Niagara Gazette

February 24, 2014

HIGGS: St. Mary's former spiritual leaders and its complex

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — A few comments follow about some of the more recent religious leaders of St. Mary of the Cataract that I had the pleasure of meeting over the years: The Rev. John P. Duggan came back to St. Mary’s in 1962 following his discharge from military service in 1961 where he served as a chaplain during World War II. He was an assistant pastor prior to his Air Force assignment. I knew him slightly as a very tall and erect figure who was extremely Irish and a real warm person when you got to know him. Renovations were completed under his watch also including major interior renovation including the altar and the roof repair of the two steeples that were erected in 1873.

Father William J. Stillwell served from 1984 to 1996. We became close friends as I volunteered at the church bingo games held on Sundays just to help out my Catholic friends and active parish members, the Art McGill family. Father Stillwell always attended these nights and one Sunday during Mass he asked for volunteers for bingo as “it was somewhat awkward having to depend on a Lutheran to work the games.” I heard about it that night and noticed it must have worked as some new workers showed up. He was very innovative and many of the outside shrines and monuments on the church grounds were his doing. The Shrine of Peace was his pride and joy and he later became involved in the placement of a monument dedicated to Mother Teresa of Calcutta who visited St. Mary’s on May 30, 1982, following her Commencement Address to Niagara University graduates at the Niagara Falls Convention and Civic Center. He retired as Monsignor Stillwell around 1996.

The Rev. Michael H. Burzynski who I mentioned earlier displayed his collection of religious relics to the public during November 2000 while serving as pastor. They remained in the Shrine of Holy Relics until he was transferred in 2012. He was interested in the history of the church and opened the doors for concerts as well. It is well known as a “tourist attraction” and was included on many local tour operators stops. Currently serving the congregation is Father Jacek Mazur, a native of Poland, who studied at the seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Michigan. His first local assignment was at St. Theresa and then he accepted an assignment at Divine Mercy (formerly St. Stan’s). Then Divine Mercy was twinned with St. Mary’s which he where he now resides. He is very involved with the international Divine Mercy apostolate.

Let’s finish this series with a few facts about the complex of buildings around the church. One of the best known and well remembered was the former St. Mary’s High School, which according to Jerauld E. Brydges, who wrote an article in the Niagara Gazette dated June 4, 1973, “became one of the South End’s most historic landmarks and an educational launching pad for some of the Niagara community’s most prominent residents for 103 years.” This was written just before the demolition of the building which had been acquired by the Urban Renewal Agency. The Rev. John P. Duggan was the pastor at the time of the closing in 1973 and the last words of his Mass were deemed appropriate by Brydges as he stated “Ita est”. (Translated as “Go, it is ended”.)

Founded by the Rev. Patrick Moynihan it was first opened in 1870 in two frame buildings which accommodated 120 students. The Rev. James Lanigan continued the building program and brought in seven nuns from the Sisters of Mercy as teachers. A new school was built and opened in 1917 by the Rev. Felix Scullin and was established as St. Mary’s Lyceum and School in 1928 by the Rev. Cornelius Killeen.

Let’s move on to some of the buildings still in use today. We touched on the convent which was originally property of Mrs. Porter (Frederica) Burell just south of the school and developed for the Sisters of Mercy in 1884, the nuns who taught at the original school. This order replaced The Order of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart, the original instructors. In 1901, the current four- story, red brick building that became the permanent convent was built. Some remodeling was apparently done in 1962 but it closed along with the school in 1973. Saved from demolition, the building is used by Catholic Charities administering the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

The other remaining building is the church rectory. Completed in 1886, it was a two-story brick building with an unfinished attic. This replaced a pastoral residence which was later demolished. Remodeling and additions altered the building somewhere between 1897 and 1914 adding a third floor, enclosing the front porch and the installation of a turret in the northwest corner. A fire on March 4, 1972, destroyed some church records and antique contents formerly owned by General Robert E. Lee. Modern additions over a period of years include a two-car garage, a side addition and an elevator. It remains used as originally intended as a residence for current and retired pastors.

Well, it’s been a long journey through the past but I found it extremely interesting and taken in context with other historical moments, its early history reflects the growth of Niagara Falls. St. Mary of the Cataract church was the wealthiest church of the times and many of the prominent citizens of the era received their spiritual guidance here.

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.