright Irish blue eyes, a pink complexion, white hair and a sardonic sense of humor.

Like his namesake, Billy Bigelow from "Carousel," Father Bigelow is no stranger to rough times. He has seen, firsthand, the city's tragedies.

When he was at St. James Church, on the East Side, the problem was crime. A parishioner's house was broken into. Days later, a woman was gardening when a youth approached her. He chatted with her for a few minutes, then beat and robbed her.

"Twelve houses went up for sale in one week," Father Bigelow says. "People will not live in fear." Ten years ago, when he inherited the keys to Holy Family, he found the area faced a kind of slow neglect.

"People don't want to invest here," says Bigelow. Citing the renaissance of Hertel Avenue, he wonders when South Park will get its turn.

Monsignor John Nash, Holy Family's charismatic founder, would never have dreamed such a question. He built the church a century ago for prosperous Irish steelworkers.

Nash, a scholar who had studied in Innsbruck, Austria, modeled Holy Family after a church he had known in Ireland. Stained-glass windows came from the German Tyrol. Golden Celtic crosses covered the walls.

More than 11,000 infants were baptized in Holy Family. I was one. Bigelow was another. As a boy, he walked to the parish school with 40 friends from his block.

"We had so much fun," he says.

One May day in 1956, Bigelow served Nash's last Mass. He remembers the old monsignor, a man born in 1865, shuffling into the sanctuary. Nash became ill that day. He died the next December.

Soon afterward, workmen painted over most of the church's glorious Celtic knot work. You could almost say it was a sign. Like many city churches, Holy Family gradually declined. People left for the suburbs. My family moved to Amherst when I was 4, after my parents got tired of finding cinders from Bethlehem Steel in our hair. Next, of course, the steel mills left, too.

What's the future of Holy Family? Bigelow and I stand in the aisle and wonder.

We met over a disagreement. The Buffalo Diocese's current initiative to shut or merge struggling parishes horrifies me. I want Catholics to rally behind these grand, endangered churches. I want war.

Bigelow wants peace. He glows as he talks about the church's mission and God's love. But he is a sophisticated man who, like Nash, studied in Innsbruck and has seen the world. He muses that cars have made local parishes obsolete.

Germany, Bigelow says, has a Kirchensteuer, a tax to support historic churches. But that would never wash here. He sees reality. The bold tribe of Irish families that once filled South Buffalo's many parishes is scattered to the four winds.

He doesn't mention it, but last winter, someone threw a rock through his rectory's picture window. Alone in that grand house, he wonders what the next 10 years will bring.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com