On October 20, 1836, Joseph Batt, his wife Barbara, and their children left their homeland in Alsace-Lorraine and departed for America. According to historic records the Batt family booked passage on a ship named The Mary Ann. The ship set sail on November 11, 1836. On November 29th a significant occurrence took place, which had a direct bearing on the establishment of the Shrine of Maria Hilf Zu (the German words for Our Lady Help of Christians) and its subsequent establishment as a parish. On that day the ship encountered a tremendous storm of hurricane intensity, and was severly damaged. Joseph Batt, a man of deep faith, turned to our Blessed Mother, to safe-guard the voyage of his family. He invoked the name of Our Lady Help of Christians, Star of the Sea. Mr. Batt made a solemn promise to Our Lady that if he and his family arrived safely in America he would build a chapel in honor of the Blessed Mother of God. The storm subsided, and the ship drifted to Ireland, where it was repaired. The ship sailed again, and arrived in America on February 2, 1837, Candlemas Day - which is the Feast of the Purification of Mary.
It took Joseph Batt several years to begin to fulfill his solemn promise. This allowed time to establish himself financially, acquire the land, and very importantly to acclimate himself to the American culture and language. On July 17, 1852 his promise began to be realized. Bishop Timon granted permission for the construction of the Chapel, which was completed in 1853. From its very inception the Chapel saw a steady stream of pilgrims coming to venerate the Blessed Mother. The Pilgrimage to the Chapel in Cheektowaga had its origins inspired by the great Alsatian Pilgrimages of the village of Marienthal, Alsace. At Cheektowaga the first inclination to make the pilgrimage was prompted by the cholera epidemic in 1854. Medicine at that time did not have much to offer, so the pilgrims turned to the Blessed Mother for help and protection. These pilgrims were primarily Alsatians, Bavarians, Swiss, and Rhinelanders from Cheektowaga, Williamsville and Lancaster. Buffalo pilgrims soon joined them in this devotion to Mary.
In 1854 the Chapel was not yet established as a canonically erected parish. The Batt Family were members of Sts. Peter and Paul in Williamsville. In 1864, asking for divine intervention to end the Civil War, Fr. Joseph Zoegel, the Williamsville pastor, formally declared the journey to Our Lady Help of Christians Shrine a pilgrimage.
Pilgrims continued to come to the Chapel, now taking on an international flavor. The shrine was most revered by the German, Polish and Italian immigrants. It was a sacred place where they offered thanksgiving to Our Lady Help of Christians for their own safe passage to America. Here, too, the afflicted also sought relief from various trials and tribulations. In 1894, the Buffalo Courier Express called the Chapel the second Lourdes.
The turn of the century brought trolley service from Buffalo to the Chapel. In 1924 the service to Cheektowaga was discontinued. Service terminated at the city line. This was the beginning of the walking pilgrimage to the Chapel, with the Cheektowaga/Buffalo city line as the starting point. Many of the devout faithful walked from all parts of Buffalo. The largest recorded pilgrimage took place on V-J Day (August 15, 1945), which ended World War II. On this day the line of pilgrims extended along Genesee Street well into downtown Buffalo.
Two American saints figure prominently in the heritage of the Chapel. The stones used to enlarge the Chapel came from the Williamsville church where St. John Neumann was pastor. St. Frances Xavier (Mother) Cabrini made a pilgrimage to the Chapel early in the 20th century. Msgr. Nelson Baker, already designated "Servant of God" in the cause for his formal canonization, was always concerned about the Chapel and its continued growth. He also laid the corner stone for the Chapel school in 1924. Msgr. Baker adamantly opposed the proposal to demolish the Chapel and build a new church. He recognized that the small chapel was too precious and must be preserved forever. The original Chapel remains intact to this day.
Preserved it has been. During the early months of the Jubilee Year 2000, the parishioners and friends of the parish rallied with the pastor, Fr. Richard Jesionowski, to restore the Chapel. Much of its former decor was restored, using old photos submitted by long-time parishioners. There is a continuing effort to maintain and preserve this pearl as a place to honor Our Lady, and to worship her Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord.
Our Blessed Mother will not abandon us. She is, after all, Our Lady, Help of Christians!