OLEAN, NY—St. Mary of the Angels Church recently added another chapter to its already-rich history: Pope Francis named the church a minor basilica.
The pope's decision makes St. Mary of the Angels the third church in the Diocese of Buffalo and the 83rd nationwide to earn the distinction of minor basilica. The other two in the diocese are Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in Lackawanna and the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston. The designation “major basilica” is reserved for the four highest-ranking Roman Catholic establishments in Rome.
“It is a great honor,” said the Rev. Gregory Dobson, the pastor at St. Mary of the Angels. “They usually name basilicas in big metropolitan areas. Olean is a little out-of-the-way place. I think that was part of the appeal.”
The pope signed the decree on Feb. 14, and the Diocese of Buffalo made the official public announcement on March 17. The documentation will be framed in protective glass, according to Dobson.
To be labeled a basilica, which means “noble house,” members of a church’s staff must first submit an application responding to 119 pertinent questions from the Vatican, all of which are written out in Latin. The Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, a particular arm of the Vatican assigned by the pope to evaluate the applications, takes the quality of a church’s artistic and architectural offerings, its historical relevance and its selection of relics into account.
Dobson, 68, proposed the idea of applying for the honor amidst his plans for retirement.
“I thought that on my watch, I’d at least give it a shot,” said Dobson, who has served as the church’s pastor since January 1997.
Jennifer Kane, the communications director for St. Mary of the Angels, oversaw the year-long collection of information for the application process. Four photographers assisted by using drones and more standard photography to take interior and exterior pictures of the church.
The Rev. David Flood, OFM, a lecturer of Franciscan studies at St. Bonaventure University, translated the answers into Latin before the application was submitted to Bishop Richard Malone and later the Vatican in Spring 2016.
In August 2016, the Vatican sent back follow-up questions, and Kane added an eight-page appendix to the revised submission.
“It’s a very complicated process, as it should be,” said Kane, who became a parishioner in the early 1980s and assumed her current role in May 2016.
Kane, 55, explained that she had paged through a Mormon database to find decades worth of articles about the church, such as news of its sermons.
The Rev. Dominic Monti, OFM, a professor of Franciscan studies and former interim president at St. Bonaventure, provided the church with details of its history that were addressed in the books “Medieval Francis in Modern America: The Story of Eighty Years, 1855-1935” by Adalbert Callahan and “The First Bonaventure Men” by Walter Hammon.
According to the St. Mary of the Angels website, since its blessing and opening in 1860, the church experiences included the departure of church members during times of war and structural problems with the roof and steeples in the late 1980s. Throughout its history, the church has been the site of baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals. On several occasions in the early 1940s, famed theologian Thomas Merton prayed in one of the church’s corners and went to confession.
Among the aesthetic features of the 102-year-old building Kane needed to determine for the application were the dimensions of the church’s Munich-style stained glass windows, sanctuary and altar.
Kane also described the church’s relics, which include the interred remains of its first two pastors, Rev. John Hamel and Monsignor Edward Rengel, as well as certified remnants of the True Cross.
“It’s such a rewarding experience to make these discoveries,” said Kane.
The application also shared how the church helps the surrounding area. For example, the church annually sponsors a Christmas Day dinner. About 300 of the 900 meals prepared are served in the dining hall in the lower level of the church; 600 are home delivered by parishioners throughout Olean and neighboring towns.
“It all paints a picture,” said Kane. “You see a trajectory of a growing, lively faith community over the history of this parish.”
As a minor basilica, St. Mary of the Angels must carry two insignia: a tintinnabulum and a papal ombrellino, to signify readiness for a visit from the pope. For such an occasion, the tintinnabulum, which is a small gold bell mounted on a pole, would be used in a procession down the aisle. The ombrellino, a partially opened, scarlet-and-gold-striped umbrella, would be used to provide shade for the pope.
The church plans to celebrate its recognition as a basilica by holding a special, by-reservation-only inaugural Mass on June 29.
Kane said she believes the church’s new designation will strengthen its influence for the future.
“I see it really solidifying the dignity and importance of the church in this section of the United States,” said Kane. “It provides an anchor of the faith in this region, and with this status, it will continue to be so.”