April 28 -May 4
VOL 124 NO. 16
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Franciscans reclaim north-side building, make a difference in the neighborhood
Eight years ago, the Franciscan brotherhood operating around the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on the north side of Syracuse was faced with a dilemma.
Dwindling enrollment had forced the closure of Assumption Academy and diminished attendance at the church had forced the religious community to reconsider its commitment to the area.
“I think our perception was that we had to make a choice as to whether we were going to heavily invest here and saying ‘Well we’re going to stay,’ or we’re going to end up closing this church,” said Father Canice Connors, OFM, Conv. “We had a radical choice to make eight years ago. It was either going to go one way or the other. We were going to say there’s not enough parishioners here to justify us staying, or we’re really going to put everything in to try and change our presence and that’s what we chose to do.”
The Franciscan Collaborative Ministries’ (FCM) determined campaign to reclaim the north side produced another victory recognized Friday, April 22 as it celebrated the opening of Saint Clare Gardens, an apartment complex in the very same structure that once reared the parish’s students. Several local officials as well as the friars, sisters and residents of the building, attended the event.
Among those in attendance were Friar Phil Kelly, OFM, Conv.; Father Justin Biase, OFM, Conv.; Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll; Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro; Virginia Carmody (representing the office of U.S. Congressman James Walsh); Chuck Murphy (representing the office of New York State Senator John A. DeFransisco); Oswego County National Bank Vice President Jolene Haskell; Sister Patricia Schofield, OSF; and Father Canice.
With Friar Kelly acting as master of ceremonies, each dignitary spoke in turn, praising FCM for its endeavors on the north side and at Saint Clare Gardens in particular.
The neighborhood surrounding the building (previously called Academy Courts Apartments) had fallen into disrepair as drug dealers and addicts had begun to assert themselves, according to the residents and friars.
“[It was] a war zone,” said resident Darrell Caldwell, adding that non-residents from the surrounding neighborhood were given free reign within the building.
Caldwell had moved into the building while it was still under previous management.
“People who didn’t live in the building were just coming in and trashing it. You know, they were just in and out selling drugs and causing chaos for the people who live here and pay rent here,” he said. “Now it’s a drug free zone. You don’t even see them out there anymore.”
The Franciscans installed newer, brighter lights on the building’s façade and replaced its outdated locks with a new electronic-key system. They also placed security cameras throughout the building. Friar Phil said that any problem can be traced to its source efficiently and since FCM took over, there has been only one problem.
“They’ve turned it around 180 degrees,” said resident Robert Hanrahan. “When I first got here it was the ’Wild West’ for crackheads and crack dealers — they ran the place here. They [the Franciscans] came in, they cleaned it up, we got involved….It actually feels safer in here now.”
Father Canice said that several residents who attended the dedication told him that the work the Franciscans had done on the building had changed their lives.
Before the Franciscans’ arrival, the building had become a nexus for crime in the surrounding area.
“The neighborhood really pressured us into doing something about this building because it was a heavy-duty crime site,” Friar Phil said.
The developer who had originally purchased the building from the Franciscans had failed to realize any profits from it after the Syracuse Historical Society had blocked his efforts to transform the auditorium into more apartments. The developer then turned around and sold the property to the Franciscans, telling them that the building may have value for a not-for-profit organization.
A theme at the sign unveiling was collaboration and one of the key elements in renovating the building was the police force’s involvement.
“They were fantastic from the very beginning,” Friar Phil said. “Even before we thought about buying the building the community group talked about what a disaster this building was.”
The police had offered to patrol the hallways on nights with typically high crime rates. Friar Phil said he was uncertain how the residents would respond to having armed police officers patrolling so close to their homes, but, in fact, the residents seemed happy to have the protection.
“We didn’t know how that was going to go over with the residents, but they were absolutely delighted with it,” Friar Phil said. “They have been the biggest boosters of the change of character in the building. They’re the ones that made it happen.”
Sister Patricia Schofield, OSF, said that the name of the builing was selected for a variety of reasons. She said that the character of St. Clare and the nature of her work in collaboration with St. Francis of Assisi were reflected in the project and in its ambitions.
“St. Clare was very collaborative with St. Francis, the friars, and townsfolk of the city of Assisi, just as we would do today in the collaborative ministries of the north side,” she said. “She wasn’t afraid to stand up to people who wanted to force her to do something. So this is one of the reasons why we wanted to.”
Sister Patricia described the aspiration for the building by way of a poetic quote from St. Bonaventure regarding St. Clare.
“The quote that I gave [during my speech] was that she was the first flower in Francis’ garden and she shone like a radiant star. Fragrant as a flower blossoming, white and pure as springtime. That’s one of the reasons that we wanted to name this Saint Clare’s Garden, so that it would bring a light to this area. And that as we begin to work collaboratively together, the residents of Syracuse, the friars, the sisters, that we can bring a light to Syracuse,” she said.