Alumni Stories

Mary Palmeri Holland, ’70: Preserving a Religious Legacy

Over the centuries, European immigrants left their homelands to make better lives for themselves in America. Here, they found new homes and established communities around the churches they built, which were adorned with the things that reminded them of the places they had left behind.

Today, Mary Palmeri Holland, ’70, is celebrating the work of these talented artists and craftsmen at the Buffalo Religious Arts Center, a gallery she established in 2008 to collect and preserve Buffalo’s immigrant religious and cultural heritage.

“The impetus for this was in 2007,” she says. “I saw an article in the Buffalo News — it was a big two-page article on all the churches that were closing — and I decided I would visit each of them before they closed.”

During these visits, Mary noticed the beautiful religious art and realized that it would be lost once the building was closed by the Catholic church. “Nobody was trying to protect this religious art and save it for future generations,” she says. Inspired by the movie The Rape of Europa, which documented how the European people in World War II hid their artwork to safeguard it from the Nazis, Mary decided to do what she could to save the artwork and keep it in Western New York.

Her project found a home in the former St.Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church in the Black Rock section of Buffalo. From the moment Mary walked into the Roman basilica-style church and saw the hand-painted murals on the walls, she was determined to save the church as well.

“I saw this church and I felt that we cannot let it deteriorate,” she says. “One year after the heat is turned off in a building like this, the murals would show significant cracks and flaking paint.”

So she purchased the property and began converting the church into Xavier Hall, one of the few collections of religious art to be housed in a former church. The parish also included a school and a rectory, which Mary plans to use for additional display space.

When Mary bought the church, it already contained an impressive collection of religious art — in addition to the murals, which were painted in the Beuronese style developed by a community of Benedictine monks in Germany in the late 19th century, there were stained glass windows depicting the stations of the cross, the only ones of their kind in the Buffalo area. “These windows are especially notable because they were made in Munich, Germany, by F.X. Zettler in 1911,” Mary notes.

As Mary began collecting the church relics, statues and stained glass windows from the more than 70 churches that were closing, she realized that they had something in common — they were all made by Europeans and they expressed the various religious decorative styles of the countries from which the artists came. Her work took on an additional purpose: to share the heritage of the immigrant people and convey a sense of who they were.

“The more items that come in, the more history we see, the more the stories come through the door,” she says. In the past few years, Mary has acquired more than 100 artifacts from churches and houses of worship of all denominations, including statues, altar furnishings, linens, a collection of dresses for the Infant of Prague, tapestries, and Stations of the Cross in a variety of materials. There is also a brass replica of the Ten Commandments and a Star of David donated by Temple Beth El.

The center opened for visitors in 2009 and since then more than 1,200 people have come through its doors. The facility has also been available for concerts and weddings. It’s been a labor of love for Mary, whose background in architecture and fondness for old buildings and early European art has given her a unique appreciation for these churches and their religious artifacts. Her hope is that others recognize the exceptional quality and variety of the pieces and that the center becomes a destination for people from around the country.

“People go all over Europe to see churches, ”she says, “and if they come here they’ll be surprised at what we have. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy the art. You can just enjoy the beauty.”

Listen to Mary talk about her work with the Buffalo Religious Ats Center here.

Learn more about the Buffalo Religious Arts Centerand see some of the artwork here.