May 20-27, 2004
Bringing History to Life
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Chuck Wainwright
Author Tells the Story of the Oldest Church in the Diocese
UTICA — Ray Schultz had plans after his retirement and they included chronicling the history of his beloved parish, Historic Old St. John’s in the heart of Utica. His book, The Story of Historic Old St. John’s and Its People, is completed and on sale now at the Utica Catholic Bookstore on Genesee Street.
The church was founded in 1819 in what was at that time the Albany Diocese. It is the fourth oldest church in New York State and the oldest in Central and Western New York, Schultz said. And he should know — he spent seven years researching and writing the book. He insists the most difficult part was typing and he leaves the impression that the rest of work was tethered with love.
St. John’s was financed by two brothers, John and Nicholas Devereaux, wealthy Irish immigrants who made their money in the dry goods business. They were helped along by the smaller contributions of about 30 other members of the congregation. What began as a dream for them in 1819 was completed in 1821 as a wooden structure. The cornerstone for the present church was laid in 1869. John Devereaux was elected mayor of Utica in 1840, an honor to the people of his parish.
With much of his research attributed to the helpfulness of the Daughters of Charity, Schultz was able to trace the beginnings of an orphanage which the sisters founded near the church in the early 1800s. Schultz said all of Utica’s leading citizens attended St. John’s. Folks used to travel from all over Central New York to attend. “The first trustees were from Rochester, Syracuse, Johnstown, from all over Central New York,” Schultz said.
Schultz’s chapters include plenty of information on the people of the parish over the years as well. Readers will no doubt enjoy reminiscing and also reading about people of the not-so-distant past and the present like Angela Nassar, the church’s gifted organist; Father John Buehler, the church’s current pastor; parish council members and Eucharistic ministers. Schultz left nothing undone.
A sizable undertaking, Schultz is happy to have completed the history of his parish. He worked for the Social Security Administration for nearly 40 years and when he retired he also worked to build the Options program for retired individuals at Mohawk Valley Community College. His dream to write the book was one that weighed on his heart. “There had never been a complete history of Old St. John’s. Today I can say I accomplished everything on my list,” Schutlz said with a smile. He presented a copy of his book to Bishop James Moynihan after it was completed and ready to distribute. The bishop was very impressed by the detail and history of the parish. Sister Mary Rose Noonan, CSJ, is director of communications for the Albany Province of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She helped Schultz by proofreading his manuscript. “When Ray asked me to proofread the history, I was pleased because Ray and Bernadette [his wife] have been such an integral part of the Catholic Church in Utica for as long as I can remember,” Sister Mary Rose said. “I was expecting an outline-type history of Utica’s first parish. However, as I began reading, I was captivated because Ray has a great writing style — a unique combination of relating well-researched historic facts with a storyteller’s talent for making those details interesting.”
In his book Schultz recalls parishioners who impressed him by their fidelity to daily Mass. He writes of early altar servers and friends from the parish. “I recall what a treat it was when Joe [Bagiackas] would invite me for a hamburger and a hot chocolate at his father’s luncheonette. This would occur after we were playing in the school yard or after serving evening Benediction in the church,” Schultz wrote. St. John’s today is still in downtown Utica but the church’s demographics has changed from the booming years when manufacturing jobs and immigrant families who worked on the Erie Canal were around. Today it serves a number of immigrant families just as it did all those years ago. Schultz thinks those families today help to keep his beloved church alive. The church is working with St. Mary of Mt. Carmel and St. Francis de Sales to determine how to best serve the needs of the people in the community.
Schultz’s book is a labor of love that those who have any connection to area would enjoy reading. Readers may not know every name mentioned, but they will surely find glimpses of people they know in its pages.