Olean church honored with the title 'basilica'

Fri, Mar 17th 2017 09:30 am
The interior of St. Mary of the Angels Church, Olean. (Courtesy of Darrel Gronemeier)
The interior of St. Mary of the Angels Church, Olean. (Courtesy of Darrel Gronemeier)

Pope Francis has bestowed the title of "basilica" on St. Mary of the Angels Church in Olean. This marks only the ninth time in his papacy that the Holy Father has granted this rare honor to a site in the United States.

"I was absolutely delighted," said Bishop Richard J. Malone, who points out that the designation is not only an honor for the Diocese of Buffalo, but it also brings special blessings to those who pray in the church. "It puts this church into a new and unique relationship with the Holy See and the Holy Father. It will have symbols that remind anyone who goes in there that this has a certain significance with the pope. To qualify, there has to be significant history, beautiful art and architecture and current vitality in the life of the parish and its ministries."

Shortly after the Gothic Revival-style church was built in 1915, Venerable Nelson Baker blessed St. Mary of the Angels Church at its opening Mass where he was also first to preach in its pulpit. He was so impressed by its striking appearance, that he commissioned the same architect, Emile Ulrich, to design Our Lady Victory Basilica in Lackawanna years later.

For more than 100 years, visitors have traveled to Olean to see this church's renowned Munich-style stained glass windows. "No one in this entire country has these windows; they're truly exceptional for their size and their quality," noted Dr. Karin Krauss, assistant professor at The University of Chicago Divinity School and art historian who came to visit the Olean church and ended up spending two days marveling at the way the 20-foot windows take in the sunlight from atop the nearby Allegheny Mountains in Cattaraugus County, N.Y.

Pope Francis signed the decree on Feb. 14, 2017, making St. Mary of the Angels the third "minor basilica" in the Diocese of Buffalo, along with Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in Lackawanna and Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston. They are called "minor basilicas" because only certain churches in Rome can be designated "major basilicas." There are now 83 such sites in the United States.

St. Mary of the Angels serves more than 1,300 families in the city of Olean and outlying areas. It was first established as a mission church in 1852, serving Catholic immigrants who came to clear forest land for farming. It eventually came under the care of the Franciscan priests at nearby St. Bonaventure's College (as it was known at the time) who named the church after St. Francis' beloved church in Assisi.

"This historic designation is the fulfillment of a dream for Father Edward Rengel who built our church more than a 100 years ago.  He left clues of his dream in the very edifice," noted Father Gregory Dobson, VF, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels, who points out that the designation is likely to attract more visitors from places like Pittsburgh and Erie, Pa., or Binghamton, Syracuse and Rochester, all of which are only a couple hours driving distance. "This designation is an affirmation of the gracious presence of the Church in obscure and remote locations.  Thomas Merton, perhaps one of the 20th century's most important spiritual writers, while in Olean and afterwards, attested to this. Cardinal Robert Sarah, who signed the documentation, came from an obscure village in Guinea near the border with Senegal.  The cardinal cherishes and celebrates the sacredness of the remote place of his early spiritual journey.  Now the people of New York's Southern Tier can share that sentiment and welcome pilgrims to join in the peaceful beauty of this setting."

This announcement caps off more than a year of work by people like Jennifer Kane, communications director of St. Mary of the Angels Church, who was entrusted to oversee the application process and the comprehensive research necessary to produce the impressive application book that was sent to the Vatican last summer. While the application required extensive historic documentation and precise measurements on everything including the size of the confessionals, it also needed to address the church's art, liturgical life, religious devotions, participation of the laity, charitable works and historical relevance. These exceptional churches, after all, are expected to serve as an important center and example of vibrant faith life in their regions.

St. Mary of the Angels' designation confers a special bond with the Roman cathedra of Peter and, as such, as a minor basilica, it is expected to celebrate three days with particular care; The Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle (Feb. 22), the solemnity of SS. Peter and Paul, Apostles (June 29) and the anniversary of the pope's election or inauguration (March 13).

Bishop Malone said that this serves as a reminder for Catholics to pray for the worldwide community of faith. "It should remind us of our bond with the pope and it should be a reminder to Roman Catholics that the Church is always wider. It's the parish, it's the diocese and then it's the universal church, under the pastorate of the pope."

Plans are now being finalized for a special Mass on June 29, when the concession of the new title will be celebrated by Bishop Malone, other invited bishops, and the church community in Olean. During the Eucharistic celebration, the proclamation of the decree granting the title of "minor basilica" to St. Mary of the Angels will be read and the blessing of the tintinnabulum and papal ombrellino - two pieces of insignia unique to minor basilicas - will take place. The church's name also will change to reflect its new designation: The Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels.

For more information visit: https://www.smaolean.org/


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