Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — In the mid 1830s the Catholic Church in Western New York was still in its infancy. Not until the building of the Erie Canal did a substantial number of Catholics live in what is now Niagara and Erie counties. The Diocese of New York City encompassed all of New York State. St. Louis’ Church in Buffalo, founded by French and German Catholics, was considered the “mother church” of Western New York. Catholics living in outlying areas had no recourse when it came to worship. Many held prayer services in their homes, but without the benefit of a priest, Mass could not be said. In addition, baptisms, weddings and funerals could not be performed.
With a surge of German and Irish Catholics permanently settling here, their spiritual needs became a great concern to the church leadership headquartered downstate.
Meanwhile, John Neumann, a young seminarian in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was anxious to become a mission priest in the United States. When his request to serve the Diocese of Philadelphia was denied, he decided to travel to America even though he did not have an assignment anywhere. When he arrived in New York, he went to see Bishop Dubois, who immediately ordained him and sent him out as a mission priest to western New York.
Father Neumann left Albany on July 4, 1836, on an Erie Canal packet boat and arrived in Buffalo nine days later. After a brief stop in Buffalo to say Mass at St. Louis’ Church, he headed to Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Williamsville, where the present stone structure was under construction.
During his first year, Neumann walked, and later rode, circuit to North Bush (now Kenmore), Lancaster, Sheldon, Pendleton, Transit, Swormsville, Tonawanda, Niagara Falls and Batavia. He reluctantly learned to ride a horse after overcoming his fear of them.