By Bill Wolcott
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
The lights of St. Mary’s are out and have been out since the Roman Catholic Church became an oratory by a Diocese of Buffalo dictate.
The decision to turn on the lights of the steeple, which is referred to as the city’s second icon, is up to the Rev. Joseph Vatter, pastor of nearby All Saints church.
Vatter has said he wants the St. Mary’s parishioners to join the merged parish before the lights go on. According to the diocese, it’s a decision made at the parish level. Vatter has not returned calls this week.
Residents, including Mayor Michael Tucker, have inquired about the lights and are interested in seeing them turned back on.
Since the merger, All Saints is responsible for three properties, St. Joseph’s Oratory, St. Mary’s and All Saints — which was St. Patrick’s.
Former St. Mary’s parishioners have offered to pay the electric bill for the lights, but Vatter has returned the checks.
Many of St. Mary’s Lockport parishioners followed the Rev. Gary Kibler to St. Mary’s of Swormville. After the Lockport church was forced to close its doors, Kibler said weekend Masses at the church on Transit Road which is about 20 minutes away.
Kibler has since become the administrator of St. Mary’s of the Lake in Hamburg, pinch-hitting for the pastor who is ill.
Kibler, who celebrated his 40th anniversary as a priest, was pastor of the Lockport church for 11 years. During that time, the parish grew, even after the bishop ordered St. Mary’s be merged into All Saints in 2007.
“I understand the frustration of the people who have not registered at All Saints, but it’s really time to move on,” Kibler said this week. “Make some peace. It has to start with leadership. ... For most people who have roots in Lockport, it doesn’t matter who the priest is.”
After St. Mary’s was named an oratory, the Vatican changed the diocese dictate. St. Mary’s would not close, but be an adjunct to All Saints. However, regular Masses have not been scheduled for the church on the Big Bridge, and the lights are out.
Kibler noted that virtually every picture of the city includes St. Mary’s overlooking the locks.
“It’s beyond St. Mary’s parish,” Kibler said. “People who come to town and are lost see the lights. It establishes goodwill. It’s a symbol of hope.”
While the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department does not use the steeple as a landmark, the lights can be used as a guide for Mercy Flight landings at the Lockport Municipal Building.
Mike Ulrich, a trustee at St. Mary’s, attends All Saints while leading the appeal to the Vatican to reopen the church.
“I wish they were turned on. They light up downtown,” he said of the steeple lights. “I talked to Father Vatter. They (All Saints) are not giving us any leeway.”
Ulrich offered to pay for the lights, which he said would cost an estimated $20 to $25 a month.
“I even sent him a check,” Ulrich said. “The parish council denied it.”
The last Mass at St. Mary’s was on Christmas and for a funeral. Ulrich estimated that only 25 families have joined All Saints from St. Mary’s.
St. Mary’s appeal, which is being handled by Philip Gray of Professional Canonical Services, has reverted back to the Congregation of Clergy and is expected to be heard by the Apostolic Signatura in the Vatican.
“This is being dragged out even further. They aren’t siding in with the diocese at all,” Ulrich said. “We hope at least to have weekend Masses.”
We are waiting and they are at All Saints ...They might get more people to All Saints if the lights were turned on. It’s the Christian thing to do. Turn the lights on. It’s unfortunate the way it’s being handled.”
Ulrich added that the light issue is not entirely up to Vatter. It’s the parish council.
Bernie Winter, the former chairman of St. Mary’s Pastoral Council, has been disappointed by the turn of events. His family hasn’t decided on a new parish, but goes to Mass based on the needs for that weekend.
“I’m not happy about it”, Winter said of the lights. “It’s the opposite approach of the Bible. If they are fishers of men, then turn on lights rather than wait for people to join. Turning on lights would be a good move in the right direction. ... I think it’s more council people who run the parish there.”
Winter, who once lived in Amherst, now makes his home in Wrights Corners.
“A lot of people were hurt, but a number of us are waiting for decision from Rome,” he concluded. “The parish family made everything. Father Kibler did an outstanding job. It would be nice to see Masses at St. Mary’s.”
The St. Mary’s community still keeps its connections and plans a picnic in August at Spring Lake Winery.
Contact reporter Bill Wolcott at 439-9222, ext. 6246.