When I booked my recent trip back to Ohio, I initially didn't know that it was for Easter weekend. I was bummed to miss the Fifth Avenue Easter "parade," which has become one of my favorite events to photograph, and my family doesn't really have any solid Easter traditions beyond getting together to eat. However, when my Uncle mentioned recently that my grandma approves of eating at just two restaurants—Chinese Buffet and Cathedral Buffet—a light bulb went off. We could go to Cathedral Buffet for Easter brunch—a place that could not only feed us physically, but spiritually.
We aren't by any means a religious family, but I do worship at the altar of weird and Cathedral Buffet (and its parent organization, Ernest Angley Ministries) has fascinated me for years. Angley's interdenominational ministry was originally based southeast of Akron, but moved to Cuyahoga Falls in 1994, after purchasing a large complex formerly owned by televangelist Rex Humbard. The complex includes a large cathedral, television studios and banquet hall, which is home to the Cathedral Buffet.
When I was confirming that the buffet was open on Easter, I came across an entry on Roadside America specifically for the Cathedral Buffet and its Life of Christ displays. Formerly unbenownst to me, the basement of the buffet is home to thirteen miniature dioramas, described as "a three-dimensional experience for the whole family." Sculpted by Paul Cunningham, a self-taught artist from Nebraska, the dioramas depict "detailed scenes from the earthly life of our Lord."
The figures in the dioramas were sculpted from clay and then molded from plastic and carved by hand. The scenes feature realistic nature and material elements including rice paper flowers, linen clothing, and etched brass leaves. But the main reason why I was so excited to see the dioramas was the fact that "human fingernails were used on many of the figures to give the display a 'living' quality."
It turns out that only three out of probably a hundred figures actually have real human fingernails—as their toenails—as far as we could tell. I went for the fingernails, of course, but I have to admit that the displays are definitely something. They're not necessarily masterpieces, per se, but they're incredibly detailed and were obviously crafted with passion. Some of the figures are more skillfully rendered than others, and the style is a bit uneven but the overall effect is definitely worth the dollar we donated for admission.
I can't believe I lived in the town neighboring Cuyahoga Falls for 23 years of my life without ever hearing about the dioramas, but I'm so glad that I finally got the entire Cathedral Buffet experience. And it turns out that we couldn't have picked a better time to go—two days after Easter the Cathedral Buffet closed, presumably for good.
Ernest Angley Ministries has been involved in a number of scandals over the years, including allegations of sex abuse and even a murder involving two Cathedral Buffet workers. But it was a recent lawsuit and eventual judgement against the church for not paying its workers that was the buffet's ultimate downfall—Angley was ordered to pay nearly $400,000 in back wages and damages to former employees.
Officials from the church claim that "the restaurant always kept its prices low for families; it never made a profit; and the restaurant can’t run without volunteers." While the buffet's fate seems grim, I wonder what will become of the dioramas—and I still can't figure out exactly where they got all of those fingernails.