Torn-Down Tuesday: Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the ‘infected’ Canal District

By Steve Cichon

Not only is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church gone, but so are the two streets where it was located and the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel church

Consecrated at Fly and LeCouteulx streets in 1906, it was built for the most Italian immigrant families of the Canal District, also known as “The Hooks.” It was reputed to be not only the toughest neighborhood in the city, but one of the toughest in the world.

From the Buffalo Evening News in 1903:

The extent to which vice flourishes at the Canal street region, or the infected district, as it is called, is pointedly shown in a large wall chart just issued by the Christian Homestead Association, which is doing mission work in that district.

Staff Captain Cox of the Salvation Army, who has been in the slums in all the large cities in the world, says the district is the worst he ever saw, with the single exception of a street in Bombay. The chart shows the location of 108 saloons, 19 free theater saloons, 75 houses of ill-fame and 75 second-hand clothing stores, barber shops, restaurants and other legitimate places. It is issued for the purpose of bringing forcibly to the attention of the people of Buffalo the iniquity of that district, and to get them interested in the work of the Rescue Mission, which is maintained entirely by subscriptions.

Despite the world around them, the people of the church were devoted. The parish’s annual July feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was an elaborate celebration covered by the newspapers every year.

From The Buffalo Morning Express in 1914:

The highlight of the celebration was the parading of the statue of Our Lady through those streets around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. 1923.

The feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel closed last night in Buffalo’s Little Italy with the bursting of bomb-like firecrackers, the flash of roman candles, and the flight of many paper balloons.

The brick fronts of the tenements in Fly, Le Coutleulx, Dante, Peacock and Evans Streets were illuminated by red fire cups burning at the curb.

The entire section was out in the streets and about the church at Fly and Le Coutleulx Streets in holiday attire.

In the 1920s, there were a thousand families in the parish, but the neighborhood – mostly made up of rickety tenement buildings – was fading. An explosion on New Year’s Day 1936 called more attention to the impoverished plight of those living in the Dante Place neighborhood, as the area was known after Canal Street was renamed to honor the Italian poet in 1909.

New name, same problems. A headline from The Buffalo Times in 1919.There were fewer than 50 families in the parish when the church and the surrounding neighborhood was swallowed up to build the Marine Drive Apartments around 1950.

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.