In 1617, Josef Calasanz founded the independent Piarist Order of the Catholic Church, which was dedicated to education. Three hundred and fifty years later, the Piarist priests living in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Graycliff house in Derby, New York, commissioned a mural by artist Józef Sławiński (1905-1983) to honor their sainted founder. Unfortunately, financial pressures forced the priests to sell Graycliff in 1999. When the house was acquired for preservation, the mural was slated for demolition since it was not part of Wright’s original design.
To create the mural, Sławiński used four layers of colored concrete weighing 18 tons to create his 12-foot by 18-foot sgraffito tribute to St. Calasanz. The mural’s preservation posed enormous challenges, literally and figuratively, but by 2003 the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo, headed by Peter Gessner, raised enough money to move the mural to its current location on the Buffalo State campus.
A Polish émigré who arrived in the U.S. in 1964, Sławiński was a professor of art at Buffalo State College and created works for numerous churches in the Western New York area. For the Calasanctius mural, he used a Byzantine style to express both a metaphorical and supernatural tribute to the founder of the oldest order of clerics devoted to education. St. Calasanz dedicated his life to establishing free schools for the poor, which taught both ecclesiastical and secular subjects.
In 1951, the Piarists (officially called the Order of Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools) bought Graycliff from the Martin family who used the lakeside property as a summer home until a reversal of fortune forced them to sell. The Piarist fathers used the home as a headquarters and school and added a chapel and dormitory in addition to the Sławiński mural. When Frank Lloyd Wright once visited unexpectedly to show off his architectural masterpiece to some students, he was horrified by the additions and modifications. He offered to return with new designs for the chapel and dorm, but died before he could do so.
Ironically, while the mural survives as a result of herculean efforts and robust fundraising, the Piarist school and educational vision of St. Calasanz no longer exist in Buffalo.
Know Before You Go
The mural is prominently displayed outside the E.H. Butler Library on the Buffalo State campus.