In the interest of full disclosure, while what you are reading is our first post of 2013, Chris and I actually visited this site in 2012. If you read the D&C article about us, then you are already aware that Chris and I are obsessive list makers and the sites on our “To See List” is starting to become dominated by sites outside of Rochester, and is currently heavy with things to see in Buffalo, New York. Buffalo has some incredibly beautiful and ornate houses of worship and unfortunately, many of them already have been or are in the process of being closed, particularly Catholic churches. Fortunately for us and our readers, the Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church is not and we took the opportunity to see it as soon as possible, which happened to be two days before Christmas 2012.
We had contacted Blessed Trinity a few weeks prior and inquired about a tour, which is something the church does occasionally and even mentioned they wished to do more of. However, on the day we were requesting to come, we were told that because it was two days before Christmas, it would be too hard to coordinate a tour. However, we were also told that we were more than free to visit on our own and take a self-guided tour ourselves with a pamphlet the church has printed as a guide. Chris and I have done self-guided tour several times before, and because we were going to Buffalo to also see two additional religious sites, we did not hesitate to agree to this idea.
As Chris and I arrived to the BlessedTrinity Roman Catholic Church, located on 323 Leroy Avenue, Buffalo, New York, we found a parking spot on the street and began to explore the exterior façade of the church, which is like no other church we have ever seen. I don’t know how else to describe it, but while the church is made out of brick; the bricks are a bit of a hodge-podge and not intricately laid out. Instead, the bricks are of many different shapes and sizes, and interspersed throughout the brick are random pieces of what we eventually learned are referred to as “clinkers” (which I will explain in more depth later). After taking several pictures, Chris and I moseyed on inside and determined the service was coming to an end and found a pew to sit in without disturbing anybody. (Sorry to any Catholics reading this particular post, but Chris and I have attended several Catholic masses at this point, so if we feel we don’t have to attend, well…we don’t). Not really knowing what else to do, Chris decided to ask one of the ushers who were walking around the aisles if they knew where to acquire the pamphlet of the self-guided tour and eventually instructed where this pamphlet could be had. By the time Chris did in fact acquire this pamphlet, the Mass came to an end and we were being welcomed by another usher. This usher introduced himself as Jerry and Chris and I then gave our usual explanation of who we are and what our purpose for being there was. Jerry informed us that while he may not be an official docent, he is the custodian of the place and knew just as much as anyone else and he would be willing to show us around the place. Chris and I certainly did not argue and thanked Jerry for his hospitality.
Before I go any further, I must share that the Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church has so many signs, symbols, pictures and iconography, that I must admit I will be doing the church a disservice because I certainly am unable to explain them all to the reader. Even Jerry himself conceded to this fact but stated he would “do his best” which I will now also attempt to do. If any of our readers have ever been to some of the great churches and cathedrals of Europe, this would be the best way I can explain what Blessed Trinity looks like. In fact, Blessed Trinity has been called “one of the purest examples of 12th Century Lombard Romanesque-style architecture in the United States – complete with the Byzantine details to which that style was heir” (Kern, Reverend Walter; Lombard Romanesque: Guidebook to Blessed Trinity R.C. Church; 1976).
Construction on the Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church started in 1923 and was completed by 1928. The term ‘Lombard Romanesque’ refers to the province of Lombard in modern day Italy; however during ‘Roman’ times, Lombard was one of many city-states or regions within the area that would eventually become known as Italy, which was warring for dominance of the land. The Lombard kingdom eventually came to an end, but not before Lombardian civilians had developed a ‘system’ of ecclesiastical architecture that has several notable characteristics; one of which is “ribbed vaulting” that set the Lombard masters apart from other architects at the time and would become the standard for building churches. Because nearly everything one sees at Blessed Trinity was made in the USA, by thousands of working class families primarily of German descent, nearly one thousand years after Lombardic architecture was at its highpoint, the church we see today has a style and flare all of its own.
In the attempt to remain true to the Lombard Romanesque design, the creators of Blessed Trinity decided to make the church out of brick; however, like the Lombardians of old, the bricks were handmade and without molds. After the clay and water reached the right consistency, bricks were cut into shape and then stacked for firing. Through this process, bricks came out in many different shapes and colors, which explains why the “hodge-podge” of brick work mentioned before looks the way it does. The “clinkers” mentioned before are actually bricks that did not burn correctly and eventually became what looks like coal; earning the nickname clinkers when the kiln or oven was emptied of brick, these incorrectly burned pieces would ‘clink” to the bottom, but were also eventually used in the creation of the church façade.
Besides handmade brick, the second material that is literally everywhere throughout the church is terra-cotta and remains true to the style of Lombard Romanesque architecture. The porch or portico of the Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church is the first place an individual sees terra-cotta being used…and let me tell you that the portico is so elaborately designed, I could spend the entire rest of this post describing it. However, I will mention two noteworthy features which are specific to Lombard architecture, the first being the doorway flanked by rolled moulding, supported by capitals and columns; and the second feature being the use of corbels underneath the projecting roof. In fact, 615 corbels are used throughout the entire exterior of the church, with over 338 of those being individually decorated. The symbolism throughout the portico is staggering, but I can share that all of the symbols together attempt to give a summary of the Christian faith and include the Blessed Trinity, the Ten Commandments, Signs of the Zodiac, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Twelve Apostles, the Apostle’s Creed, Marks of the Church, and the Four Rivers, Four Seasons, Four Last Things and Four Elements…yes, all of those are in there.
I immediately asked why the Signs of the Zodiac would be used in a Catholic church. Jerry acknowledged that he did not really know the answer why, but that early on in Christianity, in order to get new converts, sometimes old pagan symbols needed to be given new meanings in order to make the new belief system of Christianity a bit more palpable. This made complete sense to me, but to hear an actual Catholic admit it was a bit surprising. I chose not to drag out this discussion, but felt it was refreshing to hear.
Jerry brought us down the central nave pointing out everything from floor to ceiling. The floor of the church is made up of probably millions of terra-cotta tiles, all arranged in specific patterns, and many of which have symbols on them. We were surprised to learn that the swastika was represented many times on the tiling of the floor and while we already knew it, were reminded that originally the swastika is a symbol of peace and derived from ancient India. Up on the ceiling and walls of the church are several paintings that share many different stories of the Bible. The actual Dome of Blessed Trinity is quite stunning to look at and portrays the glorified life of Christ and includes an awesome painting of the Stairway to Heaven (sorry Zeppelin fans, not that stairway…). Jerry explained that from inside the dome is circular like domes usually are, but that there is an exterior shell over the dome that gives it an octagonal appearance from the outside and in fact, there is a walkway between the dome and octagon roof. I don’t know if Jerry saw the glimmer in mine or Chris’ eye, but he quickly explained he could not take us to this walkway for “insurance reasons.” After attempting to twist Jerry’s arm to take us there, Chris and I eventually relented, but Jerry did share that he would take us somewhere not everyone was able to see.
Jerry then took us through the priest’s sacristy and into a little hallway that connected the sacristy to the priest’s living quarters. Jerry explained that back in the day, the hallway we were standing in used to be open to the elements from outside, but has since been covered over. Jerry shared that the four symbols above each of the windows in this hallway represented life and death; represented by symbols of Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Jerry shared that he personally found this little hallway intriguing and thought we would dig it…which of course we did. As we walked back out, through the sacristy, the head priest of Blessed Trinity stopped us and inquired who we were and what we were up to. Chris and I introduced ourselves and explained what we were doing. The priest then asked us if we were interested in buying the place…yes, buying the whole church. Chris and I laughed, not really knowing how to answer this question, but did attempt to get the priest to share with us how much the church was worth, which the priest never revealed. The Head Priest then thanked us for coming to tour the church and shared that he was a big proponent of church tourism and would like to see Blessed Trinity do more of it. We thanked the priest for letting us take a look around and he also gave us a booklet that was put together in 2006, which celebrated the congregations 100 year anniversary (this was especially cool because within the booklet is a funny advertisement for a local restaurant which used a photo of the priest in it).
As we walked out of the sacristy, we then met Margaret, who prefers to be called Mickey, who introduced herself as the woman we originally communicated with online. Mickey then seemed to take over the tour from Jerry and Jerry then proceeded to go and do some custodial things. Unfortunately, neither Chris nor I ever really got the chance to thank Jerry for the time he spent with us and his willingness to show us around. In case Jerry ever reads this…Thank you Jerry for your friendliness and hospitality, it was a pleasure meeting you. Chris and Mickey walked around for a bit as I went and took a whole bunch of pictures, since I was worried that the church would be shutting down soon and I would be unable to take pics with good lighting. I took special notice of the carvings of angels in the sides of the pews and the panels of stained glass above the main Alter. As I met back up with Chris and Mickey, Mickey was describing elements within the tiling on the floor, so I took the opportunity to ask Mickey what her thoughts are about so many pagan symbols being used within a Catholic church. Mickey seemed a bit surprised by this question and gave an answer, which I accepted as a means of not making things uncomfortable. However, this did not stop me from asking Mickey if we could go up into the choir loft, which Mickey agreed to allow us to do.
Once up in the choir loft, we took a few more pictures and Mickey eventually informed us that she needed to go, so we thanked her for her time and said our goodbyes. In the choir loft, there was a man playing the organ, and a woman singing, who shared they were rehearsing for the upcoming Christmas festivities. We attempted to get a look at the organ, but felt like we were in the way, so we went back downstairs and shortly thereafter, eventually left Blessed Trinity Roman Catholic Church; headed on our way to our next stop in Buffalo, New York.