St. Matthew’s History: Q & A With the Buffalo Diocese

BUFFALO, N.Y. — St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church is one of 14 worship sites the eight-county Catholic Diocese of Buffalo closed in the 1990s.

Like business, factories and other landmarks across the city, St. Matthew’s fell victim to the region’s declining population.

Link to a related story on St. Matthews slow decay

Diocese spokesman Kevin Keenan says the number of congregants registered with the parish dropped from 4,170 in 1938 to 218 in 1990, three years before it closed.

In this Q & A, Keenan discusses the history of St. Matthew’s from the perspective of the Diocese, whose Catholic population has plummeted from a peak of 948,669 in 1969 to 633,550 today.

Q: What has caused the decline in parish membership across the Diocese over the years?
A: Primarily, changing demographics: The out-migration of people from Western New York is the main reason. There are fewer people living here than there were in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Catholic population peaked in the region.

Q: When the Diocese sells a church, does the Diocese feel responsible for finding a buyer who will maintain the building and use it productively? 

A: Yes.  We look for buyers who will re-use properties in a way that benefits the local community.

Q: Does the Diocese feel partly responsible for what has happened to St. Matthew’s? (The church is falling apart, inside and out.)

A: No. At the time of the purchase, we were comfortable with the assurances from the buyer that the property would be maintained.

Q: Do you have any statistics that demonstrate a decline in church attendance at St. Matthew’s?

A: In 1938 St Matthew’s had 1,175 registered families that included 4,170 individuals. In 1990 there were 110 registered families with 218 individuals.

That represents a 90.6% decrease in the number of families and a 94.8% decline in the number of individuals. That decline took its toll financially. 

When the Central City restructuring process began in 1988, the parish had no assets and they had an annual operating deficit of $62,345.

Q: Four parishes, including St. Matthew’s, were merged to form St. Martin de Porres, a new church on Northampton Street in Buffalo. Who made that decision?

A: In 1988, Bishop Edward Head appointed a new Vicar for the Central City, an African American Dominican priest who came to Buffalo from Chicago.

Father Roderick Brown, Ordo Fratrum Praedicatorum, was tasked with restructuring the parishes of the Central City of Buffalo.

Many of the original German families that comprised St. Matthew Parish and other Central City parishes had moved out of Buffalo to the suburbs in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in a decline in the number of parishioners.

Father Brown began a grassroots process to involve all the parishioners in the process of restructuring.

The process took five years, and at the end of the five years, four parishes that had been working as a cluster proposed to Bishop Head that they should merge to form a single parish.

They further requested that they be allowed to build a new parish at a neutral site. When Bishop Head met with representatives of the parishes involved, his decision to grant their request was met with applause.

St. Martin de Porres Parish was the result of that decision. 

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6 Comments St. Matthew’s History: Q & A With the Buffalo Diocese

  1. Tom Jones

    Outstanding! I attended St. Matt’s from a school and parishioner perspective and miss both every day.

    I currently have a Facebook page preserving all of the positive memories and pictures of the legacy and encourage anyone who would like to reminisces please join us… at “Friends and past students of St. Matthew’s RC school Buffalo, NY”

    1. Deborah B. Lane

      Just learned about St. Matt’s woes recently. I couldn’t find your page on Facebook. I’m really interested in finding some inside shots of the church in its glory days, especially in color. If you email me your email address &/or phone number perhaps we could communicate on this. Also would like to hear from any other students/parishoners. I attended the school from the mid-50’s to early-60’s.

  2. Susie

    “St. Matthew’s Church”….Even the very name evokes so many memories-so many stories; perhaps even a little “magic”- a little hope. No, I’ve never even attended St. Matthew’s Church or it’s School. In fact, I’ve never even walked through its doors; yet, it has always been that one place-that incredibly special, sacred place…a beacon-a defining time, place, & influence-which I keep returning to throughout my life. You see, I was a very religious child who grew up in a very abusive-non-Christian (atheist/agnostic) home right across the street from St. Matthew’s. Every weekday, while every one of my neighborhood friends would walk across the street to St. Matthew’s school, I (& my siblings) had to walk instead many blocks away to the local public school (at least five or six blocks sure seemed quite far when your only four & five years old!). Every Sunday, I would almost always watch out our windows with wonder at the parade of people dressed in their beautiful Sunday finery-with their large colorful hats, ribbons, bows, suit jackets & neckties. Every time I knew my “Other Mother” (an older couple that lived upstairs from us-who I spent every possible moment with when I could or when I wasn’t with my friends) went to mass-or to the nighttime Bingo-I would often beg to go-though I knew we were never allowed. The closest that I can recall ever actually “being there” was on a cool Easter Sunday-late afternoon -when our father took us kids there to take pictures outside with the statues of a Mother deer & her doe’s (I loved those deer!).

    For me, St. Matthew’s has always been a symbol of a great desire to know & learn about God amid a cruel & dark world. Today, St. Matthews stands with broken windows & locked doors…But this is not a time to lock the doors to God. In these dark days we need places like St. Matthew’s more than ever. We need them right where they are-in the neighborhoods that need them most. The empty & brokenness is not the result of a certain wealthier white population moving to the suburbs but rather an indicator of an empty & broken world, & the failure of the-so-called- representatives of God (& his supposed people) to “truly reach out” to the lost & the hurting-reaching out to those who are currently there living in those broken homes & neighborhoods. The Apostles were sent out “among the people”-We’re called to scour the “Highways & Bi-ways to invite people if necessary-not just sit back & wait for them to enter in by themselves; But right now, at St. Matthew’s, we can’t even open the doors…

    I currently live out of state; but also, like a “snow-bird”, am usually there in the Buffalo area sometime between late Spring & early fall. I have always longed to see the inside of St. Matthew’s Church for most of my entire life-that has never changed. Although I would so love even more to see God’s Church “fully restored” there. I pray it will be even better than ever before, and that these are to be the real “Glory Days” yet ahead for St. Matthew’s Church…Please let me know how I can help to accomplish this.


  3. kaz.anne

    That tribute was beautiful! I’m sorry for your pain – it was common in the neighborhood. Blue collars only carry so much calm. Poverty bred pain. Neighborhood changed from white to black, from quiet to louder to finally, so dangerous you could not go outside for fear of rape, murder. Scary place to be a kid, though it started out all right. St. Matthew’s was haven. Close to heaven. I went to Mass and Sunday school there. My dad snored in church. The windows glowed with rainbows, the paintings with gold-winged angels one felt safe sitting beneath. It was shelter and joy. I would love to see pics from the inside, if anyone has some. Taking pictures in church wasn’t done in those days, except maybe for 1st communion or a wedding. I made confirmation there. Father Who? Matthew? Mark? Someone dark and balding, but kind. Deeply intellectual. And that singing priest, who put out the album in the 70s. Kinda folky. The song of Joel. We sang it at church. I recall the startled look of the Bishop when he said my chosen name. But he said it. And smiled. I was blessed.
    Right after that, we left for St. Luke’s. It was dark and silent inside. My mom liked it better. I resisted it. It felt like a crypt after all that sun and light. I always dreamed of going back to St. Matthew’s. Helping somehow. But now I read it’s all but rubble and dust. Pigeon droppings and fallen plaster. The windows are gone. Argh. It was a sanctuary. Scajacquada Creek used to run beneath it, I was told. It always carried soul.

    1. mary

      @ kaz.anne. I think you are thinking of Father Mack. I think it was Father Paul? who put out the album. My brother and sister were in that folk group/choir and were on the album too. They were in their teens then. We moved when I was nine. I don’t remember a lot, from that time 40+ yrs. ago, but I remember the church and the people. I remember Sister Alma and some of the nuns. It still feels like home. There is a group that bought the church last year and has a go fund me page to try and restore it. I am planning to contribute. I hope they do and St. Matt’s can open its doors once again.


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