St. Mary's scaffolding

photo submitted

St Mary's of the Angels on West Henley St. under construction 100 years ago

OLEAN — Standing before parishioners of St. Mary of the Angels Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Eve 1912, the Rev. Edward J. Rengel made an important announcement — there were plans to build a bigger church.

Construction of the 150-foot-tall, Gothic-style building — the congregation’s third and current home — spanned the following three years until its opening in fall 1915.

Now, after the building has stood as a pillar of faith and hope in the community for a century, members of the congregation are preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary.

“This church has an incredible history,” said the Rev. Gregory Dobson, the church’s pastor. “In the last century, no matter what was going on in the world, there’s always been stability here, stability in its leadership and loyalty and devotion of the people who come here.”

To commemorate the occasion, St. Mary’s is celebrating a special Mass at 11:30 a.m. Sept. 13. Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo will preside over the service. Immediately after the Mass, the congregation is holding a reception at Old Library Events.

“Our celebration will be very parish-based,” Dobson said. “We’ll have a special procession with representatives of all the good things we do here and a special choir performing. This celebration is for our community and the community outside our church.”

St. Mary’s 100th anniversary observance will continue Sept. 20, with a concert for families by Carrie Ford, a Christian musician from Buffalo, and her family.

At 3 p.m. Sept. 27, St. Mary’s is hosting a concert by the Southern Tier Symphony. The concert also kicks off the symphony’s next concert season.

The congregation’s roots date back to before Olean was officially incorporated as a city.

Around 1850, there were about 40 Catholics in the Olean area. Weekly Masses were held in homes of the area’s first settlers, with visiting priests from other nearby towns officiating the services.

The Catholic population started to increase in 1851 after the railroad opened. Under the direction of the Rev. Joseph McKenna, the area’s Catholics started collecting donations from train travelers and railroad workers to purchase land where they would build a church. Their efforts were successful — they raised $300 buy a property and built a tiny church close to where St. Mary’s now stands.

As more settlers moved to what would become the city of Olean, the parish grew — so much so that by 1858, the early St. Mary’s congregation began construction of its second church. On Sept. 19, 1958, Father Pamphilus, a Franciscan friar leading the congregation, laid the first cornerstone of the building at the same property where St. Mary’s now stands. The church was blessed and dedicated at St. Mary of the Angels on Oct. 21, 1860.

The building saw its first major renovation in late 1870s, when the Rev. John J. Hamel, the congregation’s pastor, had the building expanded to hold 900 people. A decade later, he oversaw construction of the congregation’s school — where some 300 students could attend each year — and a convent.

Hamel led the church until his death in 1912. Rengel, who then oversaw Holy Name of Mary Roman Catholic Church in Ellicottville, was assigned to take his place.

“While (Rengel) was pastor in Ellicottville, the church there burnt down, so it had to be rebuilt,” Dobson said. “When he came to Olean and saw the church, the second church, which was also wooden, he feared it would burn down, too. Rengel, at Christmas Mass in 1913, announced he would go to Europe and visit churches there to get ideas because he wanted to build a new church.”

Rengel spent several months abroad visiting churches. Upon his return he hired Emile Uhlrich, a noted Belgian architect who designed churches throughout the Midwest, to design the building that St. Mary’s now calls home. Uhlrich also later designed Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.

To make way for the church’s third building — a $250,000 endeavor — Rengel had the existing church moved across the street from where St. Mary’s now stands at the corner of South Union and West Henley streets. Construction of third church began Nov. 2, 1913, with Bishop Charles Colton of the Diocese of Buffalo laying the cornerstone. St. Mary’s parishioners continued to worship in the congregation’s second church.

Construction was completed May 15, 1915, and the new building was blessed and officially opened by the Rev. Nelson Baker on Sept. 25 of that year. The final component of the church, its stained glass windows, were installed in 1919, the same year the building was consecrated by Bishop William Turner of the Buffalo diocese.

In the decades the followed, the congregation continued its mission of serving God and the community. The building underwent several redecorations and minor renovations. The St. Mary’s community also built a school next door, which now serves as its Parish Life Center.

Now, the church is in the midst of a $2 million renovation project. In recent years, elements of the building have been modernized or expanded. Currently, the painting inside the church is being restored.

“We’re bringing back the beauty this church had 100 years ago,” Dobson said.

For Dobson, the church’s 100th anniversary is a testament to all those who have walked through its doors to worship and celebrate.

“The people here treasure this church and the building,” he said. “But what we cherish much more so than the building itself are the people who come here and what we do out of it to build up the community. The building could burn down, but St. Mary’s will still exist.”

(Contact City Editor Christopher Michel at Follow him on Twitter, @OTHChris)