Buffalo story: Celebrating St. Paul’s Cathedral’s bicentennial

Today, I went with a group from Saint Martin in the Fields of Grand Island to visit Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Buffalo. This year is the cathedral’s bicentennial. It was established as a church in February of 1817. The original wooden structure was built at a cost of $5,000, which nearly bankrupted the congregation. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, there was an influx of people. The Erie Canal brought people and economic boom to Buffalo. The church became too small for its greatly expanded membership. The process of raising money to build a new church took years and resulted in the split of the membership. Many people went to the new Trinity Episcopal Church, which is now located on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.

Eventually, an architect was found to design a new church for St. Paul’s. His name was Richard Upjohn (1802-1878). The church that he designed was built out of Medina sandstone in a Gothic style, which was Mr. Upjohn’s specialty. Mr. Upjohn had designed numerous other churches, including Trinity Church in New York City. He also designed houses and office buildings. In 1857, he helped to found the American Institute of Architects and served as its president until 1876. In 1888, the church was nearly lost after a gas explosion and fire. The exterior was intact but the interior was severely damaged. The church’s reconstruction was designed by Robert W. Gibson, an architect who had designed All Saints Church in Albany. By 1890, Saint Paul’s church was reopened.

In 1973, Saint Paul’s Cathedral was put on the National Register of Historic Places. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1988.
the great pipe organ of the cathedral

The presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, came to Buffalo to celebrate the cathedral’s bicentennial. He is the presiding bishop and the primate of the Episcopal Church. He was elected in 2015 and is the first African-American to serve in that position. He grew up in Buffalo and attended Saint Philip’s Church. “I am thankful to be at home in Buffalo.”

The theme of the presiding bishop’s sermon was that God is the root and we are the branches. He mesmerized the large crowd that came from both the city and the surrounding towns with his brilliant combination of storytelling and preaching. He told us that Jesus started a movement, not an organization. “I’m going to show you a way to live and to love,” Jesus told his followers. Jesus is the root of the movement. The movement continued, after Jesus was arrested, tried on unjust charges, tortured, and killed in a most horrific way.

Bishop Curry told us about a pilgrimage that he took to Ghana in west Africa as part of the work that he does in racial reconciliation. He visited the sites where slavery had it origins, where “slaves were carted in ships like cargo and were taken to an unknown world.” There were slave camps in Ghana, and, to get to those camps, the people who were to be sold into slavery were forced to march. It was like the Trail of Tears, when the Five Civilized Tribes were forced to march from the southeast to Oklahoma. Many people died on the trail.

“Slaves were tied up on trees in the sweltering sun.”

It was a place that had seen humans at their worse, abusing and enslaving their fellow humans. Yet it is a sacred place. There is a tree that had been there for centuries. “It is huge and blossoming, with a complex root system above and below ground.”

The tree was a witness to the “pain, horror, and inhumanity” of humans enslaving other humans, Bishop Curry said. “Maybe this tree is a witness that good will triumph over evil.”

The tree has survived much in its many years of existence: an advancing Sahara desert and the “climate change that is not happening.”

“If we loved our neighbor as ourselves, we’d have a different world.”

Racism has always been a problem in the United States. In the 1940s, the United States was very segregated. One of the areas in which the United States was segregated was in baseball. There were three professional baseball leagues: the American League, the National League, and the Negro League. Branch Rickey (1881-1965) was determined to see this segregation come to an end. As a young man, he had briefly been a professional baseball player. After that came to an end and after earning a law degree from the University of Michigan in 1911, Rickey got into the management side of baseball. He was credited for creating the “farm” system, in which players were trained in the minor leagues and then brought to major league teams.

Rickey, whom Bishop Curry described as “whiskey drinkin’, cussin’ Christian, was looking for someone to break the color barrier, someone who combined excellence in the field with excellence in the spirit. A devout Methodist, Rickey wanted to choose another Methodist for the role. He chose Jackie Robinson because “He’s a Methodist, I am a Methodist, and God is a Methodist.”

He told Jackie Robinson: “All true change will be resisted. You will be cursed and threatened. You can’t retaliate.”

Jackie Robinson wanted to know if he was looking for a “Negro who is afraid to fight back.”

“I want a ballplayer who has the courage not to fight,” Rickey said.

Because of their faith, these two men changed major league baseball for the better.

“Don’t be afraid to be a Christian and stand for those who don’t have a voice.”

“If we loved our neighbor as ourselves, we’d have a different world.”

At the end of the service, various elected officials (or their representatives) were invited to make brief remarks.

Representative from Governor Cuomo’s office: Saint Paul’s Cathedral is the light of the world.

New York State Senator Timothy Kennedy: This amazing church has been at the center of our community. It has seen transformation in our nation and in our community.

Mayor Byron Brown of Buffalo, New York: I am honored to welcome Bishop Curry back to Buffalo, where he grew up and to hear him preach the word of God.

Future posts: There will be more posts about people and places in Buffalo by springtime. Stay tuned!

3 thoughts on “Buffalo story: Celebrating St. Paul’s Cathedral’s bicentennial”

  1. The building certainly has seen many monumental changes in society over it's 200 years, and in the attitudes and beliefs of the community – what a huge milestone to celebrate; a bicentennial. I'll have to make sure we stop by when in Buffalo and try to catch a service.

  2. Cerebrations.biz

    A church (building) is only as strong as its members…
    Glad to see these members keep it strong.

  3. I've gone to the Sacred Sites weekend (here, only Sunday) in our Triple Cities twice, and plan to participate again. I wonder if St. Paul's participates. For a historical structure like this, it would be a natural thing. If you ever go to the Buffalo Sacred Sites, this reader would love to hear the details.

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