Written on: January 3, 2014
It was quite cold at 8:30 a.m. on October 22, 2013 as nine people, dedicated to all that was Holy Angels Academy, gathered at the locked front entrance to watch workmen open the cornerstone of the building to retrieve the copper box placed within it on September 15, 1929. Anticipation swelled as the box came into view and grew when the box was found to be securely soldered shut. After twenty minutes of hard work with chisel and hammer, the opened box was handed to the four Grey Nuns present, Sister Mary Brendan Connors, past principal, and Sister Sheila Stone, both members of the Board of Trustees, Sister Karen Marie Voltz, completing her 36th year as faculty member at the academy, and Sister Mary Kathleen Duggan, past principal and retired archivist of D’Youville College. They were encircled by alumnae and Board of Trustee members, Pat Doyle, Ann Salter, and Maureen Maguire, Chair of the Board, Board of Trustee member, Bill Kraft, and former Board of Trustee member, Tony Bellia, recently retired from administration at Canisius College.
There was nothing in the 84 year old document box that was startling, unexpectedly revelatory, or surprising. But what was there vividly brought back that fifteenth of September in 1929 when a band of stalwart, hard-working, self-sacrificing Grey Nuns were looking forward so eagerly to occupying a stunning new building in which to educate “their girls.” First there were the articles, with pictures, in each of the three major newspapers in Buffalo, the Buffalo Times, the Courier Express, and the Catholic Union. The articles announced that this building “which will be ready for occupancy on January 1, 1930, will be one of the most completely equipped girls school in western New York.” It spoke of its classrooms, science labs, gymnasium/auditorium, cafeteria accommodating five hundred, its major music room accompanied by sound proof practice rooms, its art studio “which will receive the full benefit of an unobstructed north light.” They also gave a brief history of the academy from its 1861 foundation in a small house on Niagara Street to the 1872 building on Porter Avenue, almost destroyed by a terrible fire in 1877, to the planned expansion of 1907 when Bishop Colton intervened and urged the sisters to use the new wing on Prospect Avenue to found D’Youville College. In brief, the 1929 laying of the cornerstone of Holy Angels Academy became the occasion of an enthusiastic review for all of Buffalo of all that the Grey Nuns and their schools had done for the women of the city since their arrival from Ottawa in 1857.
Often when nuns wish to give concrete expression to some new objective in prayer, they use medals. These Grey Nuns of 1929 wished to surround their new building with protection and inspiration for their students, so in the cornerstone box are no fewer than 39 medals imploring the intercession and care of first, Our Lady, with 11 medals under so many of her titles, Our Lady of Victory, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, Our Lady of Grace (whose statue fronted their former home at D’Youville), Our Lady of Lourdes, the Immaculate Conception. These were followed, appropriately, by medals honoring the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph, and St. Anne. All in the family. Then recognition and appeal followed to the Holy Guardian Angels, the Holy Father, St. Pius XI, St. Peter, St. Jude, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, St. Anthony, and the then Venerable Marguerite, who was beatified in 1959 and canonized on Dec. 9, 1990 as St. Marguerite d’Youville. With this galaxy of protectors, it is not surprising that Holy Angels girls almost always felt secure at school, and were so often seen smiling and happy.
There is also in the box a very old reliquary displaying on one side an image of Our Lady with her arms outstretched protectively around Jesus as the Sacred Heart, while the other side is a barely visible relic surrounded by the names St. Felicita, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, St. Columban, and the phrase “the altar of St. Peter.” Continuing the theme of devotion to the Sacred Heart is another reliquary containing ashes of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, from the Monastery of the Visitation at Paray Le Monial, dated 1861. Noteworthy among the remaining relics are four commemorating the saint of the decade, the Little Flower, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. One is a small leather reliquary containing a relic of the saint and her picture. A second is a faded handmade scapular-like square, sewn in the Convent of Lisieux. It most likely contains cloth touched to the remains of Saint Therese. Third is a tiny piece of what might be a red rose, and finally, and most distinctively, is a small package of “earth taken from under the coffin of the Servant of God, S. Teresa of the Child Jesus on the day of exhumation, 6th September, 1910.” It is remarkable that these relics should be available to the Grey Nuns on September 15, 1929. The Little Flower was canonized May 17, 1925, only four years before the laying of the cornerstone. But the Carmelite Sisters, next door to them, were very aware of the big event going on next door since Bishop Turner had led the procession that preceded the blessing of the cornerstone, from the door of Carmel to the door of Holy Angels. It is extremely likely that the prioress of Carmel presented these then rare relics to the Grey Nuns in congratulation of their achievement and to welcome Carmel’s new neighbors. And there is no doubt that the prioress, Mother Mary Eliza of the Blessed Sacrament, coming from a Carmel in Mexico, would have relics of the Little Flower, for she herself in 1914 had received a great gift from her. In December of 1914, she and another Carmelite were brought before a firing squad in Mexico because they refused to give up their Carmelite vocations and leave their convent. The two knelt as the order was given to shoot and Mother quickly and silently offered this prayer, “Little Therese, if you are a saint as some people say you are, then deliver us, and I promise to found a Monastery in your honor.” Both nuns heard the discharge of the guns, sank to the ground and were left for dead. They later regained consciousness, and although there was blood on their clothes, they were completely unharmed. Six years later, the promise made to the Little Flower of Jesus was fulfilled when Mother Elias founded the discalced Carmelite Monastery of Buffalo, the monastery that shares an exterior wall with Holy Angels Academy. On May 17, 1925, the day St. Therese was canonized, this Carmel was officially dedicated to her, making it the first in the world to have the Little Flower as its titular saint. And the Grey Nuns, wanting to call down the blessings of the Little Flower on themselves and “their girls” carefully placed their relics of her in their cornerstone.
A scapular of the Apostolate of Prayer, accompanying prayers, and a small statue of Our Lady of Victory (Was it she who brought about all those sports victories?), completed the contents of the cornerstone, except for some currency, viz. a 1929 new one dollar bill, found to be valued at $40 today, and several coins, two US ten cent pieces, one dated 1881, the other 1927, one US five cent piece, dated 1906, and one Canadian quarter, depicting King Edward VII and dated 1905, and one bus token, along with an autographed listing of “Among Those Present” including William Turner, Bishop of Buffalo, Edmund Britt, Chancellor of the Diocese, the Oblate Fathers William Stanton and Leo Chambers, the pastor of St. Rose, Father George Crimmen and six other priests, Fathers Duffy, Weber, Nerth, Schreck, Laudenbach, and John P. Boland, and five laymen including one of the architects, Roswell E. Pfohl.
To mention the date of the new one dollar bill sounds a warning. The date was 1929. On September 4, 1929, the stock market began to fall. On October 29, 1929, Black Tuesday, the stock market crashed, instantly making millionaires penniless, and creating a 25% unemployment rate in the country. That rate was still 15% as late as 1940. Meanwhile the unsuspecting sisters, so proudly standing beside the cornerstone of their much needed new building on September 15, 1929, had just taken out a bank loan in the amount of $250,000. For many years following, students could afford very little tuition money. Very little if anything could be put toward the principle of this loan, but year after year the interest was faithfully paid, somehow. This 1929 loan was finally paid up completely in 1975. The Grey Nuns have never spoken of the anxieties, the self- sacrifices they experienced during those years. But the final speaker of the day the cornerstone was laid, Father William Stanton, O.M.I., Pastor of Holy Angels Church, seemed to foresee the future in recounting the past seventy years when the academy was on Porter Avenue as he said, “If those walls could speak, they would tell a story of unselfishness, of mortification, of trial, of courage that would touch us deeply….And you here today would ask me to tell the sisters how you love them; you would ask me to speak of your appreciation and gratitude.” He added that with the Bishop’s blessing of the cornerstone, there would go into it the good wishes of the friends of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, and into it too would go a “pledge given by these sisters to maintain the high ideals and traditions which have marked their work along with a guarantee that Christ’s mandate shall be carried out in favor of the young women who come to this building, a mandate to teach them goodness, and discipline, and knowledge.”
The cornerstone has indeed worked its magic over the past 84 years, and Father Stanton has been proven prophetic in his awareness of the love that would always exist in the halls of Holy Angels Academy. One very simple story illustrates this. In September of this year, a teacher in a small Catholic girls school in the Southtowns was meeting her new Latin class for the first time. As she stood to speak to them, she noticed one new girl, a transfer student, with her head down upon her desk and her hands clutching it. “May I have your attention,” she said. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the girl, raising her head so that the teacher saw the tears in her eyes. “It’s just that this is MY desk, a Holy Angels desk. I know it by the blue right here.” Stopping in the office after class, the teacher heard what she expected in answer to her question. “Yes, we did add to the desks in your room some we purchased at the Holy Angels Auction.”
The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, having given their all—the two remaining Grey Nuns on the faculty in 2013, have both reached retirement years— deeply regret that they do not have the resources that they had at the time of the 1929 laying of the cornerstone. There are no more teachers to send to continue the 152 year old apostolate to the young women of Buffalo. But at this difficult time the Grey Nuns are deeply comforted by the love and gratitude that surrounds them. And they have every confidence that their graduates, formed in the goodness, discipline, and knowledge that the sisters and their lay associates have shared with them over these many years, will make sure that the love of all that is the Holy Angels Academy spirit will live on through them from generation to generation.
Written by: Sister Mary Kathleen Duggan, GNSH, who was Principal of Holy Angels Academy from 1983—1995. She recently retired as Archivist of D’Youville College.