Through the 1850s, the numbers of German immigrants living along Broadway east of Jefferson Street rapidly increased to the point where it became the largest enclave of German citizens in Buffalo.
The Catholics among them built a small brick church in 1858 at Broadway and Emslie at the spot where St. Ann’s grammar school was eventually built. That small church was quickly outgrown, and plans were developed to build what would be one of Buffalo’s grandest churches at the time.
The Buffalo Commercial called the cornerstone laying of the current church in 1878 “one of the most extensive and imposing demonstrations of our Catholic fellow citizens ever seen in Buffalo.”
Mayor Solomon Scheu spoke in English, briefly addressing at least 20,000 uniformed men who had paraded from downtown to the foundation of the new church. A Jesuit priest addressed the crowd in German. He told these immigrants in their native tongue that they had plenty to be proud of as they made new lives in Western New York.
“It is not many years since a number of German Catholics settled on this place, the forerunners of that numerous class of sober and industrious citizens which today forms so large a proportion of the real wealth and prosperity of Buffalo.”
Bishop Stephen V. Ryan also made brief remarks, which were followed by the clergy in the group retiring to the hall at St. Ann’s School, “where a substantial German supper was disposed of in a hearty manner, and quite a toast was drunk to the new church of St. Ann.”
Because the pastor refused to go into debt to pay for the new church, the new building took eight years to complete. Hippier of New York created the plans for the Gothic building, which were carried out with modifications and supervision of Brother Halfmann, a Jesuit brother and architect.
The Jesuits leased a quarry in Lockport and all the stone was harvested and cut by members of the order.
The prosperous German community continued to grow, as did the parish. When St. Ann celebrated it’s 50th anniversary, it was the largest German Catholic parish in the country. There were 1,900 children at the parish grammar school at the time. St. Ann’s Commercial School, a business-oriented school for girls, eventually evolved into Bishop McMahon High School.
During that golden anniversary year of 1908, it was a matter of pride in being the largest German parish, but German pride would take a hit over the next decade. World War I brought an end to many of the traditional events and societies tied to Prussian heritage.
The German language as an integral part of parish life waned for that reason as well as the growing Polish community pushing into St. Ann’s parish from Broadway and Fillmore Avenue, and by World War II, St. Ann’s was as much a Polish parish as it was German.
The decades after World War II saw those German and Polish families leave the East Side, and the new predominately African-American families moving in were not looking for a Catholic church as a spiritual home. By the time the church was marked for closure, most of the parishioners who lived in the neighborhood were African immigrants.
Both neighborhood pressures as well as external larger issues within the Catholic Church, such as the dwindling numbers of priests, put targets on St. Ann’s for closure. A very vocal and energetic group of parishioners and supporters rallied for decades to keep the church open, but in 2011, a decision was made that the church was to be stripped of religious artifacts and put up for sale, and that decision went back and forth several times with appeals to the Vatican.
A final decision came from Rome in 2017.
“Now that the Vatican has ruled, the decision to close the church is final,” Bishop Malone said in a statement at the time. “We will do all that we can, within the confines of safety and feasibility, to remove all sacred and artistically significant artifacts.
“We hope to save the most significant elements of the Shrine of St. Ann for relocation,” he added. “We will announce its new home in the diocese in the coming months.”
With an influx of people speaking languages other than English in Buffalo during the 1910s and ’20s, civil service positions were created in Buffalo to provide city services to those who spoke Polish or Italian as their primary tongue.
Civil service tests were offered specifically to Polish and Italian speakers to become police officers, especially in neighborhoods where those were the primary languages spoken.
In 1928, the municipal civil service office offered tests for Italian and Polish speaking social welfare visitors, even as city fathers slashed the social welfare budget and questioned the ability of the City Hospital to continue helping patients who couldn’t pay for services.
There were also charges of politics and even “the blackhand” playing a role in the selection process.
In 1928, powerful Niagara District Councilman John C. Montana insisted on a budget change that created a position for an Italian speaking welfare visitor. He was then accused of manipulating the selection process and ignoring the civil service test rankings in making a hire.
Decades later, in 1957, Montana was picked up by state police straddling a barbed wire fence running away from the infamous Apalachin meeting of Mafia bosses. He eventually served jail time for conspiracy to obstruct justice, but was released after a judge decided there was no proof any crime was committed at Apalachin.
Even when selected legitimately, the foreign language positions weren’t popular with the rest of the population. After one test was offered in search of a Polish-speaking clerk, The News printed a letter in opposition to the practice. Knowing Polish, wrote one would-be test taker, shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a job.
“Our opinions are that the rules governing civil service examinations bar nobody from an examination for clerk or carrier if he be a fit person and capable of passing the examination.
“We say give every man his dues and if he be a Chinaman and he passes highest let him be appointed first man.”
Visniak was the unofficial soft drink of VFW Posts, corner gin mills, and East Side homes where the Visniak van would make weekly drop-offs of cases filled with a rainbow of pop flavors.
Hattie Pijanowski, along with her husband, Edward, started the Visniak-Saturn Beverage Corp. on Detroit Street on Buffalo’s East Side in 1931. In 1939, the plant moved to Reiman Street in Sloan.
Edward Pijanowski became active in Sloan politics and ran for mayor of the village in 1951.
The company, which employed ten in 1968, brought colorful and tasty pop to generations of Buffalonians two different ways– in 7.5-ounce glass bottles and from barroom “pop guns” all over the city.
Chances are pretty good– if you ever ordered a Coke in an East Side tavern sometime between the ’50s and the ’90s, you were likely drinking a “VEESH-nyak” (from the Polish for “cherry”) and didn’t even realize it.
Hattie Pijanowski died in July, 1985, at age 82. Her son, Ray, was 70 when he closed up the business in 2004, “because nobody returned the bottles,” and a new bottle cost more than what that bottle filled with pop would sell for.
In 1923, there were 181,300 people of Polish extraction living “out Broadway”— the shorthand for what many in Buffalo proper also called “the Polish Colony,” metaphorically centered by St. Stanislaus Church and the Broadway/Fillmore intersection.
For the rest of the half-million plus people who lived in Buffalo, the Polish were at best a very foreign group whose language and customs seemed swathed in mystery. At worst, the Polish were a hard-working but lesser people who – aside from laboring in factories, mills and foundries – were best to stay in “Polacktown, where there are more children in the streets than in the yards.”
“Trouble in Polacktown” Buffalo Evening News front page, 1883. Buffalo Stories archives
Beth Stewart was among Buffalo’s first female newspaper reporters and later became a feature reporter for the Courier-Express. She married fellow Courier reporter Gordon Hollyer and served as the public relations director for the YMCA through most of the 1950s and ’60s.
Among her first series of feature reports was a three-part series on “the large and growing Polish colony of Buffalo.” It was a sympathetic and celebratory look at Buffalo’s Polonia, giving many outside the Polish neighborhoods their first opportunity to have a comprehensive understanding of how their Buffalo neighbors lived.
The Polish people were without their own nation for the entire 19th century. Poland was carved up between the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.
The first big wave of Polish immigrants to Buffalo came from Prussian Germany after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck made it more difficult for the Roman Catholic ethnic Poles to freely practice their religion.
A wave of Poles from the Austrian province of Galicia started coming to Buffalo in 1882. Russian Poles started arriving en masse in 1905.
Buffalo’s first Polish councilman and later assemblyman James Rozan remembered coming to Buffalo as a boy in 1872. His family was one of a dozen or living in the mostly German Fruit Belt neighborhood.
Fourteen years later, when St. Stanislaus church was built at Peckham and Townsend Streets as Buffalo’s first Polish church in 1886, there were 19,000 Poles in the city, mostly living near St. Stan’s.
By 1923, there were 27 Polish churches for the roughly 380,000 Poles spread across the East Side, Black Rock, Elk Street, Seneca Street, Lackawanna, Dunkirk, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Depew.
Without much explanation other than just printing the Polish names without translation, Stewart wrote that the larger Polish community, first built around St. Stan’s, was further split into seven communities that would be readily understood by those who lived among them.
The first was Stanislawowo—members of St. Stanislaus Church. Then was Kantowo, from parishioners of St. John Kanty. Members of St. Adalbert’s were from Wojciechowo, Pietrowo was made up of the members of Holy Apostles Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Clinton and Smith.
St. Casimir’s in Kaisertown made up Kazimierzowo. The community surrounding St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga was Gwalbertowo. Black Rock was directly translated into Polish as Czarna Skala.
But however far-flung, Broadway and Fillmore remained “the Polish Main Street and Delaware Avenue” for Buffalo’s Polish population. The business district there was equivalent to the main street of a mid-sized northeast city. Polonia boasted 2,930 Polish-owned businesses and 14 community banks.
Right at that intersection was the building created as a hub of Polonia-wide activity. Translated, Dom Polski means “Polish home.” The substantial edifice opened as “The Polish Literary and Assembly Rooms Association, Inc” in 1889, replacing a refashioned barn used for the same purpose for at least a decade before.
Rather than an organization itself, the Dom Polski was the home of the Polish library and fraternal groups like Kolko Polek—the Polish Women’s Circle, Polskich Krawcow—the Polish Tailors, Sokol Polski—The Polish Falcons, Szewcy Polski—The Polish Shoemakers, and the Polish National Alliance.
It was a place on a Sunday night where you might find a half-dozen small family dinner parties in the different rooms and men smoking and playing billiards in the library. It was the Polish equivalent of the clubs on Delaware Avenue which routinely denied membership to most Polish-Americans past the middle of the twentieth century.
Much like their uptown counterparts, the members of the various clubs of the Dom Polski worked together to make their community a better place. One such effort was lobbying for a high school for the 6,000 Polish-American children in the Buffalo School system in 1923. They were fighting against the notion that the educational needs of Polish-Americans could be addressed by the city’s vocational schools. In 1926, East High School opened to serve the children of East Buffalo.
One of the amplified voices of Buffalo’s Polish population was “Everybody’s Daily,” a Polish newspaper with a circulation of 26,000.
“The paper is a force in the colony,” wrote Stewart. “It has enemies and many friends. It proclaims a policy of honest advertising. It fights for community interests—civic, political, educational, and religious.”
One still familiar institution is the Adam Mickiewicz Literary and Dramatic Circle. It still survives on Fillmore Avenue, but it was once one of many such organizations. Singing societies were also a popular element of Buffalo’s Polonia population in the mid-1920s, and one through which a greater number of Buffalonians were introduced to some Polish customs.
The Aleksander Fredro Literary and Dramatic Circle was a Mickiewicz-like group in Kaisertown. The Moniuszko was Polonia’s first singing society, and in 1923, headquartered at 570 Fillmore. The Chopin singers were at Broadway and Lathrop. There were also the Kalina, Lutnia, Lirnik, Harmonia, and Jutrzenka societies among others.
The Poles of 1923 weren’t just joiners of Polish groups—most of Buffalo’s 4,000 Polish-American World War I vets belonged to the American Legion. Adam Plewacki Post 799 was among the city’s “most active and lively posts,” and 98 percent Polish in membership.
Plewacki, who lived on Best Street, was the first Buffalonian killed in World War I. The post named in his honor worked to “cultivate the love of American ideals in foreigners,” working to “Americanize” immigrants beyond just proficiency in English.
If Buffalo’s landed class could appreciate anything about the people of Polonia, it was the way that most worked quickly to buy land, and then maintain and improve property once owned.
“Polish colonists are not merely home owners,” wrote Stewart, “they are improvers of communities. A piece of land is more than a commercial investment to the Polish buyer. It is a plot to be made his own, a place where a home may be built and trees and shrubs set out for beauty.”
“Fillmore Avenue, wide and shaded, set off on both sides by neat residences, is proof of the Polish ability to build up attractive communities.”
Clearly, Beth Stewart thought she was writing to an audience that—if they thought anything at all– thought very little of the Polish people. She wrapped up her 20,000 words worth of reporting with a glowing summary of her expedition “out Broadway.”
“The Poles in Buffalo have achieved much of which they may well feel proud. They built up a great and prosperous community—a city within a city.
“They have given to the city of their adoption distinguished professional men, sober industrious workers, artists, gallant soldiers.
“They have added to the beauty of the city turreted churches, dignified homes, and fine public buildings.
“They have borne themselves in a manner which leaves the city no room for regret that one-third of its population once bore allegiance to a foreign land.”
Buffalo’s position as one of America’s largest and most sophisticated cities was strikingly on display with the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. The City of Light. Advanced transportation. The most modern manufacturing ideas put into practice. Many of the wonders of the Industrial Revolution were on display for the world to take in and enjoy in Buffalo.
But behind that picture of a flourishing city was an undeniable underbelly: Thousands of Buffalonians had no running water in their homes or access to bathing facilities.
It was universally acknowledged as a growing problem, but one without a clear solution.
“A great number of Buffalonians do not feel the need of public baths in the summer months,” wrote the Buffalo Courier in 1895, “because there are many much frequented bathing places along the lake and river fronts and along the numerous creeks in Buffalo.”
Buffalo, it was written, didn’t need bathing facilities, because people bathed in lakes, rivers, and creeks.
A day at the beach was more than just a day of sunshine and relaxation—it was a matter of hygiene. Resort beaches south of the city, places like Wanakah, Idlewood and Bennett Beach, were appropriate for women and children, but men and older boys would bathe wherever they could.
The foot of Court and Georgia streets — which once led from the West Side to the banks of Lake Erie — were popular spots, as were Squaw Island and the foot of Ferry Street.
One man was arrested trying to wash up in the Johnson Park fountain. “The Polish Boys,” wrote The Courier, frequented a bathing hole along Buffalo Creek near South Ogden and the railroad bridge of the Jammerthal area— now the northern East Side of Buffalo. One still-open quarrying area is along Amherst Street as it approaches Bailey Avenue coming from Main Street.
In 1895, Buffalo’s two public baths—one at the foot of S. Michigan Avenue, one at the foot of Porter Avenue – were “small box-like arrangements,” more or less “dilapidated, dirty, and disgraceful” sheds.
Street urchins and pickpockets would use the places, it was said, but no respectable boy or man would be seen there—where a nickel would provide use of a locker and a pair of “bathing pants.”
“Buffalo is deplorably, disgracefully deficient in public baths,” wrote the Courier. Especially during winter months, when bathing alternatives were needed, working men couldn’t afford the luxury of the widely available $1 Turkish baths.
City leaders took the health crisis and turned it into one of the nation’s first public welfare programs.
Buffalo Health Commissioner Wende called the bath houses in two of Buffalo’s most crowded tenement areas a long time in coming.
“While the luxury and benefit of public baths have reached their highest stage in Europe, it remained for Buffalo, an American city, in competing for the supremacy in the realization of the conditions desired by a cultured public, to establish a bath where the indigent, the fatigued, and the unclean could find shelter and care without money and without price.”
In 1897, a brick structure was built on the Terrace as a sanitary bathing facility for the men of Buffalo, particularly the mostly Irish immigrants of the First Ward and the Italian immigrants of The Hooks.
Soap and towels were provided to bathers free of charge. The facility was the first free, open bath house anywhere in the country, and put Buffalo on the cutting edge of health and sanitation.
In 1901, a second public bath house was built on Buffalo’s East Side at Woltz Avenue and Stanislaus Street.
This larger building had separate bathing facilities and waiting rooms for both men and women. While there were bathtubs for women and infants, men were offered showers. The idea of showering was brand new — so new, in fact, that a 1901 article in The Buffalo Express explained how a shower works.
“The bather stands erect in the shower, and the water falls down upon him. There is a depression in the floor, with perforations which carry away the water that has fallen.”
The interior of the shower area had stalls separated by wrought iron. Water was heated to approximately 100 degrees, and bathers were allowed 20 minutes in the showering and adjoining dressing rooms.
The buildings’ rules were written on the walls in English, Polish, Italian and German. They read:
No swearing or obscene language
No intoxicated person allowed in the building
Walls, furniture, and property must not be defaced or injured
Soiled clothing must be taken away by the bather
Towels must be returned to the keeper or matron
No bather may occupy an apartment longer than 20 minutes
There were also laundry facilities for underclothes to help further improve sanitation.
Dr. Wende said the free services, with more than 394,000 baths taken in the first four years, cost Buffalo taxpayers 3 cents per person per year, with most of that cost going toward the purchase of soap.
Well into the 1950s, these two bath houses, along with two more at Grant and Amherst and 249 William St., remained in demand providing as many as a million baths a year.
One slight modification was made as time went on — a new rule prevented singing in the showers.
“If we let people sing in our 52 showers,” said the keeper of Bath House No. 2 Stanley Molik, “we’d be in trouble for disturbing the peace of the neighborhood.
Today, it’s one of Buffalo’s newest waterfront spaces—RiverFest Park– nestled between Ohio Street and the Buffalo River, just across the water from Buffalo RiverWorks and the Labatt grain silos.
The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899
At the tail end of the 19th century, Buffalo’s waterfront was rough and tumble. On this day in particular, it was the place where two immigrant groups clashed and “a race riot looked imminent.”
The unionized mostly Polish freight handlers at the New York Central Freight House on Ohio Street had joined the unionized mostly Irish grain shovelers in striking for better working conditions and in protest of contract abuses.
When the dock-working Poles came back to work, many were displeased to be working alongside mostly Italian non-union men. Management promised to dismiss the Italians, but when 150 showed up ready for work the next day, “within five minutes, a good sized riot was in progress.”
How the fight started seemed to be in question—The News’ account laid the blame at some of the 200 Poles who began accosting the Italians and calling them scabs. The Courier said the Italians may have started it when one of them threw an old tomato can into the group of Poles.
“Knives and revolvers were flourished,” reported The News, “and fists were freely used.”
Witnesses heard as many as 25 gunshots—one Polish man was shot in the back. An Italian man was slashed in the face. Five were arrested and charged with rioting.
On Buffalo’s biggest Polish holiday, BN Chronicles looks back on Buffalo’s connections to the most influential Pole in recent memory: Pope Saint John Paul II.
As the cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla — later Pope Saint John Paul II — visited Buffalo twice. That first visit was in 1969 as he toured the United States and Canada, thanking North Americans for their help in helping Poland and the Polish church rebound after the devastation of World War II.
Buffalo News archives
Described as “solidly-built, handsome man” in The News, Cardinal Wojtyla stayed at St. Stanislaus Church and visited, among other Catholic institutions, St. Adalbert’s Church (above) and Hilbert College (below.)
Buffalo Stories archives
At a reception for Wojtyla at the Statler Hilton, the future pontiff spoke of his admiration for Buffalo and Buffalo’s Polish community in fluent English.
“Remember that your fathers and grandfathers brought Polish souls to this country, and you are continuing in their spirit,” Wojtyla said. He added, after receiving the key to city from Mayor Frank Sedita, “I will always remember Buffalo and take your good wishes back to the Mother Country. And now that I have the keys to the city, I may come back and open it.”
He made good on that promise in 1976 — only two years before being elected pope.
As Krakow’s Cardinal Wojtyla left the Buffalo Airport for St. Casimir’s Church in 1976, the children assembled sang “Sto lat,” the traditional song for birthdays wishing that the honoree might live a hundred years.
Buffalo News archives
This time, he stayed at the rectory of St. Casimir’s in Kaisertown, where 900 people attended a Mass concelebrated by Cardinal Wojtyla and 19 other bishops.
Msgr. Edward Kazmierczak, pastor of St. Casimir, hosted Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1976. (Buffalo News archives)
The Polish saint made no widely known pronouncements on Dyngus Day or any of the other similarly themed happenings on Easter Monday in Poland. But even though the water-throwing and pussy-willow-slapping celebration may have been squashed by Nazi occupation during his formative years, it’s nearly certain that a young Karol Wojtyla would have had some Śmigus-Dyngus experience as a boy growing up in Poland.
In fact, over the last several years, in John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, the fountain in the town square — which has been renamed in memory of the pope and saint — has been the site of Dyngus Day pranks involving turning the water into suds to fill the square.
There’s also one of Saint John Paul II’s more famous quotes that leads one to believe the first Polish pontiff would have felt at home at many of the parties happening around Western New York this Easter Monday.
“I have a sweet tooth for song and music,” Pope Saint John Paul II once said. “This is my Polish sin.”
This week, The Broadway Market kicks off its busiest time of the year — the days leading up to Easter.
For generations, the market was the epicenter of Buffalo’s Polish community.
A fixture in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood for more than 125 years, the market’s heyday was likely in the 1950s – when every Friday and Saturday people from the neighborhood stuffed into the newly renovated structure in the same way we see now only during Holy Week.
The glory years were certainly waning by 1983, but the market had much of the same character and charm as it did in the earlier years. Dozens of second- and third-generation family businesses filled the stalls once run by their fathers and grandfathers.
This piece takes a look back at some of those families and how the market had changed through the years up until that point. Many who still remember the old daily hustle and bustle of the market miss it terribly – the next two weeks is an opportunity to relive a part of what it was like, and perhaps conjure some idea of what the future of the beleaguered landmark might be.
The photos and text here were featured in “The Magazine,” The News’ Sunday insert in 1983. The paper is from the Buffalo Stories collection.
Manru Beer was brewed by Fillmore Avenue’s Schreiber Brewing Company from 1899 to 1950, except during the Depression, when Manru Coffee was produced in its place and became rather popular.
Manru Beer was popular among Buffalonians of Polish extraction, because Anthony Schreiber was born Anthony Pisac in Poland. He changed his name to a German one to help him compete in the German-dominated brewing industry.
Seventy years ago tonight, listeners to WGR heard Merry Mac the Manru Man offer his daily chuckle at 11 p.m.
Buffalo, NY – The Rev. Henry Orszulak grew up in the St. John Kanty parish on Buffalo’s Polish East Side in the 1960’s and was excited to get his hands on three reel-to-reel tapes from the church’s 75th anniversary year in 1967.
Despite being nearly half-a-century old, two of the three St. John Kanty tapes sounded great. The recordings of Mass and the Christmas carols actually sound as good as they did in 1967. The concert, however, didn’t fare as well. Despite trying to play the tape back on several professional and consumer model reel-to-reel machines, significant bleedthrough and ghosting have permanently ruined the tape. It makes audio that remains difficult to listen to– although I did post a portion of it here anyway. It’s still beautiful to listen to if you can fight through the backwards organ music and singing over significant parts of it.
These descriptions were taped inside of the boxes.