The third floor of a three-story building that housed apartments and a grocery store below seemed as likely a place as any to start a Catholic parish in 1906. In this makeshift Upper Room Church at the corner of Forest Avenue (now Dewey Avenue) and Sanford Street, founding members hung a drapery and religious picture on the back wall behind the altar. A man named Emil Foisset fashioned an altar rail out of porch material. Parishioners carted in an assortment of chairs, as well as cushions upon which to kneel, from their homes.
And on July 8, just over a month after Bishop Charles H. Colton established Blessed Trinity parish and assigned Father John F. Pfluger as pastor, 60 people showed up for the inaugural parish Mass. They contributed $13.51 in the initial collection, and neighboring pastors and parishioners, as well as Pfluger’s family, also loaned money to assist the fledgling parish.
After being legally incorporated in 1907 as the Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church Society of Buffalo, the parish started searching for property upon which to build a church and school. The Gesl farmlands on Le Roy Avenue turned out to be the spot where a combination church, hall and school was built upon a foundation of stone dug out for the basement of the building. The architects didn’t think electricity would be brought out so far from the center of downtown Buffalo, so the building wasn’t wired.
Bishop Colton blessed the building’s cornerstone on June 5, 1907. The bishop drew some criticism for creating such a far-flung parish in the middle of quarries and farmland, including an editorial in the “Catholic Union & Times” that disagreed with the plan. Nonetheless, at a cost of $25,000 paid through a mortgage, the building of three floors and a social area in the basement was completed in the fall of 1907. The parish school opened on the second floor about a year later with 80 pupils taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who walked each day from their motherhouse on Main Street near Humboldt Parkway.
By 1911, the parish grew to 400 families, and a bowling alley and pool table were installed in the social area. More land was purchased on Le Roy Avenue, paving the way for future expansion, and in 1914, at a cost of $14,000, a rectory was built.
Two years later, a new pastor began residing in the rectory. Father Albert F. Fritton concentrated early on in his pastorate on the growing school, which attracted 308 pupils in 1919. But the need for a new church also became more pressing.
Fritton, who had traveled in Northern Italy and admired the Lombard Romanesque architecture of its church buildings, hired architects Chester Oakley and Albert Schallmo to sketch drawings of a church in that style. About 150 parishioners met in 1922 to discuss the plans for a new church that Fritton predicted “will be one of the finest in Buffalo. We shall be proud of it, the city will be proud of it, and God will be proud of it.”
The cost of the new church was originally estimated at $225,000, and children in the parish began selling bricks at 10 cents apiece to raise money. The cornerstone was laid and blessed on August 7, 1923.
The stunning new church took five years to build and cost more than double the original estimate, exhausting parish savings and income and forcing the church to take out two separate mortgages, each of $150,000. It was dedicated by Bishop William Turner on June 3, 1928.
Fritton cultivated a garden and raised black Mimorca chickens to take his mind off of the worrisome debt, which was made much worse by the 1929 crash of the stock market and the start of the Great Depression.
On April 26, 1933, Fritton died at the age of 59. Father Albert Rung was appointed the third pastor and became responsible for figuring how to dig the parish out of debt, which saddled church members with payments of $1,491 per month in interest alone. School enrollment also declined in the 1930s and early 1940s, but by 1945, the parish’s bleak financial outlook had turned around and enrollment was on its way up again.
Father Charles T. Kraehn became the fourth pastor on July 3, 1945. During Kraehn’s pastorate, Blessed Trinity grew to 1,600 parishioners, its largest membership.
By 1953, the parish had finally paid off its huge building debt, and Masses were so full that folding chairs had to be set up along the side walls of the sanctuary. The mortgage burning cleared the way for a consecration Mass on September 26, 1953. The special Mass, blessing the altars and the entire building, lasted five hours and was televised in Buffalo.
Although membership in parish societies dropped off, the parish went ahead with plans for a new social center and school annex that was completed in 1958. Monsignor Charles Schreckenburger was appointed pastor a year later and instituted weekly Bingo games in an effort to reduce the debt from the new St. Charles Hall. The neighborhood around Blessed Trinity experienced rapid change during the mid 1960s, with a confluence of pressures causing waves of complicated urban problems to sweep into a once quiet residential neighborhood. Parish enrollment declined dramatically, from 1,471 in 1964 to 648 in 1975.
Per the Second Vatican Council, the parish completed the liturgical renewal of the sanctuary in 1968 by enlarging the altar platform, using parts of the side altars for the altar of sacrifice to face the people. Two years later, the New Order of the Mass was introduced. After the death of Msgr. Schreckenburger in 1970, Msgr. Paul Juenker was appointed pastor. As an educator, he made significant improvements in the old school during his four years at Blessed Trinity. There was no way of knowing, however, how long enrollment in the school could be maintained in such a changing neighborhood.
Although parish debt had been cut in half, the number of parishioners continued to decline. In 1974, Father Walter Kern became the seventh pastor. The school’s situation became more precarious when the Sisters of St. Joseph explained that they could no longer staff it after June of 1975, when the final eighth grade class graduated. Grades four through eight were eliminated, while the primary school hung on another year before being shut down.
In the mid 1970s, Federal Block Grant money enabled a neighborhood group focused on eliminating blight, improving housing and providing programs for youth and seniors to establish itself in the Fillmore-Leroy area. The group eventually became FLARE, Fillmore Leroy Area Residents, now housed in the former school building.
Blessed Trinity Church’s architectural features began to be celebrated outside the parish. Kern, who had taught art appreciation to children and adults, researched and wrote a 64-page illustrated handbook about the church. In 1977, the Buffalo Preservation Board formally recognized the church as a City Landmark. Two years later, the church’s distinctiveness was honored well beyond Western New York when Blessed Trinity was accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places.
In February 1991, Father George L. Reger was appointed administrator of Blessed Trinity by Bishop Edward D. Head. The nineties brought significant changes and challenges to the inner city, including the consolidation of several parishes by the Diocese. In 1993, St. Vincent dePaul, St. Bartholomew and Blessed Trinity merged to form one Catholic parish at the Blessed Trinity site, with Fr. Reger as pastor.
Reger continued Fr. Kern’s maintenance of the beautiful Lombard Romanesque edifice. A fund entitled “Under This Roof” was established to sustain restoration efforts. In addition, the parish began to participate in the Bi-national “Doors Open, Niagara” an annual fall event highlighting unique architecture in Western New York and southern Ontario.
In June 2005, Bishop Edward U. Kmiec introduced the Journey in Faith and Grace, a parish-based strategic planning and spiritual revitalization process. It resulted in a number of parish closures and mergers throughout the diocese, including the central city. The merger of St. James, St. Gerard and Blessed Trinity, with Father Reger as pastor, was celebrated by the new parish community at a special liturgy on January 6, 2008, the Feast of the Epiphany.