Tonawanda News

September 11, 2011

Staying Power

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

CITY OF TONAWANDA — Those visiting the St. Francis of Assisi chapel for the first time may find themselves a little disoriented upon walking through the front doors of the 149-year-old building.

The Italianate stone building is old ...

  very old. It was built in 1862 — the first and only Catholic parish in the city — with stone from quarries in Lockport and Medina. But entering the building, one sees something more modern: a renovated interior, complete with drop ceiling, air conditioning and a handicap-accessible entry among a whole slew of other changes that brought the chapel up to date.

 The building is a fusion of both new and old, of local handcrafting and foreign artistry.

“It’s certainly a great example of maintaining a historic presence but keeping it modern and fresh and accommodating,” said Jennifer Walkowski, architecture historian with Clinton Brown Company. “Things like energy efficiency and handicap accessibility is certainly bringing it into 21st century.”

The history

The St. Francis of Assisi church actually started out as the Sacred Heart church, which opened in July 1852 on Franklin Street, according to the church’s “Book of Memories” pamphlet.

It was only 10 years later that the Rev. Francis Stephen Uhrich, pastor of the congregation, recognized that a much bigger building was needed for the growing parish. But that didn’t mean and end to the relatively young Sacred Heart building.

“The old church was cut in half, strangely enough, and was ferried across the river to become the original St. Steven’s Church on Grand Island,” explained Monsignor Richard Wetter, retired pastor of St. Francis.

“He decided to name the (new) parish after his patron saint, so he called it St. Francis because (his first name) was Francis and then the mission church on Grand Island, he called St. Stephen because that was his middle name,” Wetter said, laughing.

The new church was built in 1862 in the midst of the Civil War — for obvious reasons not a lot of construction was going on during this time, Walkowski explained.

Because the country was in such turmoil at the time and so many young men were off at war, the chapel was built by volunteers without architect or contractor. Upon completion, the new St. Francis Church had about 100 families in the congregation, most of the German, Irish and French.

At the time, the landscape of the city consisted of a small collection of one- and two-story frame structures, according to city historian Ned Schimminger. The new building made quite a splash in the community.

“The new church, even without its tower, which was added 16 years later, was a very prominent addition to the village-scape,” he explained.

One-time city supervisor, Joseph Holway said in 1864:

“Two years ago the pastor, with hardly five dollars in hand but with great confidence in God, proposed to build a new and large, stone church. All Tonawanda sees now the result of his labors and studies. A church that in style and beauty could well grace a large city, is now the main building in our village.”

By 1954, however, the number of families attending the church had grown such that the congregation needed an even bigger building and the newest — and current — church was then constructed and held its first service in June 1955.

“(The smaller chapel) was not used at all for several years and we used it as a gymnasium for the school kids and then just sort of left it empty and the stained glass windows were sold off at the time,” Wetter remembered.

For a while, it was even used as a storage facility. Walkowski says it’s remarkable that the older building exists at all today.

“I’m impressed that a building built in the 1860s has survived. I’ve seen so many churches in Buffalo that maybe had a building constructed in the 1860s and then the congregation really thrives in the 1890s and the 1900s and they want to build a bigger church,” Walkowski said.

“(Its use as a gym was) probably what kept it alive and intact. Had they not needed a gymnasium to serve the school building then it very well could’ve been lost because it’s hard enough to maintain one church, let alone two of them,” she said.

It was during the 1990s that parishioners started expressing the desire to see the old church restored and with Wetter spearheading the effort, fund raising began. Once all the old junk was cleared out, the interior was completely rebuilt and looks very little like the original building.

The chapel is now used as a place to hold the daily mass to accommodate the smaller size of those congregants. Smaller funerals and weddings can also be held there instead of at the larger main church.

The building

The St. Francis of Assisi Chapel was built in the Italianate style, which was a popular architectural style in the mid-1880s in the United States. Walkowski explained that elements like the brackets just under the eaves of the roof, the incised carving on those brackets, the round arches and the tower are all hallmarks of this style. The bell tower was originally much taller but has since been reduced in size.

The building is constructed of stone, a building material that was plentiful during the years after construction of the Erie Canal was completed in the 1820s.

“A lot of stone buildings along the route of the canal are actually built from stone quarried from the canal. During the construction of the locks (in Lockport), they just had piles of stone lying everywhere so it just became this free-for-all building material. It’s ultimate recycling,” Walkowski joked. “Stone was best because if you think about in a church you would have had candles and maybe gas lights later and that means flammability. Fire is one of the greatest enemies of historic buildings.”

“After they brought in all those stone masons to do all of the canal construction throughout the area, there were a lot of people who didn’t know what to do with themselves, so there was a lot of stone masonry trade in this area,” Walkowski said.

Walkowski pointed out that the stones on the facade of the building are level and squared off, whereas the rest of the building was built using stones of all shapes and sizes, akin to rubble.

When it was decided that the chapel would be restored in the early 1990s, an attempt was made to recover all the old stain-glass windows that had been sold. Nearly four complete original windows were donated back to the church and Frohe Art Glass out of Buffalo was contracted to reconstruct the decorative windows.

The windows are now a mixture of both old and new — the fleur de lis pieces are original, while the figures of St. Francis and St. Clara are new. However, an interesting thing happened with the figures of the saints were put together in the window.

“When the stained glass company put (St. Francis and St. Clara) in, the bottom half of each of them was (switched) and we came back the next day and said they aren’t right,” Wetter laughed. “So we had to switch them back.”

In order to help fund the reconstruction project, a columbarium — where the cremains of parishioners can be held — was built into the walls of the chapel. According to the Rev. Mike Uebler, current pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, the upkeep of the chapel is now perpetually funded from the purchase of those spots.

“A lot of people like to be buried (in the chapel) because they were baptized here, made their first communion (or) maybe married here, so they like the idea of coming back,” Uebler said.

All decked out

When it was decided that the St. Francis chapel would be renovated and used again to hold daily mass, Wetter went on a mission to secure statues and various adornments for the interior. What resulted was an amalgamation of old and new items from all over the world.

“It’s really interesting that (they’ve) turned St. Francis almost into a museum for religious artworks from all over,” Walkowski said. “That (Wetter) really sought out different pieces that obviously have some personal meaning to him.”

The stations of the cross lining the walls are from St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester where Wetter studied for the priesthood — St. Bernard’s closed in 1975. The cross on the wall behind the pulpit was purchased in Assisi, Italy and is a replica of the San Domiano crucifix — the cross from which Jesus spoke to St. Francis. The tabernacle for the blessed sacrament is a model of the church in Assisi, which houses the original San Domiano crucifix.

And to keep in touch with the church’s roots, the statues of St. Anthony and St. Francis on the wall behind either side of the pulpit were from the original chapel before it became a gymnasium.

As it approaches its sesquicentennial, the St. Francis of Assisi chapel has very few big plans in its immediate future, renovation-wise. It’s now just about regular maintenance — a never-ending cycle, Uebler says. There are currently plans to do some minor repair-work on the bell tower.

For more information on the St. Francis of Assisi parish, visit

Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 116.