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As diocese studies church closures, Catholics in South Buffalo are upset

St. Teresa's is mother church of South Buffalo
Posted at 2:27 PM, Oct 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-05 14:17:36-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Diocese of Buffalo is bankrupt and faces more than 450 lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests.

Now diocesan leaders have started a committee that will study the closure of churches. But Catholics in South Buffalo say the doors of one historic church -- St. Teresa’s Catholic Church on Seneca Street -- should stay open for the good of the neighborhood.

“People have come up to me and mentioned about, ‘Gee, did you hear that St. Teresa's is closing?’ and I said, ‘This is kind of news to me,’” said Marc Pasquale, the former business manager of the parish.

Pasquale is also the founder of the Coalition for a Vibrant Seneca Street, which helped to usher in a recent rebirth of investment along the commercial strip in what some have called “downtown South Buffalo.”

“St. Teresa's has a very rich history here in South Buffalo because it was the first parish in South Buffalo,” Pasquale said, referring to the 122-year-old church, which is carved out of heavy sandstone.

He and others were shocked this week to hear rumors that St. Teresa’s may have an uncertain future. Speculation started after a post on a church-related Facebook page that read, “The pastor at St. Teresa’s is retiring. When he leaves, St. Teresa’s will merge into Our Lady of Charity.”

Neither St. Teresa’s pastor James Cunningham nor Our Lady of Charity Pastor Bryan Zielenieski responded to interview requests for this story, but interim diocesan spokesman Greg Tucker said in a statement, “No future plans have been defined and there are no predetermined outcomes...There is no pending decision to close or consolidate specific churches (parishes).” Click here to read the full statement.

“I think it would be very unfortunate” for St. Teresa’s to close, said Lisa Gee, who works on Seneca Street. “A lot of people love this place, they come here, they sit on the stairs, a lot of funerals and weddings happen here, and everybody is just really family-friendly.”

In his statement announcing the committee, interim Bishop Edward Scharfenberger said, “we must accept that it’s no longer an option for parishes and schools teetering on the brink of insolvency to maintain the status quo.”

But Zielenieski sits on the Road to Renewal committee, which Pasquale said is a conflict of interest.

“And if decisions are going to be made in South Buffalo, all of those parishes should be on equal ground,” Pasquale said. “And we shouldn't have this nonsense with there's a [Road to] Renewal or there's a Journey [of Faith and Grace]. Just call it what it is, tell people what it is, and don't stand there and try to fool people and then blindside them later after they've given oodles and oodles of money for the restoration of all of these buildings.”

There are also questions about whether Scharfenberger even has the authority as interim bishop to close churches.

“The seat of the bishop is still vacant in Buffalo,” Pasquale said. “And Bishop Scharfenberger has referred to us as neighbors down the road. He is not our bishop and he should not be making major decisions for our diocese.”

Tucker did not answer a question about whether Scharfenberger has received the direct authority to sign off on church closures from the Vatican, but he said Scharfenberger “is in regular communication with the Papal Nuncio. He has the support of the Nuncio and the authority to lead this renewal initiative.”

It makes no sense, Pasquale said, to close st. Teresa’s -- the anchor of a Seneca Street that’s seeing millions of dollars in recent investment -- while keeping open Our Lady of Charity Parish at Holy Family, which is on a stretch of South Park Avenue that has seen better days.

He added that the diocese should pay off sex abuse lawsuits with the money that for years has flowed into diocesan coffers downtown.

“So if the diocese didn't handle priests who are pedophiles properly, then they should be paying the price for that with the mistakes that they made,” Pasquale said. “They shouldn't go to the poor people in the parishes and say, ‘We're asking you to now make the sacrifice for our mistakes.’ They need to make those sacrifices up there. Let them close their Cathedral, let them sell their own buildings.”