By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — Following last week’s column of the early history of St. Mary’s Greek Catholic Church at 2715 Ferry Ave., I paid a visit to the church and its interesting and proud current pastor, the Rev. Raymond Palko.
Another local historian and friend, Michael Parsnick, joined me as he has a connection through his mother’s sister, Albina Soha, who is from Nanticoke in eastern Pennsylvania, where many of the Ukrainians settled upon arrival in the U.S. She met her future husband, Ukrainian John Grozio who also came from Nanticoke, at St. Mary’s Hall at a dance. Their union produced three children, one of whom is the Niagara County legislator for the LaSalle section of the city, Mark Grozio.
Rev. Palko invited us inside a typical home of an Eastern Christian community. Though small and not as ornate as some I seen through my travels to Russia and Greece, it symbolizes the very nature of the parish’s religious life. This is a Byzantine church, decorated with icons (images) of Old Testament prophets and saints of past ages. The Icon Screen joins the Holy Place, the altar area, to the Nave or body of the church and is adorned with images of Christ, those central to his life and his followers. We adjourned to the rectory adjacent to the church where I received many documents relating to the history or the buildings and the church members.
He told us more about the early immigrants and how they organized to establish a church. One of the documents is dated Feb. 19, 1961, written by Michael Hupajlo who referred to himself as “an old parishioner passing down a history to the year 1920 from the year 1913.” The group purchased a Protestant church for $300 which was located at Ferry and Portage where a new high school was to be built and moved it to the south side of Ferry Avenue to four lots which included a house they had purchased for $3,000. The move, foundation, hall, heat and other work cost another $1,800. Hupajlo and three others worked on columns and he “bought the house for $3,000 by mortgaging, and held the note for 18 years, and since the house was not needed I sold it to an Italian for the same amount ...” He continued, referring to honored deceased members, “Ivan Borak (who) donated much to the church, the painting behind the altar, iconostas, benches, construction of the bell tower and the choir loft, and Hataljak bought the bell.”
I had to revisit this time period to write about the extreme efforts and hard work of these early parishioners who had sought and found a new life in America and brought their energy and financial assistance to establish a home for the faith they also brought with them. This was typical of all the early settlers in our area who migrated from all parts of Europe during these times and even later as we have seen from previous historical references of other churches formed and built in Niagara Falls.
A document celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the church held in 2010, told how the church building was extended and the interior was updated with new plaster and pews and the installation of the iconostas during 1935. At the end of WWII and during the 1950s a new wave of immigration from Pennsylvania and Europe brought new blood and new vitality which greatly enriched the parish life. We left off with the Rev. Theodore Lewytsky in the early 1960s when the members were seriously considering building a new church.
According to a document of historical reference dated Oct. 1, 2000, “A church building committee was formed in the Spring of 1965 soon after the assignment of the Rev. John Mak as pastor of the parish. The building fund campaign was launched May 2, 1965, at a kickoff luncheon in the church hall. Funds were raised from parishioners and parish friends and through dinners, rummage sales, card parties, and an annual lawn fete. The building committee was assisted by the Ladies’ Sodality and other church groups, especially the good people of St. Nichols parish in Buffalo.”
Wallace V. Moll, a Niagara Falls architect, drew up the plans in 1966 and they were submitted to the Bishop’s Chancery for approval which could not be given until the parish could assure the bishop they could afford the projected $240,000 cost. Fundraising continued during the early 1970s under the leadership of new parish priest, the very Rev. Demetrius G. Laputa. The parishioners decided to step up the fundraising and began a weekly bingo game in a rented Pine Avenue hall. Profits of $500 to $1,000 mounted quickly and the parish received the long awaited permission to build the new church.
Following the demolition of the original church, services were held in a garage in the rear until the first service in the new building on Feb. 14, 1975. Putting something new and modern next to the outdated rectory was next and demolition and replacement by a raised-ranch style house was completed in 1981.
Much “blood, sweat and tears” along with hard work, dedication and determination of the men and women of this time not only resulted in the new church and rectory to be built, but it was entirely paid for. A little more next time.Norma Higgs serves with the Niagara Beautification Commission and Niagara Falls Block Club Council.