Church Street is one of the main east-west streets in Downtown Buffalo, connecting to Main Street to what is now the Interstate-190. The street was originally laid out by Joseph Ellicott and was named Stadnitski after Pieter Stadnitski, a Dutch banker and one of the agents of the Holland Land Company. The street was renamed in honor of St. Paul’s Episcopal, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic and First Presbyterian Churches.
The Downtown Buffalo core used to be home to other churches, but many moved uptown as their congregants moved out of downtown towards “suburbs”, such as the case with First Presbyterian Church or Lafayette Presbyterian Church.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral is the cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York. The congregation started in 1820, and their first church was built on land donated by Joseph Ellicott, at the corner of Main and Erie Streets. Reverend William Shelton came to the church in September 1829 and served as Rector until 1881. The congregation started to grow significantly following the opening of the Erie Canal. The current church opened (on the site of the old church) in 1851, on Shelton Square. The church was designed by Richard Upjohn, who is considered one of the greatest American Gothic church designers. The congregation wanted the church to be made out of limestone; however, they could not afford the limestone. Upjohn instead used Medina sandstone.
On May 10, 1888, the church was almost destroyed following an explosion and fire. All that remained was the walls. The church was rebuilt according to Upjohn’s original plans and reopened in 1890. St. Paul’s was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1987.
Shelton Square was named after Reverend William Shelton in 1897. Shelton Square was a public space within Joseph Ellicott’s original street layout for Buffalo, at the intersection of Erie, Church, Main and Niagara, North Division and South Division Streets. The area was where Joseph Ellicott originally planned to build his house. He later donated land at Shelton Square to the churches. In the 1950s, Shelton Square was considered Buffalo’s “Piccadilly Circus”. A trolley/bus shelter was located in the middle of the square, and this served as the main hub for the entire city – serving the International Railway Company and then the Niagara Frontier Transit system. Shelton Square disappeared during the 1970s, when a portion of Shelton Square was covered by the Main Place Mall, and Erie street was replaced by Cathedral Park.
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cathedral is located at 50 Franklin Street. The church serves as the cathedral church for the Buffalo Diocese. Buffalo’s first Bishop, John Timon, established St. Joseph’s in 1847. The cathedral was dedicated in 1855 and was consecrated in 1863. The original plans for the cathedral called for two towers at the north and south ends of the facade, but only the south tower was built. The tower contained a 43 bell carillon (a musical instrument consisting of bells, typically found in church towers or municipal buildings). At the time of installation in 1869, the carillon was the largest in America and the third largest in the world. The bells were too large for the tower and never worked properly, so all but two were removed from the church.
In 1902, the Buffalo Diocese determined that a new cathedral was necessary, so property was purchased at Delaware Avenue and West Utica Street. The New St. Joseph Cathedral opened in 1915, and St. Joseph’s downtown was known as “St. Joseph’s Old Cathedral”. The new cathedral was not built for Buffalo’s climate and major repairs had to be made as soon as 1924. The exterior marble started to fall off and in 1976, the Bishop decided repairs would be too costly. In 1977, after demolition of the new cathedral, the “old cathedral” reverted to its former name of St. Joseph’s Cathedral.
First Presbyterian Church
The third of the churches was First Presbyterian Church. When First Presbyterian Church was organized on February 2, 1812, it was the first organized religious body formed in Western New York. The first building for the church was built at the corner of Pearl Street and Niagara Street. The church opened in 1824 and was used by the church until 1827. As the congregation grew, the building was sold to another congregation in 1828 and moved to the corner of Genesee and Hickory Streets, and was later moved to Walnut Street in 1878. The building saw many uses over the years – a school-house, a tenement, a cooper’s shop and an icehouse for a brewery. It was destroyed by a fire in 1882. No pictures of the building are known to exist.
First Presbyterian’s “Brick Church” was dedicated in March 1827. With seating for 800, it was the largest church west of the Genesee River. The church’s bell was referred to as the “town clock bell” and served all of Buffalo as a fire alarm. When sounding alarm for a fire in 1833, the bell cracked, but was quickly recast and served the church until the church was razed. The bell was then presented to a church in North Tonawanda.
As the congregation grew, members also moved away from the central part of the City of Buffalo. At the time of founding, most of the congregation lived near the church, but as the central business district developed, many had moved uptown and found congregations closer to their homes. The church was at risk of closing. Many members of the congregation were against moving the church, so the matter had to be taken up with the Presbytery and was taken to court. The matter was resolved in favor of moving.
In 1887, Mrs. Truman Avery, who lived where Kleinhans Music Hall is now located, donated a parcel of land across the circle, at the corner of Wadsworth and Pennsylvania Streets. In April 1889, the congregation was ordered by the city to sell the property to Erie County Savings Bank to make way for the bank’s new office. (the bank was located at Shelton Square until the 1970s, when it was demolished for construction of the Main Place Mall).
- The Catholic Church in the United States of America: Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Poop Pius X. Volume 3. Catholic Editing Company, New York, 1914.
- DeMille, George. St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, 1817-1967: A Brief History.
- Rote, David. 30-A Shelton Square. 1994. accessed through City of Buffalo Website: https://www.ci.buffalo.ny.us/Home/OurCity/Buffalo_My_City/Buffalo_My_City_Watercolors/30A_Shelton_Square_1994