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.”
Those who have spent decades trying to save St. Ann maintain a website at saintannbuffalo.org/.