Shrine at 847 Seneca Street, Buffalo, NY
Here in 1950, Joseph Battaglia, a barber in the downtown Hydraulics neighborhood of Buffalo, reported witnessing a glowing vision of the Blessed Mother next to his barbershop. He had a marble statue of Mary made, arranged a coronation function in 1951, and personally built a brick shrine to preserve the message of world peace she had instructed him to spread. His next-door home, and the barbershop were demolished in the late 1960’s, and before his elderly departure from the neighborhood, he asked an across-the-street neighbor to look after the shrine. In the 1980’s, the city of Buffalo intended to demolish the shrine, but advocates succeeded in having it spared while Battaglia’s former property around it became a snow-emergency parking lot.
|Joe Battaglia in his barbershop ca early 1920’s. The little boys are holding a newspaper that headlines, “Harding President Elect”||*detail of one of the papers Joe Battaglia displayed in the shrine, ca 1951|
In 1992, a frail Helen Grek, the first designated caretaker of the shrine, simply handed her next-door-neighbor Louis Batista (above), who lives directly across from the shrine in a former cigar store turned metal-molding business, the keys to the shrine. Louis, 65 and now mostly retired from his business, recalls that the mirroring painting of Mary on slate was (presumably) returned to the shrine many years after it alone survived a fire in a local school building. Its owner appeared one day, late in life, to arrange for its rightful return, and related the miraculous story of its survival, “everything else around it burned”– as if Joe Battaglia’s glowing vision saw into the future as well… Although Louis has seen no evidence that the painting had been housed in the shrine prior to his arrival, the matching dress, gesture, and scale all seem to strongly suggest that the painting was always intended to help manifest the vision. It appears pretty clearly to be the painting seen behind Joe Battaglia in the photo from 1951 (*see above) — which Louis thinks may have been taken inside the barbershop…
Happening through this mixed residential/industrial neighborhood in the 1980’s while my mother was living in the Buffalo area, I’ve since had a snapshot of this curious shrine in my Buffalo locations notebook. After moving about two hours away in the 2000’s, I returned and found that it was still there– looking well cared for, and my lengthy hanging-around curiosity brought Louis out to wish me greetings. He had long since replaced the original wood-framed window/door with metal and security glass at his own considerable expense. The city had agreed to carve the shrine and its footprint out of the surrounding parking lot, but Louis had to continue paying the maintenance and electrical costs. Periodically, anonymous passers by drop notes and small donations through a mail slot in the door– sometimes covering the monthly lighting bill. The shrine faces north, and for me, Mary only glows briefly in the early morning sunlight near the summer solstice, so I arranged with Louis that I would return on “a” clear day in mid-June to photograph the shrine. The night lights would be off in the morning, and Louis gave me his number and permission to call as I was approaching from the highway– at around 6:30 AM. It took me four visits over about three weeks to get 8×10 camera shots I was happy with, and each time a cheerful bathrobe-clad Louis would come out as I arrived, open the door, climb into the shrine, and add a little electricity to the vision– a shrine-keepers work is never done!
Notes deposited in the shrine tell of prayers made and answered with miracles, and Louis believes that being the keeper of the shrine has brought great blessings into his life. He anticipates that in quite a few years he’ll be handing the keys over to a new caretaker. He had called about a year ago concerned that the city was in the process of selling the property to a private developer. It appears that through the Buffalo Common Council President’s office, the transfer was made on the condition that the shrine would be protected– although the new owner would not take over any maintenance expenses. Louis reports a good, friendly relationship, and full support from the current owner, but its unclear from what I’ve seen, if the preservation agreement is legally binding and permanent.
I had stopped by a week prior to make arrangements with Louis for this new photo/video session, and when I arrived the shrine happened to have visitors from New Hampshire– they were friends with descendants of Joe Battaglia, and were on their way to New York City and Off-Broadway to see, “Miracle on South Division Street:” a fictional play based around Buffalo-native playwright Tom Dudzick’s memories of the Seneca Street shrine while growing-up a few blocks away in the 1950’s. Having driven considerably out of their way to visit the shrine ahead of time in person, they enjoyed the extra bonus of being introduced to Louis (although there is no ‘Louis character’ in the play), and he was very pleased to find out about the play– and that the message of the shrine is spreading…