(LifeSiteNews) – The Diocese of Buffalo has sold a historic landmark Catholic church to a Muslim group for use as a mosque after refusing proposals to reuse it as a church.
The Downtown Islamic Center (DIC) purchased the 164-year-old St. Ann’s Catholic Church and Shrine for $250,000, according to The Buffalo News, in order to transform the over 50,000 square-foot sanctuary into a masjid (mosque), as the group’s virtual “tour” of the purchased property shows.
The Muslim association also plans to create a shopping center, college, school boarding house, and funeral home on neighboring property, and is “looking to put several million dollars into this in the next year, in the church alone,” the group’s president, Talha Bakth, told The Buffalo News.
DIC aims to convert buildings that formerly served as St. Ann’s school and convent, and apartments that served as a rectory before 1993. Bakth added, however, that the plans are not final, and that they are considering other potential projects.
In July, the Downtown Islamic Center hailed their expected possession of St. Ann’s as a “dream come true for all the Muslims in Buffalo and all over the United States.”
“This massive property, including the current downtown Islamic Center, will be one of North America’s most prominent Islamic centers,” DIC predicted.
This Islamic dream is on its way to becoming a reality thanks to the Diocese of Buffalo, which sold the church to DIC’s Buffalo Crescent Holdings after a prolonged battle by Catholics to preserve the church as a sacred Catholic space.
Brody Hale, president of the St. Stephen Protomartyr Project, which works to preserve Catholic churches for sacred use, told LifeSiteNews that the surrender of the church began when St. Ann’s was targeted by then-Bishop Edward Kmiec’s “Journey of Faith and Grace” program, which Hale described as a “euphemistic description of his parish closure program.”
Eventually, all activities at the church were suspended in April 2012 due to what was described as “life-threatening structural issues.” According to Preservation Ready, the diocese cited a needed $8.2 million to $12.4 million in repairs, according to a “structural analysis,” before the church could again be used for worship.
The Diocese of Buffalo had its sights set on selling St. Ann’s to a private secular developer, but in January 2014, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy decreed that the church could not be “sold or repurposed for profane use.”
Carol Robinson, co-chair of the Save St. Ann’s group that had been battling to preserve the church for Catholic use, told the National Catholic Register at the time that the group was “elated” over the decision.
According to the Register, she said the group had proposed several ideas to former Bishop Richard Malone to “restor[e] the church and staf[f] it, including a proposal to invite a religious order to take charge of it and make St. Ann’s a mission to the deteriorated neighborhood.”
“They wouldn’t go in that direction,” Robinson told the Register. “They kept telling us, ‘No, it isn’t going to be a church.’”
Even as the St. Ann’s community was “focused on aggressively raising funds to repair and restore the church,” Bishop Malone, who had written to the Congregation for the Clergy to ask them to reconsider their decision, was poised to appeal the case to the Apostolic Signatura, according to his spokesman, Kevin Keenan.
Asked by LifeSiteNews why the Diocese of Buffalo turned down proposals by the Save St. Ann’s group to restore and staff the church, diocesan communications manager Joseph Martone cited “exorbitant” repair costs.
“In the course of review of the future of the church, the diocese commissioned two separate structural engineering reports for St. Ann’s. Both reports revealed significant structural decay and an exorbitant estimated cost for repair of the church’s twin towers as well as the main church,” Martone told LifeSiteNews.
To the sorrow of former St. Ann’s parishioners, the Apostolic Signatura came to side with Malone, overturning in 2017 the decision by the Congregation for the Clergy. The prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura at this time was no longer Cardinal Raymond Burke, but Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, appointed to his post by Pope Francis.
Hale told LifeSiteNews regarding the decision, “From what I understand, it was a question of money. There was a belief on the part of Rome that there wasn’t enough money for the church to continue.”
Then, he said, in 2018, Fr. William “Jud” Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of Ss. Columba-Brigid Church, into which St. Ann’s was merged, reached out to Hale to “discuss the future of St. Ann’s.”
“I made it clear that it is perfectly possible for the church to be re-designated as a shrine, a chapel or oratory if the Diocese of Buffalo wished to do that, and that was a goal that many people had,” Hale told LifeSiteNews.
According to Hale, Fr. Weiksnar “made clear that basically it was a non-starter to have the Friends of St. Ann assume ownership of the church or responsibility for the church. That was something that the diocese didn’t want.”
Hale said his organization “offered eventually to step in and do that,” but they could not satisfy the diocese’s heavy demands.
“The vice president of my organization makes the point that Jesus Himself couldn’t have met the requirements of the diocese,” he said. “They were asking for multi-millions up front.”
Moreover, Hale told LifeSiteNews, “The Diocese of Buffalo made the point years before that it would have been willing to sell the church to an entity that would maintain it as a Catholic sacred space but that none existed.”
Hale disputes this.
He said that despite presenting plans to the diocese “through which the church could’ve been kept as a sacred space, including offering them considerable sums of money … the diocese ignored or rejected those efforts and ended up selling the church to be converted into a mosque.”
“They had no interest whatsoever in having it retained for Catholic use, in my opinion,” Hale said.
“It was clear there was an absolute unwillingness to work with me and those working with me to retain it for Catholic sacred uses.”
‘Flagrant’ canon law violations
What is troubling to Hale in particular is the “absolute flagrant and systematic ignoring” of canon law principles, which “required all sources of funding [and] options to be shown to be impossible before a church was put to some other non-Catholic use.”
According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, a church can only be relegated to profane (non-Catholic) use if the “church cannot be used in any way for divine worship and there is no possibility of repairing it,” (Can. 1222 §1.) or “Where other grave causes suggest that a church no longer be used for divine worship … with the consent of those who legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church and provided that the good of souls suffers no detriment thereby.” (Can. 1222 §2)
In the case of churches like St. Ann’s, which are not damaged beyond repair, Hale said that in order to plead a “grave cause” to relegate it to profane use, one must show that “no money is available from any source” to continue to maintain a church.
In fact, Hale said, in 2013 the Holy See’s Congregation for the Clergy issued a document that “stated clearly that in a situation where a bishop or an archbishop is claiming financial insufficiency as a cause of sufficient gravity to relegate a church to profane but not sordid use, they are supposed to prove that there is no other source of financing [that] would allow the church to continue to be cared for as a Catholic sacred space, regardless of how frequently the Masses are said within it.”
These 2013 guidelines further instructed that when a Catholic church is sold, the first preferred outcome for the transfer of ownership is that it will continue to be used “for some level of Catholic worship.”
“Only when that is shown to be impossible, is it supposed to be the case that the church is passed to a secular party…or a non-Catholic party,” Hale explained.
Not only did the Diocese of Buffalo ignore the code of canon law in this case, noted Hale, but “they’ve ignored it consistently since they started selling churches.”
The overall effect of this diocesan modus operandi is “harm to the Catholic faith,” Hale has concluded. One example of this, Hale shared, was a case in which at least one Catholic church of the Diocese of Buffalo was sold to the schismatic Polish National Catholic Church, “with the result being that most of the parishioners ended up joining.”
“You have the diocese basically promoting a schism and losing souls from recognized Catholicism as a result,” Hale pointed out.
Loss of sense of the sacred
Hale believes the “best case scenario” root of the gutting of Catholic churches is the “wider problem” of “an entire cadre of Catholic church leaders … who have completely lost their understanding of and appreciation for the sacred.”
“You may have heard priests say, ‘A church is just a building.’ That’s a common refrain in parts of the country where these churches are being shut,’ Hale said.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. Canon Law #1214 makes it clear that a church is a sacred building … as Catholics we believe the world is divided into two types of space: sacred space and profane space,” Hale explained.
He went on to make clear that “sacred use is exclusively for Catholic worship,” which is why “when you sell a church to a Buddhist temple or a mosque or even a Protestant congregation you deconsecrate it, relegate it to profane but not sordid use, because those forms of worship are not considered by Catholicism to be sacred.”
Hale believes that the widespread lack of sense of the sacred among the clergy has been fostered by “post-conciliar conceptions of what Catholicism is,” pointing out that “the rite of consecration for a church was even rewritten in the 1970s to make it far less elaborate and ornate, and sort of enculturate the Protestant conception of a church as a meeting hall rather than as God’s sacred space on earth.”
Destruction of ‘all traces’ of the pre-conciliar Church
Hale believes that in some cases, there is also an ideological motive behind the devastation of Catholic churches, that by all appearances seeks to destroy remnants of traditional Catholicism in favor of post-Vatican II worship.
“When you look at a church like St. Ann’s, it wasn’t built for a guitar Mass. It was built for the traditional Mass as it was celebrated in 1886 when its doors opened. It was built with a high altar, it was built with an altar rail, it was built for that Mass,” Hale noted.
Ss. Columba-Brigid Church, the parish into which St. Ann’s has been merged, was built with a modern style, for the Novus Ordo Mass, by contrast, as its website shows.
While Hale clarified he was not speaking specifically about Bishop Michael William Fischer, who now heads the Diocese of Buffalo, he said he sees a larger pattern of many bishops “fighting so hard to make sure” that traditional churches are no longer Catholic, such as in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
“Is this perhaps a desire on someone’s part to obliterate all traces of the church before the council so that the church can be fully remade in the conciliar image … ?” Hale said.
‘Change of faith’ in Buffalo
In the Diocese of Buffalo, Catholic churches are not only routinely sold — they are commonly repurposed for the non-sacred worship of other religious faiths, including Protestantism, Islam, and even Buddhism.
The trend has been so pronounced that an entire article, published in 2019, was devoted to the “religious conversion” of Buffalo’s Catholic churches in particular.
The author, Ashima Krishna, observed that “many former Catholic churches” in Buffalo have been “converted” for other denominations, and there were already multiple instances of Catholic church conversions to mosques: Saint Joachim’s Roman Catholic Church was transformed into the mosque Bait Ul Mamur Inc. Masjid, and Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church was converted into the mosque Jami Masjid.
Notably, another Buffalo Catholic Church not mentioned by Krishna, St. Gerard’s Roman Catholic Church, was sold in 2017 to be converted into a mosque.
Krishna described how “those involved with Jami Masjid removed the stained-glass windows, statuary and iconography, along with the pews, Stations of the Cross and the altar,” and “volunteers painted over the ecclesiastical murals by local artist Josef Mazur and carpeted the entire floor so worshipers could pray on the floor, per Islamic custom.”
She also told how, in an even sharper departure from Catholic worship, Saint Agnes Roman Catholic Church was transformed into a pagan temple for the International Sangha Bhiksu Buddhist Association.
‘Harm to the Catholic faith’
What Krishna celebrated as a “win-win” situation is decried by Hale and other Catholics as a tragedy, both for the abandonment of the Catholic faith that tends to follow in the wake of church closures, and for the loss of opportunity for Catholic worship and even conversion to the faith.
Hale has testified that the sale of Catholic churches often leaves the faithful “angry and heartbroken,” “resulting in many individuals abandoning Catholicism altogether.”
Hale’s mission to preserve Catholic churches is even more fundamentally driven by the conviction that doing so will “ensur[e] another tangible manifestation of God’s presence remains in the world.”
“The fact that so many people have been moved to embrace Catholicism through their exposure to the sacred art and architecture of beautiful Catholic churches … illustrates their ability to open the hearts and minds of those who enter them to God,” Hale noted.
While efforts to preserve Catholic churches in places like Buffalo and Chicago are routinely blocked, other locations in the United States and around the world have had greater success in maintaining churches as sacred spaces.
Hale has developed a series of “best practices” that he says have “led to 17 groups of parishioners reaching agreements with diocesan and archdiocesan leaders” to maintain Roman Catholic churches as sacred spaces.
Learn more about his efforts to help preserve Catholic churches at Hale’s St. Stephen Protomartyr Project website.
LifeSiteNews reached out to the Downtown Islamic Center for comment but has not received a response.