In order to gain a proper historical perspective of St. Joseph University Parish, we must consider the history of the early settlers in Buffalo and the surrounding vicinity. After 1817, many immigrants of Catholic faith were attracted to Western New York by labor and trade opportunities that accompanied the construction of the Erie Canal.
During the early nineteenth century, Buffalo was part of the Diocese of New York. A limited number of priests served the large diocese with scant means of traveling to the remote Buffalo settlements. Priests found it difficult to meet the needs of the Catholics of Western New York. How welcome the visit of a priest must have been in the isolated regions of these Catholic settlers who sometimes waited for several years to have their children baptized or to receive the sacraments.
In 1834 the Catholic settlers of Tonawanda, Black Rock, and North Bush secured land for a church site and erected a log chapel that was located in the center of the three communities. This chapel was named St. John the Baptist chapel. It served as the Sunday worship place for the German-Catholic settlers who were living in Elysville (North Main Street and Englewood). In 1836 Rev. John Neumann came to Buffalo and was placed in charge of the churches in Williamsville, Lancaster, and North Bush. This first resident pastor of North Bush went on to become Bishop of Philadelphia, and for his zeal and saintly life, was canonized in 1977.
In 1840, Rev. Alexander Pax succeeded Father Neumann, in his missionary work. The log chapel of St. John the Baptist was outgrown by the community, and plans commenced for the construction of a new building for the Church. The settlers from Elysville longed to have a church closer to their homes. Bishop Timon supported them in their efforts by purchasing property on Main Street for $400 in 1849. Soon, a school was opened which provided students with lessons in German by a male lay teacher. In 1850 the congregation of St. Joseph was established.
The First Church
A small wood-frame church was erected by the parishioners and dedicated as St. Joseph Church on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1850. The wooden structure served a wide geographical area, and for 45 years its seating capacity for 240 in the pews plus 40 choir members in a rear loft was sufficient to house the parishioners. The inside of the church measured 30 x 55 feet with a small tower that stood over the main entrance. The tower and windows of stained glass distinguished it from all other rural structures in the area. The only luxury on the inside of the church was a pair of stoves at the ends of the altar rail which kept the priest warm during services and encouraged people to sit in the front pews.
The Jesuit Fathers of Williamsville served the parish until 1853 when the first resident pastor, Rev. Sebastian B. Gruber, was installed. A rapid turnover of clergy occurred during the parish’s first 35 years as 26 priests served as pastors for very short terms. Several times there was no appointed pastor, and religious orders including Franciscans, Redemptorists, and Jesuits were called upon to take charge. Despite the frequent shift of authority, St. Joseph parish thrived.
The Start of the Second Church
By 1856 a new rectory was built to the right of the church. In 1857 the first organist/singer/schoolmaster was hired at a salary of eight dollars a month. The diocesan census of 1872 shows that the parish numbered 97 families.
From 1878 to 1883 the parish was under the guidance of Rev. Anthony Adolph. He had the frame church painted and the school re-designed. The Sisters of St. Joseph took over the teaching duties in 1882. The renovated school served as a convent in the front two rooms with a large classroom in the rear. Lessons were given in English instead of German, and enrollment in the school increased as did the Catholic population in the area. Rev. George Zurcher served the parish from 1885 to 1900 and was responsible for the expansion of the school. He was the first to collect a tuition fee (forty cents per month per student) to pay the Sisters’ salaries and maintain the school. Father Zurcher undertook demolition of the forty-two year old frame church and the thirty-six year old rectory and built new ones. Like the frame church before it, the new brick church was built by the parishioners themselves. Even the pastor is said to have a hand in its construction.
The brick church cost $15,000 and had central heating and a tower over the front entrance. Inside, the walls were decorated with a painted floral motif. The main altars and side altars were framed by marbleized arches. High arched stained-glass windows let in a good amount of light. To assure good lighting, glass-shaded gaslights were placed at intervals in the middle of the pews. Bishop Ryan dedicated this church after its completion in 1894. Rev. Martin Phillips was pastor from 1900 to 1908 and was responsible for razing the rectory and constructing a new one in 1901.
Msgr. Schemel Expands
In 1908, Msgr. Joseph Schemel was appointed pastor of St. Joseph Church. Soon after, he made some of the most significant changes in the history of the parish. In 1911 he ordered the closing of the cemetery to make room for a new brick school that could accommodate the increasing enrollment of over 40 students. Despite its modest cost of $40,000, the school remains to the present day, as the oldest building still standing on the parish grounds.
When the new school no longer had housing for the nuns, they traveled back and forth daily to Mt. St. Joseph’s Academy until a convent was built behind the church in 1949.
The Third Church
The brick church that had been built in 1894 was soon outgrown by the congregation, and by 1923, needed extensive repairs. At a meeting called by Rev. Schemel, the parishioners decided to start a fund to build a third and larger church. The brick church and rectory were raised in 1923 and ground was broken in the fall of 1924 for a new church and rectory. The rectory was completed in the spring of 1925. Mass was said in the school auditorium until the now existing church was dedicated by Bishop Turner on December 12, 1926. With its soaring copper-coated steeple rising 125 feet into the air, the new St. Joseph Church became a landmark of the neighborhood. Construction costs amounted to $375,000. Despite the Great Depression, the debt was liquidated in 1939 through the outstanding generosity of the parishioners. The most constant element during this great time of transition was the presence of Msgr. Joseph Schemel. He served as pastor of St. Joseph Church from 1908 until his death in 1944, just three months after celebrating the golden jubilee of his priesthood. Under his guidance the parish of 100 families had grown to more than 1,200.
The Long Tenure of Msgr. Rung
Msgr. Albert Rung was appointed pastor in 1945 and served St. Joseph parish until his retirement and death in 1971. During his tenure the parish grew to 2,000 families. A new convent was built in 1949. In 1952 a modern brick wing with eight new classrooms was added to the school. Msgr. Rung embraced and implemented the concepts of Vatican II with the establishment of the first elected parish council in 1967. The parish council was, and remains, a group of parishioners who serve in an advisory capacity to the pastor and as liaisons to fellow parishioners. The parish council promotes the welfare of the parish and improvements to its facilities.
In 1968, Msgr. Rung, working closely with the parish council, completely renovated the church sanctuary. This was done in accordance with liturgical directives of Vatican II and guidelines set forth from the Diocese. The work was completed in 1969. Msgr. Rung, then 83 years old, was delighted with the results and said to a visitor, “I’m the first, I think, who had the gumption to go ahead and carry it out.”
In 1969 St. Joseph Parish had an Expo which served to promote active participation by the laity in a spiritual, cultural, and social manner. The Expo included an entire week of participatory events including youth programs, panel discussions regarding college youth, a panel on birth control, a multi-media presentation on the roles of people of all ages, a film discussion on the relationships of adults and youth, a Christian forum regarding changes in the church via Vatican II, a carnival, and an open house in the newly re-decorated church. This Expo provided the parishioners the opportunity to participate in activities which contributed to their renewal and growth. It was met with enthusiasm and was well-attended. Msgr. Rung had spent twenty-six fruitful years with the parish, and his death in August 1971 saddened the entire community. His legacy was to become the parishioners’ enthusiastic acceptance of the changes encouraged by Vatican II.
The 1970s During the 1970’s, a period of major social change, St. Joseph Church was served by Rev. Alton LaRusch (1971 to 1974) and Rev. Thomas Beasley (1974 to 1978). They maintained support of the school, continued the parish council, and further implemented Vatican II concepts by appointing lay lectors and Special Ministers of the Eucharist.
Bishop Head Pushes Forward
Bishop Edward Head recognized the openness of the parishioners of St. Joseph Parish. He established a team ministry in 1978 with the appointment of co-pastors Rev. Thomas Maloney and Rev. Charles Werth. Permanent Deacon Joseph Harrington, a member of the first graduating class of Permanent Deacons in the Diocese, was also appointed to St. Joseph Parish in that year and served until his death in 1983. The revival of the diaconate enhanced parish life by sharing specific duties formerly reserved for priests.
The new pastors joined with ministers from local churches of the University District in promoting interdenominational services as a way of supporting the ecumenical movement encouraged by Vatican II. Shared Lenten services followed by social gatherings allowed parishioners from all churches to better know one another and appreciate common beliefs.
In 1981 major repair work of the church was required. A fund drive was initiated and parishioners, once again, generously gave their support. Not only was work completed on the roof and masonry, but the stained glass windows were restored and covered on the outside.
Permanent Deacon Kenneth Barth served in the parish from 1983 to 1991 and enhanced our awareness of respect life issues. The parish returned to a single pastor in 1984 when Rev. Maloney was selected to lead the Renew program for the diocese. Rev. Werth was appointed as the pastor and continued to implement changes including the participation of female altar servers and more active involvement by the laity in planning liturgical celebrations. A parish carnival which promoted community spirit while supporting the financial obligations of the parish became an annual event until at least 1998.
Fr. Jack Ledwon and the 1990s to the Present
A team ministry was once again established in March 1991 with the assignment of Rev. Jacob Ledwon and Rev. William Bigelow. Under the direction of Bishop Edward Head, the University at Buffalo Newman Community and St. Joseph Church were merged. Since then, the parish has been officially known as St. Joseph University Church. The responsibility for UB’s South Campus Ministry remains with St. Joseph’s today under the direction of Fr. Ledwon and Campus Minister, Fr. Greg Jakubowicz, OFM.
Parishioners rose to the challenge of change with the adoption of the first Mission Statement, acceptance of a new mass schedule and continued efforts to include all members of the community in the life of the parish. The convent was closed and renovated to house administrative offices and provide meeting rooms for parish events. The Contemporary Music Ensemble was established, directed by Harold N. Harden and presently by Tim Wells. It has drawn persons of all ages back to the church as has the excellence of the traditional organ music with choir, directed by Roland Martin.
The team ministry ended in 1994 when Rev. Ledwon was appointed pastor. In 1996 Sr. Jeremy M. Midura, CSSF, became Pastoral Associate. Along with Permanent Deacons, Thaddeus V. Pijacki and Paul Emerson, the parish staff, and many volunteers, this talented team provided the leadership for many successful religious programs, liturgical celebrations, musical events, and the smooth administration of the parish.
In the mid-1990′s the parish Council recognized the need for major structural renovations. To finance these renovations a capital fund drive was established and parishioners once again met the challenge. In 1999 the church was completely renovated and a community room was built connecting the church and parish center. During the construction, masses were held in the gymnasium of the neighboring Cantalician Center. Bishop Henry Mansell presided at the re-dedication of the church in November of 1999. At the dedication ceremony the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which had appeared in concert several times at St. Joseph Church, performed.
At the turn of the millennium, several new staff members joined the parish. Patty Bubar Spear became the youth and young adult ministry specialist and took on the huge project of reaching out to the young marrieds and families in the community. Under the direction of our former Deacon Ted Pijacki, a thriving marriage ministry was established, which continues to attract many new younger members to the parish.
Now, as in its earliest days, St. Joseph University Parish is gifted with the splendors of diversity, unique in the Diocese. The parish of almost 2,200 families enjoys a sense of close community while welcoming all. As the parish community celebrates 168 years of service to God, the congregation rejoices in the fullness of the Spirit which continues to guide them in this new millennium.