The steeple rises the exact height that the Niagara River falls into the gorge at the American Falls a few blocks away. St. Mary of the Cataract Church in Niagara Falls has embraced its rich metaphors since its early beginnings as a mission parish of St. John Neumann. Ministering within this tradition is Father Jacek Mazur, pastor.
"St. Mary's has its mission here in downtown Niagara Falls. It brings the presence of God, and beautiful liturgies, for those who travel, for those who come to see the majestic waterfalls, and who spend their time here at Niagara Falls," he said.
Pastor here for seven years, Father Mazur claims serendipitous connections to a culture that welcomes visitors from around the world. He arrived from Poland as a seminarian in August 2000. His parents live about 70 miles from St. John Neumann's hometown, in what is now the Czech Republic, he said. And while completing his diaconate at St. Andrew Church in Kenmore in May 2004, he was invited to participate in St. Mary's 2004 rededication Mass.
"I did not know anybody here at St. Mary's at the time," Father Mazur said. "There are pictures in the vestibule showing me serving as a deacon, and I had no idea that one day I would become pastor of this church. My parents were here with me for that Mass. And several years later, I'm asked by Bishop (Edward U.) Kmiec to be pastor of this parish."
The parish claims the oldest structure in Niagara Falls in continued use. The portion of the church which is now the sacristy was originally a stable, built shortly after the war of 1812. According to historical accounts, early pastors housed their horses and buggies here. As the city grew, founder Judge Augustus Porter donated land for the church in a one-dollar sale.
"The sacristy was basically a barn for animals, first," Father Mazur said. "But of course, more and more immigrants from Europe were coming, and there was a need to build a larger church. So they did, and it serves beautiful purposes to this very day."
Historic buildings bring challenges, and keep Father Mazur busy.
"It's a project parish," he said. "When you have old buildings, you always have to repair something. There are many, many projects we are working on, from roofs, to walls, and windows, and floors, and pipes, and electric wires. Always, we're working on projects that need repairs and updates.
"So I'm learning all different kinds of things," he laughed. "It has its charm, it has its beauty. I'm from Europe, where so many things are old, so I feel like I fit in."
Father Mazur said that he has noticed more traffic and visitors here over the past few years. Four new hotels being built within walking distance is a good sign, he added. St. Mary of the Cataract has always been a destination. Father Mazur said that each summer, thousands of tourists come through the doors of St. Mary's. Paging through the visitors book, recent addresses include Illinois, Texas, Alaska, Belgium, India, Japan and the Philippines.
Situated in a "Honeymoon Capital," St. Mary's hosts many weddings. When couples from out-of-town or out-of-state receive permission from their home parishes, St. Mary's is happy to support their wishes, Father Mazur said. And many couples return to the church decades later to celebrate anniversaries.
"The nice thing is they come to the sacristy and they ask for special blessing," he said. "Couples celebrating their marriage, 30, 40, 50 years. And they were married here. They come back, and they bring back all the beautiful memories. Sometimes they even share pictures."
From street and sidewalk, a chorus of birds and soaring liturgical chants greet visitors first. Gardens, statuary and plaques extend peace and welcome. Inside, the sturdy marbled pillars and beige walls give a sense of strength and comfort. Blue and gold accents, crosses and lilies reflect devotion to Mary. Gently curved archways in the ceiling and windows provide a sweeping visual embrace. Brochures describe the renovations and symbolic ancient decorations.
"Everybody loves St. Mary's," Father Mazur said. "People come from Australia, they come from Africa, they come from Europe, they come from South America, they come from Canada, all of the States, of course. They come from very distant regions of the world," he said. "And this is where they come to worship when they come to Niagara Falls."
"There's never a dull moment," he summarized. "Every single day brings new blessings, new challenges and it's always interesting. Always interesting," he said.
"It's the people that make it," he emphasized. "The locals, and the visitors. They are very supportive, the locals. They take care of so many things that take the weight of the earth off my shoulders."
"We have volunteers, beautiful. It's hard work. We have people who plant flowers and shrubs and bushes and beautify the grounds. They are the most wonderful people, who help. They adopt different areas around the church, and then they take care of those areas," he said.
Celebrating his 10-year anniversary as a priest this spring, Father Mazur reflects on his welcome in Buffalo and his assignment to Niagara Falls with much gratitude.
"Actually, the whole thing happened very unexpectedly," he said. "I was the pastor of Divine Mercy, and one day I'm being called by the bishop, asked me if I could take over another assignment here of St. Mary's. I agreed to it with great joy, because it is a wonderful, wonderful community here at St. Mary's. I feel very blessed, here. And appreciated. It's a joy for me to be here. I have to tell you, I love it."