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Sonja LivingstonFebruary 09, 2018

It is hard to say exactly when the statue took leave of the church in Rochester. I did not see her when I returned a few Christmases ago, but a blizzard of statues had descended that year and she may have been hidden among them. Figures of the Holy Family abounded.

One St. Joseph looked down from the organ loft, while another kept company with the gang of Gospel writers in the narthex. Anthony of Padua was there, as were the Francises (Xavier and Assisi), and Martin de Porres—and did I only imagine Lucy with her platter of eyes?

“There aren’t usually this many,” I whispered to my husband, who had agreed to stop by my childhood church, after a candlelight service with his parents. Renamed Our Lady of the Americas a decade ago, the church on the corner of East Main and Prince Streets was once known as Corpus Christi, the parish I had always known. The statues cast exaggerated shadows in the candlelight. That we had just come from the cool restraint of a Presbyterian sanctuary only added to the effect.

“It’s fine,” he said, but shifted his weight and avoided the gaze of the black-cloaked Mother Cabrini standing sentry on the altar.

When we returned the following Christmas, the statuary had largely disappeared and the church looked more like it did when I was a child. This thought led me to look toward the right altar and to realize with sudden clarity that the statue of Our Lady of Grace was gone.

It is not as if the sanctuary lacked images of the Blessed Mother. Our Lady of Mount Carmel inhabited the niche where the missing statue had once reigned. Our Lady of Perpetual Help bloomed quietly in the left transept. A framed print of Our Lady of Guadalupe hung beside the lectern. They were reassuring images, beautiful images. But none of them were mine. I twisted in my pew as the recessional began, scanning alcoves and corners for the blue-cloaked Virgin I remembered: her arms extended outward, but only just so. Her ivory robe tapered into a fixed column, her blue mantle did not flap. Her face was more pensive than sweet. She wore no crown, did not trample a serpent’s head nor stand upon a sliver of moon. A model of simplicity. Queen of a working-class parish. Our Lady of Prince Street.

Mother of Mercy

As a child, I once had a tantrum after a vigil Mass and ran from my mother into an adjacent room and found myself locked in. When I finally was found, Our Lady was the face I looked to even before running home to my own mother. Mary was the softest spot in the church—softer perhaps than anywhere at home. She held a garland of pink roses in those days, which added to her loveliness.

By the time I came of age in the late 1980s, the plastic roses had faded and gathered dust. Both statue and garland seemed woefully out of date. I left the church—both the parish on Prince Street and the faith—soon after, and while I still adored her, only the shock of her absence 20 years later reminded me how much. These days, I am struck by how lucky I was to find the church open at all. Eventually, I would make my way fully back to church—both the parish on Prince Street and the faith—and learn the reason for the surplus statues two Christmases before.

The Corpus Christi Mary had looked on as babies were baptized, couples married, and coffins incensed and lifted from the church.

When parishes in Rochester began to merge, congregations often brought their statues with them. Parishioners from Mount Carmel or St. Francis might not be able to save their buildings, but the communities held tight to what they could. As more churches were lost, statuary accumulated. Corpus Christi’s interior changed with the influx of each new group. Longtime Corpus Christi parishioners might grumble, but how could they really object when the building in which their parents had been married and their children baptized had been spared?

Parish closures and mergers have been common throughout the Northeast and Midwest, and the causes are often the same. Congregations are dwindling, there are fewer priests, and there are not enough people to maintain churches and other parish sites. As factories downsized and died, and the descendants of the immigrants who had come to work in them moved away, dioceses in the former industrial hubs of upstate New York have been hit especially hard.

The northeast section of Rochester, where I grew up, was once home to 17 Catholic parishes—each with its own architecture, history and traditions. Irish and Germans were followed by Italians, Poles and, later, Eastern Europeans, African-Americans and Puerto Ricans. One at a time, churches were built and consecrated and filled. One at a time, their doors closed. Now only two parishes remain. One of these is mine.

In many ways, my church is typical. Formed in 1888, Corpus Christi began in a modest brick building used jointly as a school. The population exploded as new arrivals came to work in city factories and railroad yards and settled the areas east of the Genesee River. By 1903, the parish expanded into a larger sandstone church. Attendance peaked in the 1940s and ’50s, but the flush of prosperity was followed by the postwar flight to suburbs.

Against all reason and logic, devotion becomes entwined with the spaces in which it is enacted and the objects that help inspire and focus it.

By the 1960s, the parish had begun its battle to survive.

When I returned to the church, it was with a newfound appreciation for its history and the precariousness of its survival. The name of the parish had changed. The congregation and priest had changed. I had changed. I sat there on Sundays looking toward Our Lady of Mount Carmel. With her dark features and more exuberant beauty, the new statue was better suited to the smaller but increasingly diverse congregation. Why then, did my thoughts return to the one I had looked to as a child, the figure of the Blessed Mother whose robe was the exact shade of a morning glory?

A Search Begins

Objects become touchstones for particular places, and the statue I remembered represented not only the Blessed Virgin but the trajectory and disposition of the church in which she had stood for more than 75 years.

The Corpus Christi Mary had looked on as babies were baptized, couples married and coffins incensed and lifted from the church. She stood by as broad Irish accents gave way to the honeyed sound of Sicilian and the tender rivulets of Spanish. Candles flickered at her feet through the Great Depression and World War II, as telephone lines were installed along Prince and as buses replaced trolleys on East Main. She offered refuge as race riots erupted in nearby streets and kept watch during the long years of Vietnam. She was there as parishioners celebrated their annual bonuses and, years later, when they came to grieve the pink slips the factories doled out in their place. Our Lady of Prince Street had outlasted priests and presidents and popes. She had weathered with steadfast grace ice storms and power outages. I had to know the rest of her story.

My search was casual at first. I surveyed the church basement and checked the vestry. I spied the gentle slope of a veiled head through a window while walking to my car one Sunday and sneaked into the sacristy the following week—but it was not her.

A sensible person would have stopped there.

The churches sit like jewel boxes in working-class neighborhoods, their towers soaring above pizza places and bowling alleys.

Instead, I quizzed the secretary during coffee hour. She did not know anything about the Corpus Christi Mary. “Check with the diocese,” she said. The person who handled the mergers at the diocese responded to my email with a photograph of a life-sized statue rising from Corpus Christi’s basement on a wheelchair lift.

“That’s her!” I wrote.

She replied that the statue had been sold to a church in Buffalo. When I asked which, she said she would get back to me. But she was either busy or had had enough of my statue talk, as I did not hear from her again. After a long wait and a reminder email, I began to wonder if there was something I had overlooked—some sensitivity about the church’s history perhaps, or the emotional work of merging churches.

It is not as unusual as people might expect, the movement of devotional items; there are places that specialize in it. I found a website for one, called Used Church Items, and emailed to ask if I could visit their Pittsburgh warehouse. One of the proprietors, Mike Osella generously obliged.

I left the interstate south of Pittsburgh and wound past fields edged with chicory and Queen Anne’s lace and gas stations selling bait. In town, I passed an American Legion post before turning off the main strip into an area of warehouses and parked near an old building quietly succumbing to vines.

Statues gathered just inside the warehouse door, life-sized figures crowded together like concertgoers. Every imaginable saint seemed to be represented, in every imaginable form.

“St. Josephs are our biggest seller.” Mike said. Used Church Items sells to churches looking for replacement fixtures, seminarians wanting quality chalices, sisters seeking a crèche for their motherhouse. An enormous Christ the King awaited shipment to Singapore for use in a procession. Just days before my visit, a pair of A-list celebrities had toured the warehouse with an eye toward creating a private chapel. But not all their customers are formally religious. The store’s items also appear on movie sets and in television backgrounds.

Mike’s father began collecting church-related items shortly after the changes of the Second Vatican Council led to items associated with the Latin Mass falling out of favor. A Catholic and an antique dealer, Jason Osella tried to salvage pieces he recognized as valuable and finely wrought. He bought what he could and stored pieces wherever he could, which meant statues often occupied space in their home. “It must have been fun to bring friends over,” I joked, and Mike laughed. “Actually, it was.”

Statues are the tip of the iceberg. Shelves teem with censers and sacristy bells. A vestment room houses brocaded chasubles and gilded stoles. The second floor is loaded with sets of chandeliers and Stations of the Cross. There are baptismal fonts and kneelers, canopies and paintings, pulpits and croziers, altar crosses and panels of stained glass.

Downstairs, a room of glass cases is filled with gold-plated vessels. Shelves glow with the sheen of polished chalices. Monstrances gleam like a hundred suns. I spun around when I went inside, giddy and stunned. The room leaked so much light, all of Pennsylvania seemed to shine.

The Osellas were generous with their time, especially since, despite my attempts to explain, none of us quite understood why I had come. “I’m interested in what happens to devotional items when churches close,” I had written in my email. But not everything ends up in a warehouse to be repaired and readied for resale. Some objects are transferred locally. Others are sold to outside dioceses, parishioners and the general public. Still others remain tucked away in closets and vestries, are melted down or discarded. It makes sense, I suppose. In an era of closed churches, things pile up. Remaining parishes can absorb only so much.

But we humans get attached. Against all reason and logic, devotion becomes entwined with the spaces in which it is enacted and the objects that help inspire and focus it. Our places and people come and go so quickly, we want to hold on to what remains. Whether it is a mother’s ring or a grandfather’s desk—even an old plaster statue—such things come to matter more when so little of the past seems salvageable.

I scanned the warehouse again. It was rife with statues of the Blessed Mother. Though I knew better, I checked each of their faces to see if she was mine. Of course, she was not there. I was not likely to find her, I knew, but for reasons I did not fully understand, I needed to keep trying.

The Search Continues

I started driving to churches in Rochester on the weekends last November. I planned to spend a week in Buffalo in mid-December, but I knew I would not be able to visit most of the churches. Even after all the closings a decade ago, spires and domes continue to elevate and define the skyline. The churches sit like jewel boxes in working-class neighborhoods, their towers soaring above pizza places and bowling alleys. In Western New York, the church is often the loveliest building in the neighborhood. As kids, we walked by the neighborhood bar, a fish market and several bodegas to get there. I went because I loved the Mass, but also because it was the most glorious place I knew—and ours was a rather ordinary church.

It was undoubtedly a crazy thing to do, driving all over Buffalo in winter in search of a missing statue.

If I had grown up near St. Louis Church in Buffalo, someone would have had to pry me from the pew. A sumptuous reservoir of gilded mosaics and high-flung arches, it has enormous panels of stained glass that transform the anemic winter sun into an array of color and light. But St. Louis is not alone. What is perhaps more astounding than its beauty is how many others are just as mind-blowingly dazzling. St. Mary in Medina. Holy Family in Albion. St. Michael in Rochester. Even run-of-the-mill city churches often feature exquisitely carved altars, handcrafted tabernacles and fonts, rose windows and celestial murals—and in every one, a place of honor for the Blessed Mother.

Images of Mary vary as much as the churches themselves. Our Lady of Czestochowa is popular in Polish parishes, while the Madonna della Libera can be found at Rochester’s St. Anthony of Padua, where Masses are still celebrated in Italian. A 1,600-pound Our Lady of Victory, made from marble, rises from the main altar of a lavish basilica in the city of Lackawanna, outside Buffalo,, while a simply carved Our Lady of Hope complements the vibrant parish of the same name on the West Side of Buffalo. Inspired by a 1950s apparition, the statue at the Seneca Street Shrine in Buffalo is a mid-century vision in her belted day dress.

Besides checking older city parishes, I searched newly formed parishes and suburban sites that might have added a chapel. I attended concerts and holiday programs at night, but relied on daily Mass for my visits. I would rise for a 7 a.m. service in one church, followed by an 8:15 Mass at another, and later one at 12:05 p.m. I would slip in and out as I was able, lighting a candle and sitting a minute. I came close to thinking I had found my Mary at St. Katharine Drexel, whose Virgin Mary’s sky-blue cloak was so similar, I had to look several times to be sure.

It was undoubtedly a crazy thing to do, driving all over Western New York in winter in search of a missing statue. I slid along roads during the day, and tossed and turned at night, doubting myself and questioning my use of time and resources. But I also loved it.

As someone who grew up in a neighborhood where the church was a rare beacon of beauty and light, I cannot say enough about the importance of such spaces. 

The churches were gorgeous, each with its own flavor and history. When else would I have an excuse to visit so many? How much longer would they be there for me to see? Still, by week’s end I was no closer to finding her.

I would have liked to post “Missing Statue” signs on utility poles throughout the city. Instead I posted on Facebook. I uploaded photos and asked friends to ask friends if they had seen her. The Diocese of Buffalo kindly shared my post on their page. People were friendly, but the efforts proved fruitless. “What now?” I wondered, and began to email churches a few days before Christmas, sending out lost-statue missives during the busiest time of the year.

I took one last peek at a Buffalo church. St. Joseph Cathedral has its own Marys, and I did not really think my Rochester statue would be there, but I would pass the church on my way to the Thruway anyway, so I angled my car into a half-plowed spot and strode into the nave. I rushed past St. Anthony and the stations to a statue of a female saint.

Thérèse of Lisieux. The crucifix and roses gave her away. I prepared to push on and realized I was frowning. At the image of a beloved saint. I stopped and looked around. Freshly cut evergreen trees had been piled just inside the doors, 30 or so Christmas trees awaiting placement on the altar. The cathedral was filled with the scent of a pine forest. I breathed in and remembered where I was.

Look what you almost missed, I said to myself. It’s time to move on.

What I Found

My newfound wisdom lasted about an hour. Back in Rochester, I received an email from Assumption Church:

“The Buffalo Religious Arts Center has many religious statues and artifacts from closed churches. I hope you find her,” Rosemary from Assumption’s office wrote. “I’m all about Our Lady!”

The Buffalo Religious Arts Center is well stocked with Marys, including its founder, Mary Holland. After reading of the impending closing of 70 Buffalo churches back in 2007, Ms. Holland began to visit them, admiring the architecture and murals and panels of stained glass, wondering what would become of them. Not content to simply wonder, she bought one of them (St. Francis Xavier in the Black Rock neighborhood) and transformed it into a space to preserve and showcase sacred objects from closed churches in Western New York.

She has collected stained glass and statues, but also architectural drawings and old photographs, and prayer books in the many languages once spoken in Black Rock. Each object tells the story of people who sacrificed everything to build the grandest buildings they could imagine—sacred spaces in which to celebrate, to give thanks and to pray for better days. When those places folded—when their children and grandchildren left and the buildings were wrecked or repurposed or sold—the paintings and statues and candlesticks required another sanctuary. In Buffalo, thanks to Mary Holland, they have one.

This was a woman who would understand my quest, I thought. When I called to arrange a visit, I told her about my search. “I want to see what you’ve done,” I said. “But my Mary is from Rochester and I don’t expect to find her there.”

“I have some pieces from Rochester,” she said. “From Corpus Christi Church.”

“Corpus Christi? In Rochester?” I wasn’t sure I had heard, with all the blood rushing into my ears.

“Yes,” she said. “There’s an Our Lady of Lourdes, and a Bernadette with a little plaid coat.”

“Mine is an Our Lady of Grace, with a blue cloak.”

“Yes,” she said, as if it sounded familiar, but she went on to describe a crowned Virgin standing on a globe.

“Oh.” My heart fell back into its socket. “Mine has no crown or globe.”

I remembered the glut of statues at the church a few years ago. She could have a boatload of Rochester Marys and still not have mine. But there was a chance, at least. I wanted to hop in my car and drive to Buffalo right then, but the region had been pummeled with winter storms. I settled on the end of the week, and hoped the snow would slow down by then.

As soon as I entered the Arts Center, my eye went to a smattering of statues near the door—St. Agnes with her lamb, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a wood-carved St. Lucy and, to the right of the altar, a robe so blue I knew immediately it was her.

“That’s her,” I said, and though I have spent most of my life trying not to get attached to things that can be lost, I had to push back tears as I walked toward her. My husband, who had come along, touched my shoulder. “It’s her,” I said again. She had no crown or globe, but how lovely she was. Far lovelier than I even remembered. Lovelier, in that moment, than any image of the Blessed Mother I had ever seen.

I will not soon forget the thrill of finding an object from a church and a community that once meant the world to me, and were essentially gone. It was a tangible connection to that past. That said, as much as she represented, I had no desire to try to bring her home. I realized that, throughout my journey, over and over she had been with me. All those magnificent sanctuaries. All those finely crafted objects. The beautiful liturgies. And, of course, the kind people who had cared enough to help me on my journey.

As someone who grew up in a neighborhood where the church was a rare beacon of beauty and light, I cannot say enough about the importance of such spaces. I want to believe we will safeguard such places in our own cities, and perhaps even heat them with the warmth of our bodies from time to time.

We will occasionally lose objects that have developed a rich patina of meaning from all the prayers sent in their direction over the years.

But we will sometimes lose them, too. We will not be able to save every item consecrated by history. We will occasionally lose objects that have developed a rich patina of meaning from all the prayers sent in their direction over the years. In finding Mary, I realized that our devotion to those spaces is less important than the devotion we show to each other and to God. Our capacity to come together to celebrate, to give thanks and to pray for better days—that is what all those men and women who risked everything to come and build anew have left us. That is our true inheritance. That which does not depend on marble or sandstone or panels of richly hued glass. The one thing that can never be lost.

Which is to say that while I will continue to revel in the perfect memory of Mary’s blue mantle and will support the Art Center’s good work and undoubtedly visit her again, on Sunday I will return to the church on East Main and Prince Streets. The pews will not be crowded. The faces I once loved will have mostly disappeared. I may feel, at some point, like turning around and walking out the doors. Instead, I will sing a psalm and stand with others for Communion. Instead, I will approach the right side altar, stand before Our Lady of Mount Carmel, bring a match to a candle and make a little light right there.

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