Us: History, & Facility
On a summer day in 1847 Fr. James Boyle Pastor of the Parish of Youngstown, Lewiston and Niagara Falls, celebrated Mass for Irish and French Canadian families who had settled on Grand Island. The Mass was celebrated at the home of William Carroll Sr. on East River Rd. In the summer of 1854, Fr. Francis Stephen Uhrich, Pastor of the Parish of Pendleton and the Tonawanda’s, came to the island to minister to the spiritual needs of those living on the island. On his visits he instructed the children, heard confessions, and offered Mass in the homes of William Carroll, Joseph Meesmer, Lorentz Lambrix and James Byrnes. Fr. Uhrich’s regular visits to the Island prompted the building of a small chapel.
On July 4, 1861, Mass was celebrated "in a chapel made of tree branches, with the altar leaning against the house of Julian Page". In the fall of that year, with the permission of Bishop Timon, Father Ulrich purchased 20 acres of land at the southwest corner of Baseline and Whitehaven Roads, "about the center of the Island". A down payment of $50.25 was made on the property. John Nice, Grand Island’s first Supervisor, held a mortgage of $290; George Sherman of Tonawanda held a note for $32.84, payable in August of 1864.
Shortly after the purchase of the land, the building of what would be the first church to be erected on Grand Island was begun. Timber was taken from the land of John Mesmer and Philip Rohe, then hand hewn by John Zink. William Simpson, a master carpenter from Tonawanda, supervised construction. The windows and the altar for the church came from St. Arbogast's, a small wooden church in Tonawanda, which was no longer in use. The church was 24 feet wide by 36 feet long and stood approximately where the old rectory stood. The total cost was $673.28. A fund drive was held and $543.34 was raised. Father Ulrich contributed $268 with Joseph Mesmer, Patrick Stack, Patrick Conboy, John Fleischmann, Jerry Sheehan, Magnus Geschwender, Philip Rohe, Adam Kaiser, Henry Stamler and John Ackerman being among the other contributors. Fr. Ulrich named the new church in honor of St. Stephen, a patron whose name he bore.
The first Mass was celebrated in the new church on February 16, 1862, a day described by Father Ulrich's as being, "a bright sunshiny day with ample snow for sleighing”. Three priests and about forty families gathered to celebrate and dedicate the new church. Fr. Uhrich performed the dedication ceremonies, Fr. William White sang the Mass, and Fr. Joseph Guillard preached the sermon. According to Father Uhrich's records, the sermon was preached in three languages. We can assume that Fr. Uhrich did the German translation, while Fr. Guillard did the French and English translations. Among the parishioners in attendance were fifteen French Canadian families, fourteen Irish families, and ten German families. The collection that day amounted to $17, a goodly sum in 1862.
For the next 28 years, Mass was celebrated once a month in the little frame church when the weather allowed Fr. Ulrich to reach the island from Tonawanda. During this time St. Stephen was a part of the parish, which consisted of Tonawanda and Grand Island. As the island population grew the little church was no longer adequate and it was decided to build a new church. In 1890 the front half or five bays of the "Old Church" were completed. The architect for the church was Adolphus Druiding of the Metropolitan Block, Chicago. Druiding was also the architect for St. Mary of Sorrows church, built between1887-1891, at Genesee and Guilford Streets. As the church was being built, planning for the cemetery was undertaken. Each family that contributed to the new church was allowed to select a plot, according to the size of the family. The original church was sold to the Mesmer family and moved to what is now the intersection of Baseline and the New York Thruway, where it still stands today. Between 1890 and 1895, just after completion of the church, the population of the Island peaked. The lumber industry that had flourished through the early and mid-nineteenth century had now become non-existent with the exhaustion of the white oaks and the decline of the building of clipper ships. Much of the oak harvested on the island found its way to Boston to be used in the building of clipper ships. The principal industry of the island shifted to farming and the population began to decline.
In 1906, Fr William J. Kuellertz became the first resident pastor of St. Stephen and in the fall of that year the first rectory was built. It faced Baseline Road and stood just north of the “old” Church. The cost of the rectory was $5078 for materials; members of the parish contributed most of the labor for construction. Father Kuellertz stay was relatively short lived and Fr. Frank Meyer became pastor in 1910. By this time the parish population had declined to 106 in the winter months. The summer population, on the other hand grew because of the popularity of the island as a vacation resort. First came exclusive clubs and elaborate summer homes followed by amusement parks. Much of this activity was concentrated along the shore and near the ferry landing at the foot of Ferry Road. Fr. Meyer and the trustees of St. Stephen discussed the possible need for a church to serve the summer residents. It was decided to build a church at the corner of Ferry and Orchard Roads. On July 4, 1913, the first Mass was celebrated in the church of Mary Star of the Sea. It is said that the architect of the church was George Dietel who also worked on Buffalo’s City Hall. Mary Star of the Sea continued to serve this summer community until 1948, when the building was sold to the Grand Island American Legion.
Fr. Meyer remained pastor until 1916, when Fr. Charles Kraehn became pastor. At this time the parish population had declined to 68 members. Fr. Kraehn served until 1928, when Fr. Albert Hoffmeyer replaced him. In February of 1928, the parish population had declined to just 14 families who regularly attended Mass, though during the summer month’s attendance continued to increase. Fr. Hoffmeyer remained until 1935 when he was replaced by Fr. Alfred Hagemier. Fr. Hagemier remained for only one month, and then was replaced by Fr. William Martin. The pastorate of Fr. Martin coincided with the completion of the Grand Island bridges, which had an immediate effect on the population of the island as well as that of St. Stephen. Fr. Martin remained until 1943 when Fr. Martin Marnon, who served until November of 1945, replaced him. Rev. Msgr. Edward Schwegler, D. D. who enjoyed a long pastorate, replaced Fr. Marnon. As the population of the Island grew, it became apparent that the church built in 1890 was no longer adequate. In 1948 the “old” church was enlarged, the seating capacity grew from 108 to 240, a new sanctuary and two sacristies were added. Msgr. Schwegler designed the symbolic decorations in the sanctuary, which reflect the nature of Grand Island and some of the traditions of the Church.
In response to a continued growth in members, Msgr. Schwegler saw the need for a larger worship space. He also recognized that some day a parish school would be built. The new church, begun in 1956 and completed 1957, was built so that in the future it could be converted into a gymnasium. It had 30-foot ceilings and windows located high up along the periphery of the building and so became known as the “Auditorium Church”. Over the next ten years, after much discussion, the parish school was added to the “Auditorium Church” and a separate convent was built. In September of 1967, the Felician Sisters moved into the convent and grades one through four were ready for students. After a long illness, Msgr. Schwegler died in 1967 and was succeeded by Rev. Msgr. Paul J. Eberz, who served as pastor until 1971. During his pastorate, a new grade was added each year until September 1971, when all eight grades were operating.
In 1969 falling plaster in the old church created a hazard to priests and worshipers. A large section of plaster in the ceiling above the sanctuary had cracked and fallen to the floor resulting in the closing of the church for worship or public use. The basement rooms continued to be used as classrooms and meeting rooms. In the ensuing years, Masses were offered in the “Auditorium Church” and in the “cafetorium” of the school. In 1971 Msgr. Eberz was assigned to St. Mary’s in Lockport and the Rev. Msgr. Richard A Graeber was appointed pastor of St. Stephen. Between 1969 and 1976, Msgr. Eberz and then Msgr. Graeber, along with parish councils, wrestled with the issue of what to do with the “old” Church. Ideas ranged from demolition to conversion of the building to serve as a parish center or as a town teen-age recreation center. Strong sentiment was expressed by older parishioners and preservationists that the church should be restored. Initial estimates of restoration costs made this option seem inordinately expensive and beyond the capability of the parish. In 1976 Msgr. Greber was assigned to St. Andrew in Tonawanda and Fr. Donald Hughes was named Pastor of St. Stephen by Bishop Edward Head.
The decision as to what to do with the “Old” Church became Fr. Hughes’. He hired an architect to evaluate the structural integrity of the “Old” Church and then make recommendations as to the building’s soundness and what repairs would be necessary. The architect was of the opinion that the building was sound and that some remodeling, plastering, painting and redecoration would fall in the twenty to thirty thousand dollars price range. This seemed a reasonable alternative to destroying a venerable old church that had served the parish for many years. In March of 1977, an intensive church and community fund raising effort was undertaken and $26,000 was realized for the restoration of the “Old” Church. After having been closed since 1969 the church was completely renovated in just eight month and on the 4th of December 1977, at the conclusion of St. Stephen’s 115th year as a parish, a Mass of Rededication was concelebrated with Bishop Head as Principal Celebrant. Fr. Hughes also undertook the building of a new rectory that today serves as home to the parish priests and parish offices.
Fr. Hughes was transferred in early January. Msgr. Richard Cahill arrived as Pastor on Feb. 14, 1985 and served over 15 years until Sept. 1, 2000. Many parish organizations were active and supported by Msgr. Cahill such as: the Holy Name Society, Altar Society, Charismatic Prayer Group, Choir, Folk Group and the Knights of Columbus. He was assisted when he arrived by associates Fr. William Wangler (who was transferred about six months later) and Fr. Donald Griffin (who was given a new assignment after 18 months). A newly ordained priest, Fr. Mark Illig, came as associate in August 1985 and served for about 5 years. Fr. Mark was instrumental in forming a parish Variety Show under the direction of Betty Beach. This evolved into the Parish Theater Group. Fr. Mark was also involved with the school basketball teams. Fr. Daniel Lapinski came to the parish in 1986 and served here for 5 years. He was noted as a good and compassionate priest, especially to homebound parishioners. Fr. Dennis Fronczak and Fr. Francis “Butch” Mazur eventually succeeded the two previous associates. Fr. Butch was responsible for bringing Mission to the parish together with the Mroziaks, who were the leading couple for many years. Fr. Daniel Fiebelkorn, newly ordained, arrived in 1998 and was very active with the building committee for the new church.
In 1985, Msgr. Cahill made the decision to build an addition to the school. Up to this time the Kindergarten and Pre-K were located in the old church basement, which was not an ideal situation. To obtain funds for the addition, the parish began an Increased Offertory drive. After several years, $500,000 was saved for the addition. Six classrooms were added in the early 1990’s. Carl Walbert, Dick Sander and Tom Moscati were all involved in this project. Other projects that Msgr. oversaw were the re-organizing of the old church basement and the conversion of the rectory basement into meeting rooms and offices. In 1993, the old rectory that stood next to the old church was demolished.
Msgr.’s last and greatest effort was the building of the new church. A capital campaign was begun with parishioners pledging for a period of three years. The planning for the new church began on May 15, 1995 with a very active and dedicated committee of parishioners involved in the planning. Ground was broken for the new church by Bishop Henry Mansell on Sunday, Sept. 6, 1999. Bishop Mansell dedicated the church on Feb. 27, 2000. The following Sunday, March 5, 2000, a Mass and reception was held for the construction workers. The following week a community open house and reception was held. The opening of the new church enabled the consolidation of the masses held in the “old” church and “Auditorium Church” into one worship space and made possible the conversion of the “Auditorium Church” into a gym.
Bishop Henry Mansell appointed Fr. Paul Nogaro pastor on Sept. 1, 2000. Fr. Paul came from the pastorate of St. Paul, Kenmore. One of the major tasks to be undertaken was the reduction of the parish debt incurred by the new church. Some $3,000,000 was owed. Very soon the first full time Business Manager was hired, Karen Cammarata. She arranged a 10-year loan that, with the generous support of the parish, has significantly reduced our indebtedness. To support the Catholic ambiance of the new church, Fr. Paul enhanced it with religious items, many coming from the churches of the diocese that were closed or consolidated because of the Journey In Faith and Grace. This strategic plan was begun by Bishop Edward Kmiec who came to the diocese in 2004. He saw the necessity of rightsizing the diocese to meet current needs. Begun in 2005, the Journey eventually resulted in the merging and consolidation of many parishes in the diocese. Although the parishes of our Vicariate of Northern Erie were not affected, St. Stephen joined with our neighboring parishes and became a part of the entire diocesan process.
At the end of the school year in 2001, The Felician sisters were unable to continue sending a principal. Donna Ende, the first lay principal, was hired to provide leadership for our school that has maintained a student body of about 200 through difficult times. With her and the enthusiastic support of our parents, the school has consistently excelled. Our Religious Education Program has been under the guidance of Angela Diebold. Approximately 900 students per year are receiving their preparation in the faith. In 2004, our associate, Fr. Daniel Fieblekorn, was transferred to become a pastor. Fr. Dan was well respected in his ministry here. Because of the shortage of priests, no assistant was assigned until 2009 with the arrival of Fr. Lynn Shumway. He had previously served as deacon in the parish. Fr. Sam Venne was given residence by the diocese in our rectory. He assists here and in other area parishes.
The care of the old church building was a constant concern. It is now being used for meetings and occasional weddings and funerals and is a much beloved part of our history. New siding and boilers costing almost $50,000 were added in 2003. The old church continues to house the food pantry for the GI Neighbors Foundation. In 2005, a new electronic sign was donated by a parishioner and enables us to post many parish activities in an attractive way. In 2006, the old convent began to be used for other purposes: a retreat center, a pre-school and currently for Religious Ed offices and Youth Ministry. Around this time, Fr. Paul saw the need for a Columbarium in the cemetery to accommodate the ever-increasing desire for cremation. The Columbarium has over 180 niches and is currently almost completely taken. In 2011, another cemetery service was offered with the completion of a Mausoleum for above ground burial. Niches for cremation were included on the building to accommodate future need.
Fr. Paul is an active part of the GI Ministerium. Each year, we host the community Good Friday Service. In 2010, solar panels were installed on the school roof through a government program and a new carillon was placed on the church. The parish thrives with numerous organizations and activities. Our parish was the first in the diocese to offer the ALPHA Program. Bereavement Committee, Scouting programs, Mission, Altar Society, Holy Name Society, and Scripture study groups are some of the many offerings of the parish. In 2010 the parish began the Commitment To Parish Life Program. It is a new way of thinking about parish support. CPL substantially increased the offertory from the generous parishioners who have supported it. Having reached 150 years of existence, St. Stephen continues to look forward into the future to a long and faithful life in the Lord’s service.
Below are available meeting rooms and activity centers within Parish Property. If you wish to place a reservation, please call 773-7647.
Facility Calendar Packet