After years of uncertainty, the former St. Gerard Church in Buffalo will find a new purpose, as the Diocese of Buffalo has agreed to sell the property to a group of men who plan on keeping the facility religious, but not Catholic.
Ammar Shaibi, one of three buyers of St. Gerard, said the intention is for the building to become a mosque. Shaibi will purchase the building along with Alawi Abdulla and Sadi Mohamed for $120,000.
"This is a historical building in Buffalo," Shaibi said in a phone interview. "It's in a really good spot (and) there's a lot of Muslim community here."
Father Francis "Butch" Mazur, former pastor of St. Gerard and a prominent advocate for inter-religious relations, was glad that the church is going to be used.
"I'm happy that the group that is buying is the Muslim community, because they'll be very proactive in community issues," Father Mazur said. "They'll be very good neighbors. They will bring businesses, craftsmen will come and they'll be a vital part of the community."
Once the sale is final, Father Mazur said he would like to welcome the new owners and local Muslim community to the former St. Gerard's, as well as tell them about ongoing issues in the neighborhood. He will also talk about Gerard Place, a social service agency next door to the church that helps poor and homeless single-parent families.
"I would hope the Muslims are on the same page in what is currently being done presently at Gerard Place," he said. "I'm sure they'll be advocates and maybe even volunteers (for the program). They're interested in helping the less fortunate and the poor."
Shaibi said there's no timetable right now to open the mosque after the sale of the property is final. The building needs a new boiler estimated to cost $42,000.
"The building needs a lot of work," he said. "It's going to take a while. We want to make sure we have the right work inside."
As the Muslim community grows in Buffalo, a number of mosques have opened; several converted from old churches that had to close when the faithful in their neighborhoods moved away. Shaibi is expecting to adapt to the neighborhood around St. Gerard.
"We will be working with the community," Shaibi said. "The building has been closed for (many) years. The community needs that building to stand up. We have been in this community for a long time (and) I don't think there's going to be any problems."
"The Catholic Church, both universally and locally, have an excellent relationship with the Muslim community," said Father Mazur, who still works with the Network of Religious Communities in Buffalo and promotes interreligious efforts nationally. "We do cooperative efforts in the community, and the Church recognizes that Islam is one of the great world religions. We worship the same God."
St. Gerard Church was closed in 2008 after the diocese announced a number of parish restructuring plans. Later that year, the Mary Our Queen Catholic community out of Norcross, Ga., proposed a plan to the diocese to dismantle and move the physical St. Gerard Church building piece by piece to their Atlanta suburb. At the time, the plan by the southern community was less expensive than building a new church from scratch. The group raised about $5 million, but it was not enough to pay for transplant St. Gerard's.
Instead, that money is going toward building a new Mary Our Queen Church in Norcross, a project that is estimated to cost about $8.5 million. While the dream of buying the entirety of St. Gerard didn't become reality, Mary Our Queen purchased a number of interior items, including the altar, windows and pews, from the Diocese of Buffalo for $75,000.
"I thought it was an interesting plan," said Father Derek Griffith, pastor of Mary Our Queen Parish. Father Griffith became pastor of the church in June 2016, taking over for Father David Dye, who initiated the original deal for St. Gerard's. "I had never heard of it before. It's new, different and exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out."
While architects have designed a new Mary Our Queen Church for the Norcross community, the look of St. Gerard's in Buffalo still played an inspiration, inside and out. Groundbreaking for the new church is set for June 2017.
"We much appreciate St. Gerard's," Father Griffith said. "We want to make sure the exterior will be fitting for the architecture of St. Gerard's. It may not be exactly how St. Gerard's is but we want to do it justice. It's going to be a challenge. We want to continue to preserve the good name of St. Gerard's here."