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Lewiston's Untold History - Stella Niagara Chapel & Its Miracles

by Zach Collister

After investigating and writing about the forgotten and unknown Cold War
gun battalion in Lewiston, I have decided to seek out more untold history,
or history not so well known to the local community or tourists. In 1976
Jimmy Carter referred to Lewiston as the "most historic square mile in
America." There is so much more to that statement than us locals may
know. One of these lost stories is that of the Chapel on the river at Stella
Niagara and it's miracles!
Stella Niagara as we know it today, came into existence in 1907 with the purchase of the
Frederick March Estate, of which the main house still exists today and is known as The Pottery. The
buyers? Sisters of St Francis of Penance who's existence dates back to 1835 in the Netherlands, with a
North American presence since 1874. Stella was a result of the need to expand in Western NY as well as
for the establishment of a school. Stella Niagara is named after a Latin hymn "Ave Maris Stella,"
meaning, hail star of the sea. The hymn is in honor of Mary Mother of God (with whom Stella was
dedicated to) and may also hold a double meaning as the Star of the Niagara as it was a grandiose
structure for its time and remains so
today along the Niagara River!
The Chapel itself was
originally a stone block structure,
said to predate the War of 1812. Its
use then is unknown, however it sits
on the site of the British Landing on
December 19, 1813 when they
invaded the United States. From this
point, Col. Murray lead troops north
to capture Fort Niagara before
signaling for a second landing to
head south and burn Lewiston to the ground. When the sisters purchased the property, also known as
"Five Mile Meadows" for its location on the Niagara River and its unique low lands along the river bank,
one sister decided to build a chapel in honor of the Sorrowful Mother. They decided to use the block
house as the main structure for the chapel. As the story goes, when Brother Joseph Stamen heard of this
idea to construct the Chapel, he decided to assign a Mr. Heusinger to the job. Heusinger suffered a
diabetic illness, however as he proceeded with converting this block house into a little chapel he started
feeling better. Low and behold on September 15th, the Feast of the Sorrowful Mother, Heusinger was
finished and was also reportedly cured! Was this truly a miracle
on the Niagara?
The history of this Chapel doesn't stop with its
construction. The Chapel has performed another miracle
decades later! In 1955 the Lower Niagara River experienced an
ice jam like no other. Ice jams occur usually in spring when
frozen water ways begin to melt and flow. With the
temperature swings during spring, ice flows would flow down
river freely and "jam" into thicker, still frozen sections of ice,

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causing a blockage. In the case of the Niagara


River, which is a north flowing river, the
southern water masses such as Lake Erie tend
to thaw prior to the colder waters on the
northern section of the river. As ice flows fell
over the Falls, they would accumulate. The
strong currents underneath the ice flows
would carry the ice down river. As it jams into
other ice it quickly grows until it eventually
forms an "ice bridge" connecting both shorelines. Today the ice boom controls this by restricting the
flow of ice until Lake Erie has thawed, usually by April.
In 1955, this was not the case as the ice boom wasn't developed until 1964. The Ice Jam of 1955
destroyed docks, boat houses, cottages and ripped through miles of shoreline on the Lower Niagara. In
fact this ice jam was so bad that Col. Wendell P. Trower of the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers from Chicago reported in a 1955 Niagara
Gazette article that he was "of the firm opinion that dynamiting nor
bombing will do any good," when asked about freeing up the ice. At
this time it was estimated that the ice was 30 to 40 feet below the
surface of the river and 20 to 30 feet above. At one point the ice
reached the same height as the 1938 Ice Jam that collapsed the
Honeymoon Bridge in Niagara Falls. Thousands of tourists on both
sides of the border flocked to the river banks to witness this natural
wonder. Amongst it all sat the Little Chapel.
The Chapel is mere feet from the river bank. Closer than many
of the structures already ruined upstream. Many feared the same fate
for the Chapel. By the time March hit, ice was already surrounding the
Chapel. The miracle was that the Sisters of St Francis had made their
way to the Chapel prior to the ice reaching it and had prayed for its protection and it just so happens the
ice stopped about a foot from the Chapel and went around the structure. It is hard to believe, but it is
true. The ice was around 30 feet at this time and there are few photos depicting this.
So far we have this Chapel that has seen the War of 1812, has survived the worst ice jam in
Niagara history and has supposedly been the site for two miracles, the diabetic cure and the ice jam
survival. Once again, the history doesn't stop in 1955. After surviving another ice jam in 1963 the nuns of
Stella decided to dedicate the Chapel as a Shrine to Our Lady of the Angels as thanks for answering their
prayers for the saving the Chapel. This is significant as a shrine is considered a place that is holy or
sacred and where one goes to pray. It is no longer a Chapel at this point. Also at this point, the nuns
have decided to get some renovations done and artwork installed depicting the miracle that took place
during the ice jam of 1955.

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The artist brought in to do the work was not


your ordinary artist. According to a 1964 Buffalo
Courier-Express article by Clare Allen, this artist was
recommended by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski of
Poland. His name, Joseph Slawinski & his assistant
Michael Baranowski, both professors of art at the
University of Warsaw. The form of art they practiced
was sgraffito, and Western NY, especially Lewiston's
Stella Niagara, is home to some of the only sgraffito
in the country! What is sgraffito you wonder? It is
the art form of plastering layers of different colored
cement on top of one another and then scratching
through the layers to the colors needed to create an
image or design (Figure 1). Slawinski and Baranowski
did a number of these at Stella, including the life size Last Supper behind the altar at Stella's main
chapel, a JFK Memorial (Figure 2), and artwork depicting Native Americans and St Francis (Figure 2). Odd
to think of a JFK memorial in Lewiston, however JFK was shot in November 1963 while Slawinski was
working on the Little Chapel and being deeply moved by this event, Slawinski erected the Peace
Memorial which contains the JFK sgraffito (Figure 3 & 4). The work performed on the shrine
encompasses the ceiling and walls.
The Little Chapel's artwork consists of four main depictions. The first mural shows "Our Lady of
Angels accompanied by two praying angels." This mural is located on the west wall behind the altar,
with stained glass windows on each side looking out into the River (Figure 5). The other two are much
larger and each take up the entire ceiling. The north ceiling is a mural of St. Francis surrounded by
priests and nuns with Stella in the background (Figure 5). The more colorful one, depicting the miracle of
the ice jam is on the south ceiling (Figure 6). This is my favorite as it depicts the Little Chapel along the
River during the ice jam, being protected by Our Lady of Angels. It includes praying angels by her side
and snowflakes falling from the sky. Although not the largest, this is the most colorful mural at Stella.
Slawinski ended up living in Buffalo the rest of his life after coming to Lewiston to work at Stella
Niagara. He went on to continue his work, often without an assistant throughout Western NY. He has
sgraffito at another Lewiston destination, the Basilica of Our Lady Fatima Shrine. He also has a colorful
mural on Buffalo Avenue depicting the Maid of the Mist (Figure 7). Other work is in Buffalo area
churches. He passed away in 1983.
The Little Chapel and the Stella Flats are now a nature preserve, thanks to the sale of the
property to the Western New York Land Conservancy. The Conservancy will open this land to the public,
which, according to their web-site, will include "walking trails, fishing access and a place to put a kayak
in the water," although its main objective is to restore critical wildlife habitats and to steward the
property for future generations to enjoy. The preserve is a peaceful place, surprisingly quiet, with
abundant waterfowl and other bird species as well as deer. It is known as one of the only areas of the
river where deer swim across from Canada. The preserve has the remains of an old dock from when
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Franciscan Sisters arrived via ferry, which provides perfect water entry for kayaks or spot for fishing. It is
also the site of other memorials and shrines for praying.
So, there you go, the unknown and rarely told story of the Little Chapel on the Niagara. So much
has happened here; the War of 1812 invasion, the miracle of diabetes being cured while the Chapel was
being constructed, the miracle of ice surrounding, but not destroying, the Chapel during the 1955 Ice
Jam, the survival of two more ice jams, the famous Slawinski sgraffito artworks, and the future of the
Chapel being preserved for generations to come with it now being a part of a land conservancy. What do
you think? Miracles or not? It would make sense to me that these were miracles, after all they took
place in Lewiston, God's little Heaven on Earth!

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Photographs
Figure 1

Figure 2

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Figure 3

Figure 4

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Figure 5

Figure 6

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Figure 7

Other Photos of the Little Chapel and Stella Flats

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Other Photos of the Little Chapel & Stella Flats Continued

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By - Zach Collister

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