By Norma Higgs
Niagara Gazette — Before we get deeply engrossed in the early days of St. Mary of the Cataract Church, a few words need to be said about Cal Babcock.
You met the Rev. Calvin Babcock during the past few weeks when he was pastor of St Paul’s Methodist Church. And while I did attend a few services at his church during the late 1960s when I lived on the 700 block of Cedar Avenue, I formally met him during my employment at the City of Niagara Falls as risk manager and assistant to the city manager during the mid-1980s. I called the City Missions to see if they would be interested in operating the refreshment stand in the city hall lobby and Cal, who the Mission’s director at the time, appeared in front of me one day. He eagerly accepted the chance as part of a training program.
When I changed jobs and went to Supreme Court at Third and Cedar, I called him again when the refreshment stand there became vacant and he rallied once again, providing food service at both locations for several years.
Following his retirement, he became a major part of the Niagara Beautification Commission accepting the challenge of chairman when the Chamber of Commerce decided to spin off the commission. Cal’s activities with the commission continue to this day as he simply finds a project that needs doing and does it. Of course, he has run amok now and then with those who question his authority but he continues undaunted in his quest to beautify the city. Even his wife Jan rolls her eyes occasionally when I tell her of his escapades. Good, bad or indifferent I for one appreciate the help he has given me in my community pocket park when he just shows up at my door with photos and receipts for repairs to our fence, purchase of mulch and the like. He has recently been helping with snow removal in his neighborhood I hear and so it goes on. Thanks Cal.
Now, let’s get back to the landmark buildings that have been places of worship for many years. Former pastor, the Rev. Michael H. Burzynski, Ph.D. of St. Mary of the Cataract, Roman Catholic Church left behind some interesting historical material that was written as a welcome to visitors to Niagara Falls. He stated that “The history of Niagara Falls is intimately linked with the Catholic faith.” His references include Father Louis Hennepin, the first European to see the Falls of Niagara in 1678, Saint John Brabeuf’s citing of a cross in the heavens near where the church now stands and the many French and Irish Catholics who were among the earliest settlers of this area.
Saint John Neumann’s establishment of a mission station was the beginnings of the parish in 1836. While the “Saint Mary’s Church was built in the year 1847, its sacristy (a room in a church where sacred vessels and vestments are kept or meetings are held) is the oldest structure in continuous use in Niagara Falls” according to Rev. Burzynski’s welcome brochure. He noted it was originally the carriage house for the home of George Porter and was constructed in 1813 as a stable.
During 2008, the Niagara Falls Historic Preservation Commission submitted documents for designation of landmark status. They presented the building exterior and interior public areas including the four separate buildings, the church, rectory, convent and a detached garage. (The application did not deal with the accessory garage.) Located at 231 Fourth St. in downtown Niagara Falls, the application noted the property was owned by the Diocese of Buffalo and occupied by St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church.
They also credited the Rev. John P. Neuman, who was later canonized as America’s second saint, with organizing a few families in Niagara Falls to petition Bishop Timon to send a priest to cater to these residents. The parish was officially established in 1847 and included the communities of Niagara Falls, Lewiston and Youngstown. Our familiar early citizen and landowner, Augustus Porter sold them the land in 1848 where the present church still stands for one dollar according to reference from Bishop Timon. There is some discrepancy in these dates as there is reference to the oldest part of the church, the nave, being built in 1847. The Rev. John Boyle from Lockport was its first pastor. During 1851, the Rev. William Stephens moved from Lewiston and built a small stone church on Fourth Street. When he passed away he was buried behind this church building.
Additions began in 1863 when the church was enlarged to include the sanctuary transept and the side chapels. Father’s Stephen’s original grave site was incorporated into this construction and a plaque marks the location of the tomb today. The larger church began serving its parish on Sunday, Dec. 13, 1863.
During these times we have noted that several area churches were growing both in size, stature and parishioners. St. Mary of the Cataract Church was certainly part of this growth and next week we will continue to follow its journey.
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.