Life at Lourdes

Feb. 5-11, 2004
Life at Lourdes
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Parish embraces the future while remembering the past

UTICA — “Our Lady of Lourdes Church will become for you and your children a school of faith, a refuge for hope and a furnace for charity.” Msgr. J.S.M. Lynch, founder of Our Lady of Lourdes Church delivered these words to the congregation on June 27, 1920 at the dedication of the expanded church. Almost 85 years later, they continue to ring true.

While the population and demographics of the parish varies from one decade to the next, the commitment of the parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes does not. The parish is solid, energetic and charitable and offers a strong Christian foundation to the people of South Utica. As Msgr. Lynch proclaimed, Our Lady of Lourdes is a tribute to the past and a pledge for the future. In 1915, Msgr. Lynch felt the time had come to organize a Sunday school for the children of South Utica and he appointed his assistant, Father James Collins, to the task. Aided by the Daughters of Charity of St. John’s Orphanage, Father Collins opened a Sunday school at the corner of Barton Avenue and Genesee Street in Oct. 1915. The first class had 58 children in attendance, but the rapid growth of Catholic families to the area necessitated the building of a larger church.

An addition was added to the Sunday school building and on Feb. 3, 1918, the first Mass was offered in the little chapel that could seat 100 parishioners. Each Sunday saw an increase in parishioners and in April 1919, the Catholics of South Utica learned that Father Collins would become the first pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. Father Collins celebrated his first Mass as pastor in the little chapel on Palm Sunday, April 13, 1919. Two hundred and forty seven families were parishioners at that time. Currently, there are between 1,300 and 1,400 families registered in the parish. Michael McGuirl has been a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes for more than 50 years and remembers attending Mass in the little chapel on Barton Street. “I’ve known all of the pastors all the way back to Father Collins,” said McGuirl. “We started out in that very small church on Barton Street and had to have many of the Masses over at the school because we outgrew the chapel. Our Lady of Lourdes was the only Catholic church in South Utica at the time,” he said. McGuirl also remembers when Father Joseph May was appointed pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1959. He assumed the tasks of completing Father Collins’ plans for building a church, a school addition and the convent. Bishop Walter A. Forey dedicated the new church on Nov. 30, 1968.

Among the many changes that McGuirl has witnessed over the years, one that he is particularly proud of is the excellent education offered at Our Lady of Lourdes School. The school is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. “The original school was built in the 1920s and run by the Daughters of Charity,” said McGuirl. “When they left, Carol Polito took over and developed a tremendous faculty, most of which are lay persons.” McGuirl said that another big change that has taken place in his 50 years as a parishioner is the number of lay people who are now active in a variety of ministries. “We used to have three assistant priests and a pastor,” said McGuirl. “Now we have only one priest who has to do it all. The lay people play a large part in assisting our pastor,” he said. McGuirl was instrumental in helping Msgr. William Donovan, who served at Our Lady of Lourdes from 1994 to 1997, develop a social service program at the parish. McGuirl has a master’s degree in social services, served as Commissioner of Social Services for Oneida County and also held the position of Deputy County Executor. He is also a member of the parish council. McGuirl put his expertise to work and helped create parish programs that offer marriage counseling, psychological counseling, AIDS counseling, legal services, financial services, nursing home placement and the friendly visitors program. Of all of the programs offered, McGuirl said he is the most proud of the friendly visitors program.

In addition to acting as Eucharistic ministers and lectors, the parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes volunteer their time to visit the homebound and those in nursing homes and hospitals. “To give you an example of the commitment of our parishioners, Alice McShea is an 81-year-old woman who brings the Eucharist to the homebound, visits the frail and ailing at hospitals and nursing homes and buys groceries for those who cannot get out,” said McGuirl. Rosemary Kelly is also a member of the friendly visitors program as well as a Eucharist minister. She has also been a parishioner at Our Lady of Lourdes for 50 years. “So many elderly are cheered when someone just says ‘hello,’ or ‘can I do something for you?’” said Kelly. “I sit and chat with them and bring them Jesus,” she said.

Kelly has watched the make-up of the congregation change over the years. What started out as mostly an Irish population has now become more ethnically diverse. “The parish changes as the jobs in the area change,” said Kelly. “South Utica used to be a knitting mill town and then GE had a large presence here.” While Kelly said that the demographics of the church have changed, it’s important to remember that God is in any parish that one goes to. Father Joseph Salerno said that Our Lady of Lourdes has always been a very large, vibrant parish with a strong Irish tradition. That, he says, has been a challenge for him because of his own Italian nationality and growing up and being assigned to St. Mary’s of Mount Carmel in Utica. “It challenges me to have a greater sensitivity to the traditions of each family in the parish,” said Father Salerno. “It’s important for me to be sensitive to their needs, especially at weddings and funerals and other ceremonies. But, no matter how we express it, it is our Catholic heritage that brings us together,” he said.

This is Father Salerno’s second assignment at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. He served as associate pastor from 1985 to 1990 and returned as pastor in 2002. “The parish has gone through a lot of changes,” he said. “When I was here as associate pastor, there were two other associates and one pastor.” Father Salerno said that while he is the only priest in residence, he is blessed to have a deacon and three women religious on staff as well as many people who volunteer in both pastoral ministry and administrative ministry. “We are the only Catholic parish in South Utica,” said Father Salerno. “We are hopeful about our future here and what it will hold. We will be a strong part of the future of the Catholic Church in Utica,” he said.

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