Niagara Gazette

February 17, 2014

HIGGS: Historical treasures inside St. Mary of the Cataract

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — This week we take a look at the interior of St. Mary of the Cataract and some of its treasurers referred to in the document prepared by the Rev. Michael H. Burzynski, PhD a recent pastor. Father Burzynski notes the similarity of the gold and blue crosses on the ceiling are duplicates of the dedication crosses on the exterior of the church towers. His writing refers to the nave of the church as representative of the universe. He describes the symbolic references under each of the arches as symbols of Christ but taken as a whole these images represent the ancient elements (earth, air, water and fire) and the seasons (spring, fall, summer and winter). They are depicted under the interior arches on the right. The front nave arches represent God the Father and the Blessed Mother but together they represent night and day; hence the references to the nave of the church representing the universe. Symbols around the sanctuary show ancient symbols of pilgrimage which Father Burzynski notes is “appropriate for Saint Mary’s being the premier church for visitors to Niagara Falls.”

Michael Parsnick, a local historian who collected many documents relating to the history of this church, made specific reference to me that the tabernacle located in the main altar was donated by the heirs of General Lafayette, the hero of two worlds. We all know that Lafayette was a French aristocrat and became a general in the American Revolutionary War. The left nave altar honors the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the one on the right is in honor of Saint John Neumann who we learned in an earlier column was the founder of the Niagara Falls mission station back in 1836 which later became the church as we know it today.

Statues in the niches represent Mary and Saint Joseph. Beneath the altar of celebration is a wooden box containing the relics of three martyrs and St. John Neumann founder of the local church. Along the side walls of the church are the Stations of the Cross.

The main windows over the altar represent the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Trinity in heaven and a round window representing the Holy Eucharist. There are stained glass windows on the sides of the altar representing the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The windows of the transept (a structure forming the crosswise direction of a cruciform church or one that is shaped like a cross) represent the four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Elements of the Passion of Jesus are depicted in the other windows of the nave or central area of the church.

A wheel window visible in the choir loft depicts the angelic choir. According to Wikipedia, the term “wheel window” is often applied to a window divided by simple spokes radiating from a central opening” unlike the more common “rose window” which are generally of a high complex design and seem to bear similarity to a multi-petalled rose. Also in the choir loft is a harp, symbolic of the angelic choirs and a symbol of Ireland.

Stained glass windows refer to works created from a colored glass and the term usually applies to church windows and other significant buildings. As a material it is glass that has been colored by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. It is crafted into windows by arranging small pieces of glass to form patterns or pictures held together by strips of lead and a frame. Tiffany lamps are another form and use of stained glass, made famous by Louis Tiffany.

The church organ was extensively renovated and decorated during the 2004 renovation according to the information from the Rev. Michael H. Burzynski, former pastor of St. Mary’s. It still features the original pipes installed in the 1870s and it is now known as a “hybrid” instrument made up of real pipes and digital components.

There were several periods of renovation over time at St. Mary’s. From a stable to a sacristy and the incorporation of Father Stephen’s tomb in the present sanctuary in 1863 is just the tip of the iceberg. You will recall he was originally buried behind the church. The tomb was placed in the center aisle and partially under the railing of the sanctuary. A plaque at this spot depicts his work on the enlargement of the church.

Last but not least this week, I found some information on the “bells of St. Mary’s,” not the movie or the song but the first bell in the church spires. In 1875, two years after the completion of the spires, the parishioners gathered and formed “the Bell Association.” A prominent businessman who became a New York Assemblyman and the first superintendent of the State Reservation at Niagara, Thomas Vincent Welch, became the secretary of the group and along with other prominent church members of the time, raised sufficient funds to place an order from a foundry in Troy. I found some contradictions in these dates as some research indicated the year was 1873. Three more bells were added during the 2003 renovation.

St. Mary of the Cataract Church grew through many renovations and like Holy Trinity, added buildings to its complex which we will learn about next week. 

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.

Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.