(By Chris Clemens) In the Fall of 2013 I began to see rumblings on the internet of a movement in Buffalo calling themselves the “Buffalo Mass Mob”. A creative interpretation of a “Flash Mob”, the idea was generally the same but with a social and civic responsibility. The idea was a response to the concern that a number of Buffalo’s landmark churches, who once were filled to capacity each week, were beginning to see attendance dwindle. After decades of attendance at some churches tapering so low that the Diocese ultimately decided to close the doors for good (and in some cases even raze the buildings entirely), some Buffaloians called themselves to raise up for the good of the community and sprang to action.
Coming to the rescue of these aging, antique architectural gems is the brand new technology of social media. The marriage of the two is most likely something the Catholic Church didn’t see coming, but now appears to be reaping the rewards of a dedicated youth who follow and ‘like’ each other on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare and, probably Pinterest, LinkedIn, each other’s blogs, Snapchat…..yadda yadda…Now, thanks to each of those communication tools and a slurry of local, national and even international press, the movement has gained traction and sprung similar happenings across the country.
The concept is surprisingly simple: The organizers choose a location that is in need of support. The first Buffalo event at St. Adalbert’s was chosen, the next couple have been by way of the organizers choosing four locations, and letting the public decide by way of a voting system set up on their website. The second city to set up shop for a Mass Mob was Rochester. While other cities appear to be exclusively Catholic, the Rochester organizers are branching out a bit to include other faiths and religions, in hopes that doing so will provide a platform for interfaith unity and community growth for the city. Thus far, Rochester organizers have chosen the location by way of sites’ interest in being involved and availability, but have said the voting system could be implemented soon. Cleveland was the third city, and held their first Mass Mob at St. Casimir’s the same day as Buffalo’s Third, on March 23. Following has been New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, Columbus, Wilmington and Covington.
Once a location is chosen, then a date is chosen. After everyone has been made aware of the whereabouts and the dates and times, a flurry of social media and word of mouth stirs an excitement for people to show up. Some come because they’ve never seen the inside of a particular site, some come because they’re dragged there, some come because they went there as a child, and haven’t been back in ages. That’s precisely the reason I got from someone I spoke with while walking in to the third Buffalo Mass Mob event at St. John Kanty’s Roman Catholic Church on Sunday, March 23.
We happened to park next to one another, which was blocks from the church, and it was the nearest we could get. We walked together and he said, “Would you look at this crowd?? There hasn’t been this many people in this section of Broadway in decades!” Looking around at the abandoned storefronts and peeling facades instantly proved him correct. It was once a proud Polish neighborhood, built by the sweat equity of those who jumped off the boat and settled in a new land to create a better life. Now, St. John Kanty lay surrounded by facades with broken windows, trash in the street gutters and spray painted buildings. On this day, passing all of those were hundreds upon hundreds of people who received the call to action via their iPhones or Facebook messages.
Mass was at 10:30a and due to some nasty weather along the thruway, I made it just about 10:26a and found that one of the only seats left was next to one of the only familiar faces in the crowd. I joined Danielle Huber, one of the Buffalo Mass Mob organizers and together we marvelled at the mob surrounding us. Prior to that morning, Luke and I attended the second Mass Mob, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and took some time to visit with all four of the organizers. I have been coy about it until now, but you’ve dedicated yourself to reading and have earned the right to know that I am one of the organizers of the Rochester Mass Mob. Inspired by wisdom and creativity, ROC Mass Mob is grateful to have had a chance to pick the brains of the Buffalo crew.
St. John Kanty Roman Catholic Church was first consecrated in November of 1892. Just two years later it opened a school with six staff overseeing the education of 325 students. While the church celebrated a vibrant parish, it would suffer a fire in both 1948 and then again in 1955, the latter of which rang three alarms. In the late 1960’s the neighborhood began its slow regeneration, and the church was forced to close the school in 1968. Though the size of the parish would diminish year after year, in 2007 it would celebrate a bitter-sweet merger with the parish of St. Adalbert’s Basilica. The Diocese of Buffalo determined that St. Adalbert’s dwindling parish couldn’t sustain the costs of maintaining a building like St. Adalbert’s and ordered it closed. Soon thereafter, a group would come to it’s rescue and find that the church had once been made a Basilica and couldn’t actually be closed. Though it’s a confusing story that continues to this day to unfold, the parish from St. Adalbert’s still fights to keep its doors open, but most weeks joins the pews at St. John Kanty. With the two groups under one roof, the nave that typically seats 1,500 has plenty of room for the average 70 people in weekly attendance.
The morning of the Buffalo Mass Mob III, ushers whirled back and forth to try and find people a spot here and a spot there so everyone could sit. The excitement rose as people reveled at the stained glass (all of which was designed and installed by a local Buffalo studio), the mural work, architecture and most notably, the size of the crowd, and the photographers and news camera crews there to capture the mob’s dedication to celebrating its heritage.
After mass ended I was chatting with another Buffalo organizer, Greg Witul, and the same man who parked near me came up and said, “Hey Rochester! Pretty neat huh??” and continued on his way. After just a few steps, he stopped himself and came back to speak with Greg and I. He said, “Ya know, my grandfather fought in WWII..” and he paused and looked away while he seemed to search for the story. While getting a little bit choked up, he told us that while on leave back here in Buffalo, his grandfather walked in to a midnight mass right there in St. John Kanty and saw the woman for the first time who later would become his wife, and this man’s beloved grandmother. He smiled, seemingly pleased to have been able to share a part of his life with a couple of strangers, who had come together to celebrate a church that once was a beacon of community and national heritage, and then he went on his way without another word.
While hundreds of people snapped pictures on their smartphones of the church, taking “selfies” and capturing the splendor of such a grand site, others moved on to the coffee hour and bought up homemade pierogies. In addition to some great foodstuffs, they no doubt connected with people from other parishes, cities, states, and even other religions. There’s no doubt that the MassMob movement has captured the attention of people everywhere, and those people surely are looking to celebrate with one another in person. Just send them a tweet or a text and let them know where they should show up and when!
Chris Clemens is a Rochester, NY resident who is 50% of the team responsible for Exploring The Burned Over District, a blog about exploring the history of spirituality in Upstate New York.