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St. Mary of the Assumption is a Roman Catholic parish of the Diocese of Buffalo, located in the Village of Lancaster, Erie County. Its members exceed 2,300 households, most from the Lancaster, Depew and Cheektowaga areas.
The first settlers came to the settlement that would become Lancaster – first called Cayuga Creek – in 1803. By 1808, merchants, grist and lumber mills were operating. Ahaz Luce, who opened the first general store in the settlement in 1810, was the original owner of the land known now as St. Mary’s Hill. New Englanders were Lancaster’s first settlers – with no Catholics among them, as Catholicism was not tolerated in New York State in colonial times. As late as 1784, there was not a single Catholic congregation in the state.
The first Catholics in Lancaster were immigrants from Germany – primarily from Alsace and Bavaria – in the 1820’s and 1830’s. In 1834, there were 15 Catholic families in Lancaster. They were ministered by Fr. Nicholas Mertz, founder of St. Louis Church, Buffalo. These families walked 11 miles to church each Sunday. Fr. Mertz soon realized that they needed a closer, more permanent spiritual home. Under his direction and with amazing foresight, these German families pooled their resources to purchase land for a church. They envisioned their new settlement like those in their homelands – and so they chose hilly land on the end of their village as the site of their new parish. The purchase price for the hill, which at the time was covered by a dense forest, was $80. Among those pioneer names of our parish were Ott, Meyer, Block, Uebelhoer, Fuchs, Gleiss, Zimmer, Wohl, Merge and Voegele.
St. John Neumann, a visiting priest, came to St. Mary’s from Bohemia. He was instrumental in the building of the first church on the hill, and celebrated Mass there once a month. He also established the first school, located at the corner of Transit Road and Broadway. The school was moved to the hill in 1842, with 30 pupils. The original school was a three-room building, with two rooms on the back for a priest residence. The first resident priest at St. Mary’s was Fr. Noethen, who celebrated daily Mass in a small log church on the hill. The first brick church was built in 1850 with local brick.
Shortly thereafter, an orphanage for boys was constructed on the hill during a cholera plague that swept the country. Three laywoman, who were sisters, were in charge of about 60 boys at the orphanage, which was called St. John’s Protectory. It remained in Lancaster for about 20 years and then moved to Lackawanna to become Fr. Baker Home.
During those early years, much work was to be done making the hill look like as it does today. The land west of the Church was purchased and ground leveling begun. Records tell of the toil and labor of the parishioners to root up stumps, bring in topsoil, and plant. In 1874, a new school was built on the site of the old orphanage. The school was staffed by the Miss Nardins until 1896, and then by the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis. Under the sisters’ guidance, the school grew to more than a thousand students, with 19 sisters on staff.
In 1889, a new brick church was dedicated. In 1903, a new, larger school building was constructed. In 1908, the present Rectory was completed and, in 1932, the Church was enlarged. Four years later, the Church’s stained glass windows, made in Innsbruck Austria, were installed.
1932 brought about a major renovation of St. Mary’s Church. In 1955, the administration of St. Mary’s High School was transferred to the Diocese of Buffalo and the school was moved to its current site on Laverack Avenue. Even with the availability of more space in the building, St. Mary’s Elementary outgrew the 1874 building, so the current school was built at the corner of Aurora and St. Joseph Streets in 1958.
A renovation of the interior of the church was completed in 1987, adding the present marble altar and ambo, as well as a uniquely designed baptistry which incorporates a pool suitable for baptisms by immersion.
In St. Mary’s long history, a significant number of parishioners have been ordained to the priesthood or entered the vowed religious life. More than 50 women have entered religious communities and more than 50 men have become priests. Still more have chosen formal education as deacons or lay ecclesial ministers, or have followed the call to married life, service to the community and humble service to one another. The parish remains a vibrant example of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the legacy of our ancestors, whose work we build upon.