Call to alms

For 150 years, Assumption’s Franciscans have adapted to serve those in need

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

calltoalm When the Franciscan friars first came to Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Syracuse 150 years ago, their focus was on educating the children in the neighborhood.

Immigrant families, mostly from Germany, filled the homes around the church as well as the pews inside it.

But as the years have passed, the neighborhood on North Salina Street has changed. Families have drained from the city to settle in the suburbs.

Now, many of those who come to the church for help struggle with poverty, mental illness or addictions.

“In this neighborhood, things have gotten worse,” said Father John Ruffo, OFM Conv. “This used to be a solidly middle-class neighborhood and now it’s not.”

Through all of these changes, the huge brick building that covers nearly a block in this neighborhood has been a constant presence. So, too, has the ministry of the Franciscans — only the parameters of that ministry have changed.

“For most of its time, the main mission and focus of the parish was serving the school,” said Brother Joseph Frietag, OFM Conv.

But the elementary and high school at Assumption closed over 20 years ago, and the friars now offer services including a free food pantry, sandwich program, medical clinic and legal clinic.

“We still educate people, because what happens is people can come here and learn about services for the poor,” Brother Joseph said. The church hosts classes and organizations who come to help make sandwiches or lend a hand in the medical center.

The sandwich program serves around 300 a day at the start of the month, and twice that many by the end of the month once the food stamps start running out.

The sandwich program has been a part of the ministry at Assumption since the early 1900s. “Back when the trains used to run through the streets of Syracuse, the sisters used to make them for what were then-called the hobos,” Brother Joseph said.

Now, the sandwich program is the only one  in Onondaga County. It operates seven days a week.

Brother Joseph said it is a good service to offer people for whom a bag of groceries may prove a challenge. He said some people may not have the ability to follow cooking directions, may not have a home to bring the food to, or may not have basic kitchen amenities like a can opener or a stove. Workers at the food pantry will ask those who come in what they have at home. “And they might say, ‘Okay, I have a spoon, a bowl, a fork and a microwave.’”

Assumption also organizes a program that helps people in the neighborhood to gain basic construction skills in their Green Train program. Assumption’s North Side Collaboratory mission has teamed up with other organizations, including St. Joseph’s Hospital and Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Counties BOCES, to lead an ongoing series of three-month training programs for people who live in the neighborhood.

In the program, students learn how to apply environmentally sensitive “green” building skills as they renovate one of the buildings located in the neighborhood. With the training and certification they receive from this program, these Green Train graduates are better situated to find stable jobs.

“It’s nice to give someone a sandwich, but it’s even better if you can get someone out of poverty,” Brother Joseph said. “This could be the way to a better life.”

But as these workers learn strategies for making new buildings more energy-efficient, the vast series of buildings at Assumption were built over a century before these strategies were even devised. With its large windows and high ceilings, Assumption has heating bills that can reach $8,000 a month in the winter.

“We’re building rich and cash poor,” Father John said. Because the buildings are all connected, some even with underground tunnels, the possibility of selling off a building or two simply doesn’t exist. “We’re trying to rethink how we can use these buildings,” Father John said. Many of the buildings are now dedicated to the friars’ ministry to the poor.

“Our big thing was, ‘What do you do if what you’ve always done isn’t needed anymore?’”  Brother Joseph said. He said their ministry transformed to suit the changing needs of the neighborhood, but it brings about personal transformations as well.

Brother Joseph told the story of St. Francis’s spiritual transformation after embracing the leper that had once repulsed him. “There are plenty of lepers today that are lepers in different ways,” Brother Joseph said. “There are people who repulse you and people who repulse me, but when you embrace that leper you can see a transformation in your own life.”

From Oct. 16 through Oct. 18, the Franciscan friars will celebrate their 150th year of ministry at Assumption.

The celebration will include an alumni basketball game between Assumption and St. John the Baptist followed by a dance on Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m.

The parish’s annual sauerbraten dinner will take place on Saturday, Oct. 17 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Bishop Robert J. Cunningham will celebrate a Mass at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 18. Father Justin Biase, OFM Conv., provincial for the order, will be the homilist.

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