The History of St John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church Kenmore, NY
The history of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church may be said to have begun in the late 1800’s with the arrival in the Buffalo area of Mychajlo Kotelec and Anna Skrobala Olear (Olijar). Due to extreme economic hardship, these brave pioneers left their village of Odrechov, Lemkivshchyna in what was the then Ukraine and crossed the wide Atlantic to start a new life in America. These early Ukrainian immigrants settled in the northwest area of Buffalo known as Black Rock.
With each succeeding year, Ukrainians from the Lemko and Zakarpatia regions of Ukraine emigrated in greater numbers to the Buffalo area, settling not only the northwestern section, but also the southeastern section of the city.
Because of their deep religious faith and determination and commitment to propagate their language, as well as cultural traditions and customs, the Brotherhood of St. John the Baptist was organized on April 11, 1897, with the principal ideal of establishing a church and parish to serve Ukrainian Catholics in the Buffalo area. In addition, the Brotherhood was very instrumental in assisting new immigrants morally and financially. The first head of the Brotherhood was Mykola Seredynsky. Other members included: Andrij Olear, I. Lestition, F. Brenkach, S. Zenchak, P. Macko, M. Kotelec, M. Bristly, A. Konkewycz, A. Stuso, A. Malorod and others. This organization later became Branch 15 of the Ukrainian National Association.
According to diocesan records, the parish was officially established in 1902, with the help of Rev. Nestor Dmytriw, a Canadian priest, who visited the immigrants and celebrated Divine Liturgy in various rented quarters on Amherst Street and then later at Dory’s Hall on Grant Street. At the time of founding, there were 25 families in the parish. The permanent recording of baptisms, marriages, and funerals began as early as 1900. In 1903, the first rector, Rev. Basil Hrywnak, was assigned to Ukrainians of Buffalo. Under his guidance organizational meetings were held that same year and led to the purchase of property on Germain Street.
In 1907, Rev. John Velyhorsky was assigned to the parish of St. John the Baptist. It is with his work and efforts that the first wood framed church was built on the previously purchased lots on Germain Street. The builder of the church was Andrew Konkevich, who was also assisted by many parishioners. The first church rectory was built in 1909.
The year 1907 also marked the beginning of a new era in the lives of Ukrainians in America. The Most Reverend Soter Ortynsky was appointed by the Holy Sea as the first Ukrainian Catholic Bishop for the United States. All parishes were united into one Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of the United States of America. The newly appointed Bishop traveled to Buffalo to bless the new church in 1908. The parish eventually became a part of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy’s located Stamford Connecticut, one of several Eparchy’s in the United States.
The choir “Boyan” was organized in the parish that same year of 1908. It is considered to be one of the first Ukrainian choirs in America. This choir not only sang in religious services, but also presented many concerts in the Buffalo area for Ukrainians as well as for the general public. Conducted under the masterful direction of Professor John Hryckowian from 1935 to 1994, the performances of this choir were much acclaimed. Other cantors mentioned throughout the history of this parish were: O. Hrynkiw, A. Honkevych, I. Popeliak, M. Lavriw, H. Korolyschyn, Kobylecky, Mychailiwsky, P. Lozinsky and Zenon Deputat.
Parish life and activities continued to flourish under the pastoral guidance of various priests. On July 26, 1921, the Sisterhood of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was officially established within the parish. In the 20’s and 30’s, the Sisterhood was quite active. Members included: Anna Mydzian, Tekla Kokolus, Pelahiya Mydzian, Katherine Zenchak, Ksenia Hnatyk, and others. In the 1940’s, members included: Anna Olear, Mary Lestition, Pelahiya Kostecky, Mary Guize, Mary Harausz, Eva Byrwa, and others. During the war years, they initiated a drive to purchase bonds in order to help America in its war efforts.
In 1923, Rev. John Zuck was appointed pastor and served in that capacity until 1971. Due to his efforts and the contributions of the Brotherhood, Sisterhood, and other parishioners, the old church was remodeled into a brick veneered church where parishioners worshiped regularly. A hall was built, in 1924, in back of the parish house, which served as a place for social gatherings, musical and theatrical performances, and also as a school for the children of the parish. Children were taught to read and write Ukrainian and to worship God in their rite by the Sister Servants of St. Mary.
On January 2, 1926, the church was incorporated according to the laws of the State of New York as St. John the Baptist Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church Society of Buffalo, New York.
Throughout the years, the members of the Church of St. John the Baptist took an active part in the life of their community, their city, and their nation. Other organizations that flourished within the parish included: Altar Boys Society, Sodality, Ukrainian Catholic Youth League, Theatrical Group, Dance Group, Baseball Team, Bowling Team (men & women), Young Couples Club, Parish Council, Ladies Guild, and Pyrohy Workers.
The young parishioners of St. John the Baptist brought pride and honor to their community by participating in various celebrations and ethnic festivals, exhibiting their beautiful national costumes, magnificent works of Ukrainian embroidery, as well as the much admired Ukrainian Easter eggs (“pysanky”). During the Buffalo Centennial in 1933, the Ukrainian Dance Group, which included many of the young parishioners of St. John the Baptist, won 1st place for their talented performance. The baseball and bowling teams of St. John the Baptist also won many trophies through the years. In 1931, the baseball team was Champions in Class B on the Muny League.
Even with World War II raging in Europe, parish life and work in America continued. In 1941, a house was bought for the Sisters who schooled the children. Thanks to the energetic efforts of the Church Committee, it was paid for in full within a year’s time. Members of the Church committee at that time were: Mike Youra, John Youra, Anthony Korpan Andrew Brostko, Nicolas Hnatyk, and Mike Zawisky. On Sunday July 15, 1945, a banquet was held at the Ukrainian American Hall, 205 Military Road, in celebration of the burning of mortgage of the church. The guest of honor was His Excellency Bishop Canstantine Bohachevsky.
Perhaps it is important to note here that Father Zuck was much beloved and respected by his parishioners. He was honored many times for his efforts made on their behalf for forty-eight years. These years were not always easy, for they included the Depression of the late twenties and early thirties, when many parishioners were unemployed; and World War II, which created many problems and hardships for so many families in the parish.
As the years passed by and the demographics of Black Rock changed, it was decided to build a new church at a new location. In 1973, a large plot of land on the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Ferndale Avenue in the Town of Tonawanda was purchased from the Mount St. Mary Academy. The site on which a new church and rectory would be built was dedicated on July 27, 1980. Members of the building committee were: Dr. Michael Saikewicz, Jerome Szczublewski, Jaroslav Bilyj, William Berezuk, Michael Piatak, Stephen Harasym, Anna Olear, Irene Hnatyk, and George Voychak. The new church and adjoining rectory were constructed in 1981. The general contractor was Picone Construction Company and the architects were Harold Fenno and Frank Vacanti. The cornerstone of the church was blessed on March 22, 1981 by His Excellency Bishop Basil Losten of Stamford.
On April 21, 1989, the church name was legally and officially changed to St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Under the very capable spiritual and financial administration of Father Demetrius Laptuta, groundbreaking ceremonies for a new church hall took place on August 11, 1991. The main architect was Theodore Lownie of Hamilton, Houston, Lownie Architects LLC. Construction was completed in 1992, much to the delight and approval of all parishioners. The social hall was dedicated to the memory of Mr. Nick Ivancic, Mrs. Katherine Ivancic and Ms. Olga Slotiuk, who made the construction possible due to their very generous contributions. This church hall is one of the finest in Western New York area.
In 2002, the St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic parish celebrated its Centennial Anniversary. The centennial anniversary of the church’s founding was celebrated with Pontifical Liturgy lead by His Excellency Bishop Basil Losten of the Stamford Diocese. The liturgy was followed by a banquet and program of Ukrainian Christian heritage.
Over the years, the procurement of essential funds for renovations, improvements, acquisitions, and construction as described in our history must be, in great part, attributed to the efforts and contributions of the many volunteer women of the parish who have worked for approximately 50 years and continue to work in our parish kitchen to make pyrohy (pirogie) for sale to parishioners and to the general public. Metaphorically speaking, the foundations of many a Ukrainian Catholic Church and social hall throughout America were not built solely of concrete blocks, but also of dough, filled with cheese, potato, and sauerkraut!
Also, any mention of parish fundraising cannot omit and acknowledgment of the efforts and contributions of the women of the Ladies Guild which was organized in November of 1972. Alda Malast served as the first president. Others that followed her were: Mary Dicky, Lorraine Szczublewski Laura Youra, Helen Marko, Irene Hnatyk, Daria Seniw, Monaca Poliniak, Sandy Dorogi and Mary Dicky. The Ladies organized many of the parish fundraising events including the annual Christmas and Easter Bazaars, monthly coffee klatches, and holiday dinner meals. These traditions carry onto today by devoted, energetic parishioners. The annual Christmas and Easter Bazaars proceeds help sustain financial support for financial operating solvency of the parish in its religious missions, and activities and projects. On the first Sunday of every month, a coffee klatch is held after liturgy, affording the parishioners an opportunity to socialize, as well as to savor freshly brewed coffee and homemade baked goods.
Other annual parish events included the annual Chicken Barbecue which began in the 1980s. This event evolved into the much anticipated Ukrainian Festival, held in early September. of every year and well attended by family and friends of parishioners, as well as the general public in the surrounding area of Western New York and Southern Ontario, Canada.
Today, the church serves a variety of parishioners and worshipers of the Ukrainian Catholic Rite and the Byzantine Catholic Rite. Many of the Ukrainian Catholic parishioners include descendants of parishioners from the “early years” of the parish, post-World War 2 Ukrainian immigrants and their children and grandchildren, new recent Ukrainian immigrants, transplanted Ukrainian Americans, and Catholics who favor or are accustomed to Byzantine Catholic style of Divine Liturgy.