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.
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.