Bishop Edward U. Kmiec spoke about his legacy in Buffalo on the 7th anniversary of his arrival here.
Bishop Edward U. Kmiec admits he didn’t know much about Buffalo when he was assigned here in 2004, but it has been a historic seven years for both him and the diocese as he prepares for retirement. Bishop Kmiec met with the Western New York Catholic for an hour-long interview as he reflects on his career here in Buffalo.
“Everybody has the impression of Buffalo being in a very cold area of the country with a lot of snow,” Bishop Kmiec said of his initial thoughts about Buffalo, seven years to the day of when he first flew in on Aug. 11, 2004. “I did know that it had a large Polish constituency because I’m of Polish ethnicity. I didn’t know about the economy distress here. When I got the phone call, I didn’t even know how many Catholics were here. I didn’t have any concept of what was here pastorally and economically.”
While he was familiar with the Catholic framework of a Northeastern city, based on his life in Trenton, N.J., where he grew up and eventually became an auxiliary bishop, Bishop Kmiec was coming to Buffalo from a very different scene. As the bishop of Nashville, Bishop Kmiec was in charge of a diocese that was growing – not shrinking as the Diocese of Buffalo has done over the past few decades.
“What happens when you come to a new place, you get a sense of the welcome,” the bishop said. “You get a chance to look at what it physically looks like. I was here three days, and you really become acquainted with the people you’re going to work with, and some of the public. A nice welcome made a big difference. I came home and had a sense of comfort. By the time I went back to Nashville, I had an idea of what it would be like.”
While the people of Buffalo were supportive and excited about the new bishop, Bishop Kmiec also learned how economically distressed the area is – especially when his first trip to Niagara Falls painted a city with two very different sides. However, none of his superiors in the Catholic hierarchy gave the bishop any direction on what to do in Buffalo.
“There was nothing like an agenda,” Bishop Kmiec said. “No conversation about it at all, so I came here with a blank slate. I said, ‘Folks, I’m new here. I’m not a messiah, but I’ll do my best. Thanks for welcoming me.’ When I got here, that’s when the real learning process began, finding out what might be the pastoral needs of the diocese.”
One of the biggest needs was to restructure the diocese, as declining population, Mass attendance and financial resources made it difficult to keep various churches open. Those were the seeds that eventually grew into the Journey in Faith and Grace, a diocesanwide parish reconfiguration that became controversial with many local Catholics.
“You try to discern the needs and directions,” the bishop said of the line of thinking. “People sort of gave me a blank check. After a few months, the priests particularly had great concern over the future. It came from other people, but primarily from (the priests) that there had to be some kind of reconfiguration. We can better configure ourselves to the kind of size of our resources. The demographics had greatly changed; parishes that have been very strong in the past have shrunk in (Mass) attendance; people had moved and finances were also in question. Very quickly, we saw what might be needed.”
Over the course of several years, the diocese merged and closed 274 churches into 164 parishes. Bishop Kmiec called on his priests to help the diocese through these changes.
“I challenged the priests,” the bishop said. “They stood up and said yes. I’m not sure people realized the ramifications. I don’t think I did, how many parishes it would be. I knew it had to be something substantial. As I look back, I think we accomplished what we really needed to do. Even though we don’t have the priests and they’re aging, we can still staff the parishes. We have lay involvement. As painful as it was, in the long run there is consensus that we did what we needed to do.”
Bishop Kmiec himself was the public face of the closings and mergers, and many local Catholics blamed him for the changes. A few parishes appealed the diocesan decisions to the Vatican and are targeted the bishop in a public campaign to get him to change his mind. When asked how much of a personal toll it took on him, Bishop Kmiec empathized with those angry with him.
“I understood it was hard on the people,” he said. “They got angry, disappointed. Some of those sentiments may be everlasting, but I understood their feelings. It could have been a situation where you come here and do nothing. I was already 68 years old, and knew I could retire in seven years. I thought there needed to be a longer period of (acquainting myself with the diocese), but it happened pretty quickly because the people were willing. You didn’t have to sell them.
“We had a lot of help. The people who facilitated the meetings were on the front line more than I was. We didn’t dodge anything and tried to deal with everything up front, but decisions were made. Once we made the decisions, we tried to follow through. I take some pride in it, and thank the people who worked with me, that we followed through with it. If nothing had been done, in the future it would have been all the worse.”
Bishop Kmiec agreed that the Journey in Faith and Grace is the most important initiative during his time in Buffalo.
“In retrospect, it was the biggest thing we did because it touched every part of the diocese,” he said. “This was not a unique situation. What happened in Buffalo is happening all over the Northeast (United States). I’m grateful to God, the people and all involved, that it was able to be carried out.”
Another issue affecting the diocese that appears more pastoral than the number crunching of restructuring is how to attract fallen away Catholics, according to Bishop Kmiec.
“Our big concern is that our current society is being very secularized,” he said. “We know there are a lot of people who are Catholic who left the Church, for various reasons (like) alienation or some personal reason. We want to bring our people home. People get swept up in our culture, like family activities and so many other things. Everybody has a lot to do, and sometimes things get a higher priority than the actual practice of the faith.”
The bishop does admit that the clergy sexual abuse scandals have put the Catholic Church in a negative light for many followers, which led to decreased Mass attendance.
“There were a lot of people who were outright scandalized,” Bishop Kmiec said. “It was a very sad episode in the history of the Church. It’s on your mind because you’re always concerned about it, but fortunately, even before I came here, many good processes were in place. In the diocese, there was always a very good response system.”
Bishop Kmiec also had his hand in various administrative duties, such as monitoring the Catholic Health system of hospitals and care facilities. He credits his predecessor, Archbishop Henry J. Mansell, with establishing the system.
“We never had anything like this (in Nashville). I quickly became familiar with it and understood, from my perspective. It’s wonderful to have Catholic hospitals. What we’re doing here is carrying out the mission of the Church.”
One of the biggest issues Bishop Kmiec had to deal with for Catholic Health was saving St. Joseph Hospital in Cheektowaga, as the facility was ordered to be closed by a state committee. Catholic Health officials eventually negotiated a deal that would keep the facility open under the umbrella of Buffalo’s Sisters of Charity Hospital.
“We had a great concern because of (St. Joseph’s) location, and we invested money into improving those facilities. My role is to really preserve this institution. (Catholic Health President Joseph McDonald) said he borrowed from what we did in the Journey in Faith and Grace where we would merge a parish, but have two campuses. That’s practically the model for this – we have Sisters Hospital, and St. Joe’s is another campus. It didn’t happen easily, but I give credit to Mr. McDonald and we were very supportive of bringing it all together. Thank God it’s still functioning in that way.”
Bishop Kmiec also commented on Catholic Charities, the diocesan social service agency that has had difficulty meeting its fundraising goals until this year, when it raised more than $10.5 million during its annual appeal.
“(Catholic Charities) has a great footprint with how it deals with the people,” the bishop said. “The scope of their activities impressed me right away. (They have) wonderful management, staffing and services. Part of the problem was the economy. In a place like Buffalo, the economy is way down, and then we had a national (economic) disaster. People lost jobs and started tightening their belts. Even some of our corporate sponsors felt they had to draw back.”
One of the bishop’s latest initiatives is a strategic plan for Catholic education called, “Faith in Tomorrow.” The goal is to strengthen local Catholic schools for the next generation of students. The program was unveiled in June.
“We recognize that providing Catholic education is one of our biggest challenges,” the bishop said. “We don’t receive assistance from the government, at least for helping tuition, vouchers or tax benefits. We do know that trying to address the needs of the schools is a challenge, to try to keep the school system working in a good condition.”
One of the changes Bishop Kmiec helped initiate in Catholic education was to establish the Catholic School Advisory Council to help administrators. Educators are also researching area demographics and projections to better plan for the future.
“Families are not as large as they were before,” Bishop Kmiec said. “People make different priorities. They don’t send their kids to Catholic schools. We’re very concerned about parish schools and whether they can sustain it. It might have to be a different structure where we have regional schools.”
The diocese plans to continue working with its foundation and outside agencies like the BISON Fund to help families afford tuition to Catholic schools through scholarships and other assistance.
“My concern is to try and educate as many (children) as we possibly can,” Bishop Kmiec said. “(We) have to somehow invest into tuition assistance with the help of the foundation. Thousands of youngsters have benefited from that.”
One of Bishop Kmiec’s proudest achievements in Buffalo is helping the cause for the canonization of Msgr. Nelson Baker, a local legend from Lackawanna who led the charge to build Our Lady of Victory Basilica. In January, the Vatican declared Venerable Nelson Baker as a man with heroic virtue, and Bishop Kmiec said Rome is still investigating a possible miracle case that would put the Lackawanna priest in line for beatification.
“Hopefully, that miracle is still being considered,” the bishop said. “There are a lot of proposals that are quickly discarded. What’s good about it is that we still have a possibility of a miracle that may not necessarily be in the distant future, but in the relatively short future; he may be declared ‘Blessed.’ We are still very strongly pursuing that.”
The bishop said the current case “has passed many tests.
“It was a thrill to me to be in a diocese with a potential saint.”
Following his official retirement, Bishop Kmiec intends to split time here and in New Jersey, where he still has family to this day. Assuming his health holds up, the bishop hopes to help parish priests with confirmations and even weekend Masses.
When asked about what he hopes his legacy will be, Bishop Kmiec pointed to his motto, “Charity and Service.”
“I tried to be that very much – loving and serving the Church as best as I can with what talents I have,” he said. “I feel in the long run, I’m very happy with my time here. I felt that we achieved much. My thought is that my legacy is with God.”
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