Faith, Family and Friendship

July 10, 2003
Faith, Family and Friendship
By Howie Mansfield
St. John the Evangelist Church in Syracuse, the former cathedral, celebrates 150 years

Life has definitely changed for St. John the Evangelist Parish in Syracuse over the last 150 years. Gone are the days when girls from St. John’s Catholic Academy talked with boys over the fence at Christian Brothers Academy; when cars were double-parked in front of St. John the Evangelist Church and a police officer needed to direct traffic; when basketball teams in the Parochial League, after a hard-fought game walked down to the Waldorf for apple pie and ice cream. Today, parishioners drive from outlying suburbs to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and a majority of the parishioners are Vietnamese.

Father Neal Quartier, administrator of St. John the Evangelist Church, said the parish has responded to societal changes and thrived in the process. “This is a small but vibrant, wonderfully welcoming and open community,” Father Quartier said. “We have wonderful bi-cultural liturgies. The Vietnamese have been a wonderful contribution to our parish. I absolutely love it here. The people are amazing — the combination of the Vietnamese and American cultures make it a wonderful place to minister.”

Father Thomas Fitzpatrick, former pastor of St. John’s, was instrumental in bringing the Southeast Asian community to the parish. The diocese’s Asian Apostolate, directed by Sister Judith Howley, CSJ, is based at St. John’s. The church also has a priest, Father Martin T. Ban, who serves the Asian community. “Father Fitzpatrick had a town meeting, in the late 1970’s. The church was in dire straights. But the influx of Southeast Asian refugees brought the parish together and gave it a focal point,” said Dick Salanger, parishioner of St. John’s who attended the church’s Catholic Academy until it closed in 1968. “The Vietnamese bring value to our parish. It has come alive again. We owe a great debt to the Vietnamese. They have become an important part of the St. John’s family.”

Not many churches in the diocese are older than St. John the Evangelist. The diocese’s first cathedral, St. John the Evangelist Church has long been a landmark of the city’s northside since its founding in 1852. Ground was broken on the church in 1853 and the first Mass was celebrated by Father John McMenomy, St. John’s first pastor. Bishop Patrick Ludden, the first bishop of Syracuse, named St. John the Evangelist the diocesan cathedral in 1887 when the diocese was founded.

St. John the Evangelist Church is recognizable in the Syracuse skyline with its picturesque steeple from Gothic architecture. The church is on the corner of State and Willow Streets, within a short walk of St. Joseph’s Hospital. Interstate 690’s ramp to Interstate 81 North provides the current backdrop to the church. Bill Hunter, who attended the St. John’s Catholic Academy until 1945 when he was called away to World War II, said the church has always been home. His father, William Hunter Sr., devoted much time to his church. “My dad was known as Mr. St. John’s,” Hunter said. “But he was only one of many parishioners that gave their all for this parish.” Even though Hunter is a parishioner at Assumption Church, his allegiance to St. John’s is a strong one. “My family’s history is in this church. I had two brothers and three sisters all graduate from here,” he said. “A lot of us were from Eastwood. Some of us would hitch hike down here every morning. All we had to do was get to the corner of Cook and James, and we knew we would get to class on time.”

Mary Dixon, a 1947 graduate of St. John’s Catholic Academy, said coming to St. John the Evangelist was “the greatest decision” she made. “I was here for four years and I loved everyone here. I live in the village of Camillus now and I’m still a member. I won’t ever leave this church,” said Dixon. “I still have friends from almost every parochial school in the city. Some of them are coming to the festival.”

Salanger said the old Parochial League was the “glue” that held the community together. Hunter said the Parochial League was considered “The League” in Onondaga County. “Everyone knew everyone else. You were almost marked by what school you were from,” Hunter said. “But after games, the two teams would get together. It was a very spirited rivalry among the schools.”

Loretta Donlon, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist Church, also has deep family ties to the parish. “My family here goes back to the 1800’s,” she said. “My parents were married here. I remember when my mother died; she was the oldest parishioner in the church at the time. Msgr. Robert Davern, who was here then, showed me where my mother was baptized, received her first communion, was confirmed and was married. It was quite a touching moment.”

Donlon said St. John’s always reflects on its history, but especially in a special anniversary year. “You get a chance to reflect on those before us who left a rich heritage for the future,” Donlon said. “Yes, one feels connected to the church, but more to the people within. During a landmark year, you think about it a little bit more. You get to go back to the beginning and see where the parish came from.” Janet Franz, parishioner and chairperson of the church’s anniversary committee, is a 1958 graduate of St. John’s Catholic Academy. Franz said when she came back to the church after college, she was looking for a strong spiritual home. Franz found that by working with the church’s women her faith grew. “The women showed us everything. It was like a ritual they were passing down to the next generation,” she said.

The church began its year-long festivities with an opening Mass on May 4, celebrated by Bishop James Moynihan. On July 26, the 150th Anniversary Festival will be held at Cole Muffler Court at the New York State Fairgrounds in Geddes from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Entrance is at Gate 2. Food and beverages will be served throughout the festival, and with musical entertainment, a raffle, group pictures and door prizes will also be featured. The cost of the festival is $30. A 150th Anniversary Mass will be held on Oct. 4, celebrated by Bishop Thomas Costello, and will be followed by a dinner. For more information on both events, contact Janet Franz at (315) 652-1636.

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