Sean Kirst: At Our Lady of Hope, the global community will welcome the 40th Mass Mob as “one big family” | Local News

In a room behind the altar, 10-year-old Otim Joseph and his friend Christopher Soe showed no signs of nervousness. The two friends were set to portray disciples in front of the bustling pews of Notre Dame de l’Espoir Church on Lafayette Avenue, where Christopher’s older brother Elijah played the title role last Sunday in a dramatic interpretation of the tale “Doubting Thomas”.

A short play for children on “Doubting Thomas” during last Sunday’s mass at Notre-Dame de l’Espérance.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

Otim’s family is originally from South Sudan, while Christopher’s parents are refugees from Burma. They are part of a passionate congregation, made up mostly of New Americans, that electrifies the weekly 11 a.m. mass at the church, known as the Annunciation until its 2008 merger with Notre Dame de Lorette and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin.

Children would play as part of the Gospel reading. They knew their lines inside out, including a startled line of “That’s right!” when Elijah-as-Thomas, needing to see to believe, brushed aside the resurrection stories. A key player, however, had yet to arrive.

“Jesus isn’t here yet,” Christopher said, referring to Lay Wah Say, a teenage pal lined up for that big role who quickly showed up on time.

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Mass at Our Lady of Hope Hickey

Worshipers celebrate Mass last Sunday at Our Lady of Hope Church, where people from many nations gather in what their pastor describes as a cultural “unity”.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

I was at Notre-Dame de l’Espérance for first professional reasons, then deeply personal. Alan Oberst was one of the original organizers of Buffalo’s groundbreaking “Mass Mob,” a collective of regional Catholics with a sense of wonder who do a sort of tour of mass services in historic churches. Years ago, Oberst suggested that I might write a column at some point as the crowd prepared to do their part, just to let readers know they were invited.

The 40th gathering in mob history, taking place at Notre Dame de l’Espérance on Sunday, seemed like the right time. The group is hosted by Bishop Michael Fisher, who said in a statement that the Mass Mob encourages “congregants in Buffalo to experience a diversity of parish communities.” Founder and organizer Christopher Byrd said the original idea was “to shed some light on churches in the city with attendance issues”, while stressing how “these beautiful historic churches are an absolutely vital part of the fabric of the community”.

The visit to Notre-Dame de l’Espérance will certainly reinforce the second point – even if concern for attendance at this Mass is not a factor. Cheryl Walters, a church secretary raised in the neighborhood, said the parish includes around 450 families, many with roots in Burma, Congo, Sudan, Burundi, Tanzania, Eritrea and other country.

“These families,” Walters said, “they go to church.”

Mass at Our Lady of Hope Hickey

Faz Niyigaba, reader during a mass at the Notre-Dame de l’Espérance church, offers a reading.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

For a parish of the 21st century, this is not nothing. Byrd said Sunday’s Mass Mob, only the second major gathering for the group since the harshest days of the pandemic, involves high anticipation. The crowd – which has drawn from a few hundred people for a single mass to more than 1,000 – had been at Notre Dame de l’Espoir once before, in 2018, but attendance was affected by an ice storm.

The pastor, Reverend Felix Nyambe, is from Zambia and serves with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order whose primary purpose is to help those in greatest need. It hosts the Mass Mob in a 124-year-old church, designed to the finest detail by architect Albert Post.

Mass at Our Lady of Hope Hickey

Michael Maung, left, and Jenny Serniuk, associate director of the youth choir, practice before mass with parishioners last Sunday at Our Lady of Hope on the west side of Buffalo.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

Yet the real church, Nyambe said, is not about the stone walls, but about what happens inside, where refugees and immigrants from many nations – including many happy little children – gather every Sunday. for a jubilant service in many languages, with translations played on screens in front of the church with music from choral groups as varied as the St. Kizito Choir, singing in Kirundi.

“For me in Buffalo, in this church, the importance is the unity of so many people from so many cultures,” Nyambe said.

St. Kizito Choir

Vestine Mpawenayo, playing bongos, is co-director of the St. Kizito choir at Notre-Dame de l’Espérance.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

Now, a confession, but not in the strict sense: while working on this column, an impossible coincidence – or whatever you choose to call it – quickly amplified the connection. My late mother and father spent their teens and twenties on the West Side of Buffalo, and it wasn’t until I returned to Western New York to do this job that I learned, digging a little , where they were married.

My father, who spent much of his childhood at Father Baker’s orphanage, ended up on West Delavan Avenue, a few blocks from the church. He was living there when he met my mother, an orphan daughter of Scottish immigrants, who lived with an older brother on Perkins Place. She quickly converted to Catholicism and they took their vows at the Annunciation on May 2, 1942.

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This means that the Sunday mass at Notre-Dame de l’Espérance, chosen by chance by the Mass Mob, is exactly one day before the 80and anniversary of my parents’ wedding in this same church. The parish also played a central role in the most difficult passage of their lives: when my sister Sharon died as a toddler in 1944, she was buried at the Annunciation.

So here is. I felt it when I walked in there to learn a truth that I know would be important to my parents: the church that was a pivot in their lives is not a sad song about the past glory of Buffalo and what she was.

Instead, he’s triumphant – and absolutely bouncy.

“The Annunciation has always been a good church, but this one? It’s just amazing,” said Tom Regensdorfer, 80, a Trico and Postal Service retiree who married his wife Phyllis there 58 years ago. “All these cultures! What it is, really, is one big family.

Mass at Our Lady of Hope Hickey

Pan Kyaing, who fled a government attack on his Karen community in Burma, has become a familiar pillar of the congregation of Our Lady of Hope.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

Regendsdorfer was at the entrance of the church, volunteering side-by-side with Pan Kyaing of the Karen community, who serves as chief usher and has a legendary stature at the church. Associate Pastor Ron Thaler, 79, a fixture in the parish since the merger, remembers when the place was in danger of closing and the arrival of the Oblates represented a last chance.

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Sister Kathleen Dougherty expected this phase of her career to involve peace and quiet. She had already retired three times from teaching jobs in South Carolina and Western New York. In 2015, she moved to the new St. Mary’s Center on Buffalo’s West Side, where her fellow Sisters of St. Mary de Namur needed someone who could play the

Kyaing, who said he was referred to Our Lady of Hope years ago by Sister Mary McCarrick, then director of Catholic Charities, was one of the first new Americans to walk through the front door. His arrival symbolized a turning point, and his faith, heart and patience now help define the place. Recalling how a civil war destroyed his Burmese village, Kyaing said finding a church in Buffalo was as important for what he needed as food and water in his new town.

“God led me here,” said Kyaing, whose eight siblings have been scattered around the world by their ordeals and who lost a sibling, Andrew, to Covid-19. After each day of work at Wegmans, Kyaing said he was dedicated to his family and his church. At Notre Dame de l’Espérance, he describes his mission as creating a “welcoming community” to bring comfort and belong to so many people fleeing violence, hunger and despair.

Mass at Our Lady of Hope Hickey

Nininahazwe Agnes, left, and Glorian Htoo sing for a parish youth choir before mass last Sunday at Our Lady of Hope.

John Hickey/Buffalo News

That perspective is shared by Nininahazwe Agnes, 20, a SUNY Buffalo State junior. She moved to Buffalo at the age of 7 after traveling with her family from a refugee camp in Tanzania. From day one, she says, going to church in her new community was not an obligation but an act of gratitude.

“They took us under their wing here,” said Agnes, a longtime member of a multicultural youth choir overseen by John Panepinto and Jenny Serniuk. She spoke with appreciation of years of field trips and children’s theater performances. One of his favorite times is an annual Epiphany celebration that involves not just three kings but five or six or more, each representing the many nationalities within the church.

Parishioners will welcome this weekend’s Mass Mob as they welcome all visitors. There will be hymns, prayers and a peace sign offered in a way that needs no words, a message of jubilant warmth from that old church that my parents would no doubt love to hear:

Our Lady of Hope, every day, is more than worthy of its name.

Photos: Mass at Our Lady of Hope

Sean Kirst is a columnist at the Buffalo News. Email him at

James C. Tibbs