The Tale of the Broken Cathedral

Cathedrals are intended to uplift the spirit and inspire majesty.  In olden days, the cathedral was frequently the tallest and largest structure in the community.  The amount of resources and talent put into the construction of the building were symbols of the faithfulness of the devoted.

The word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra meaning seat, which in turn came from two Greek words, kata = down and hedra = chair.  The term implies that the cathedral is the seat of a bishop who leads a large religious community.

After the burning the town by the British in the War of 1812, Buffalo rebuilt.  It became a major U.S. city in 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal, linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes for the first time.

In 1851, two great faiths began construction on competing cathedrals.  Episcopalians built their St. Paul’s Cathedral.  One block away, Roman Catholics began their St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  The two structures dominated the Buffalo skyline during the latter part of the 19th century.

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Joseph's Cathedral

In the early years of the 20th century, Roman Catholic Bishop Charles Henry Colton began plans to construct an even grander cathedral several miles north of the existing church, along Buffalo’s Delaware Avenue, where the well-heeled lived. The new structure would be build for $500,000 and would seat 1,500 people.

On June 9, 1912, 30,000 of the faithful marched two miles from downtown Buffalo to the intended site of the new St. Joseph’s Cathedral.  The cornerstone was laid.  The designer of the new building was Aristides Leonori of Rome, a man of some renown in the world of ecclesiastical architecture.

Unfortunately, Leonori’s knowledge of the destructive power of Buffalo winters was less profound than his reputation as a builder.

The design called for triumphal twin 260-foot towers at the corner of Delaware and Utica Street.  A 45-bell carillon would summon Catholics to their cathedral.

In the end, only one of the towers was completed.  Structural problems prevented construction of the second.  The carillon was the largest in America at the time.  The new St. Joseph’s Cathedral was completed in 1915.

Things went wrong almost immediately.

The cathedral began to deteriorate at an alarming pace.  Just five years after its consecration, major repairs were needed at a cost of more than $100,000 (an exorbitant sum).  The twin steeples of the structure had to be removed in 1927-1928 to the tune of $72,000.

Large chunks of ceiling plaster began to fall into the sanctuary.  Several sections of pews were roped off to protect congregants from serious injury.

The magnificent marble exterior of the cathedral had never been properly bonded to the brick wall behind it.  As a result, it began to gradually pull away from the structure.  Over time, a gap of several inches developed.

By the 1970s, Bishop Edward D. Head proclaimed that the cathedral was the “victim of bad design or bad construction.”  Descendants of the general contractor and the architect blamed each other. 

Not wanting the responsibility for making the fateful decision to fall upon him alone, Bishop Head convened a committee of pastors of major churches in the diocese as well as contractors and Catholic and non-Catholic businessmen.  An eight-month study revealed what everyone already knew: St. Joe’s would have to come down.

It would cost more than $2.2 million to restore the building, and more than $30,000 annually to maintain the building.  They also determined that the cost of erecting a new cathedral would be even more prohibitive.

The decision was made — St. Joe’s would move back to the “old” cathedral.  This occurred in 1976.

Timon Towers was built on the site of the "new" cathedral.

The “new” cathedral was demolished.  Its furnishings were sold by the wreckers in partial payment for the $250,000 incurred in razing the structure.  An apartment complex was erected on the site.

The faithful returned to the smaller cathedral close to downtown.  It had been a mere 61 years since the Bishop left that seat.

Rear view of "old" cathedral

What was intended to be a majestic tribute by Buffalo’s Catholics to their creator turned into a dispiriting and costly retreat.

Notwithstanding this defeat, the piety and strength of Buffalo’s Roman Catholic community remains an integral part of this region.

— The Major


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by the sterge on December 17, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    The photo of the scarred marble looks like michaelangelo’s sistine chapel -the hands of the angel reaching to touch another. Cool


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