Niagara Gazette

February 10, 2014

HIGGS: More on St. Mary of the Cataract Church

By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — I am going to give in and refer to this series of articles as St. Mary’s as it is commonly known by both the parishioners and most of the area population.

The Rev. Nicholas Gibbons succeeded Father Lanigan when he became the rector of the Cathedral of Buffalo in 1896. Property was purchased from Mrs. Porter Burrell for $18,200 and construction began on a four-story, red-brick building, designed in the old colonial style as a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. Father Gibbons was not in good health and passed away in December of 1900 and was replaced by the Rev. William McNab who served the parish until his death in 1906. He kept up the pace of growth and remodeled the rectory and converted the old school into a home for working girls. This became the Casa Maria which was opened on June 20, 1917. He died in 1923 and was followed by the Rev. C. Killeen who also made many improvements in the buildings of the time and was responsible for the full high school course of education.

The Rev. P. J. O’Dwyer followed Killeen’s death in 1937 and was succeeded by the Rev. Felix Scullin, M.R., a former rector of Somerset and Limestone. The Diocese of Buffalo Historical Commission Files stated that “In the last 12 years St. Mary’s parish has given to the church eight priests and 18 sisters; and at present there are 11 young men studying for the priesthood.”

At the time (1914) of the writing of the document loaned to me by Michael Parsnick and titled “The Catholic Church in the United States of America Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X,” St. Mary’s of the Cataract church property consisted of the church, school, rectory and convent was valued at $250,000. The article noted the church had a seating capacity of 700. The new school and lyceum was in the course of construction at a construction cost of $90,000. The school had 380 pupils and eight Sisters of Mercy.

The rectory was rebuilt and enlarged by Father Scullin at a cost of $20,000. They also refer to Mount St. Mary’s Hospital with a cost of $600,000 and with a capacity of about 200 patients. This is, of course in reference to the facility located in the 500 block of Sixth Street now closed when the hospital relocated to it present location in Lewiston and which is still conducted by the Sisters of St. Francis. Natural growth showed a steady increase in parishioners which during 1913 consisted of 2,700 members. Other statistics from 1913 showed 81 baptisms, 46 deaths and 38 marriages.

Later we will learn about the symbolic decorations within the church but I thought it might be appropriate to touch on what else was occurring during the times leading up to the beginning of St. Mary of the Cataract which seems to be 1836 when the parish was formed which included Lewiston, Youngstown and Niagara Falls.

Significant historical events were taking place which deserve a mention to bring the significance of the birth of the church into its place in local history. I am actually going to go back even further to Augustus Porter’s Village of Manchester and the start of tourism, industry and international commerce. Due to space limitations, it will be only a brief synopsis.

John Stedman was appointed by the British as the superintendent of the 7-mile portage trail during the early 1760s. Fort Schlosser was built at the southern end of the portage trail. Stedman occupied Goat Island which he used as grazing land for his herd of goats. Following the Revolution and under the Jay Treaty the portage Mile Strip was ceded to the new republic. Enter the Porter brothers, Augustus and Peter who acquired most of this Mile Strip at an auction. Partnerships were formed with Benjamin Barton and Joseph Annin and they all benefitted from the toll collections on the portage trail from 1805 to 1826. The brothers also established several businesses at Niagara Falls, i.e., a sawmill, a blacksmith shop, a gristmill and a tannery.

During the War of 1812, the British destroyed many buildings in the village of Manchester. The Porters, however, regrouped and reestablished their gristmill and sawmill operations. Augustus Porter was able to purchase Goat Island from New York state in 1816 which he planned to preserve from commercial and industrial development. This put him in a unique position when tourists began to arrive following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1826. Steamboats and then railroads which made the 14-mile journey from Buffalo to Niagara Falls faster and cheaper, also made tourism the dominant source of income for the village of Manchester’s 3,000 residents.

Hotels such as the Cataract House and the Eagle Tavern were the most prominent and flourished. Business began to prosper again and a woolen factory was erected in 1820, a forge rolling mill and nail factory were built in 1822 and a paper mill in 1823.

The success in the village life during this period brought the establishment of religious organizations. We already learned about the first established church in the town, the First Presbyterian Church which was organized in 1824, followed by St. Paul’s Methodist Church and our current topic, St. Mary of the Cataract. Next time we will go inside and view some of the relics and decorations of this historical building in downtown Niagara Falls. 

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