Humble Beginnings

Dec. 9-15, 2004
Humble Beginnings
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Celebrates Centennial

It was an unusually bright and white Christmas for Syracuse area Catholics in the year 1842. On that morning, Father Michael Heas celebrated Mass for the first time in the new St. Mary’s Church, as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception was known then.

The beginning of St. Mary’s Parish demanded effort and sacrifice from clergy and laity alike. Before 1842, Catholics of the Syracuse area traveled to the neighboring village of Salina for Sunday Mass at the Church of St. John the Baptist. Eventually the distance involved became too great a burden. As a result, several individuals organized the “Catholic Society of Syracuse.” On July 26, 1841 they purchased the Townsend estate at the corner of Montgomery and Madison Streets for the sum of $800. The next step was to secure a church. They purchased a former Episcopal church that was moved to the Montgomery Street location. It was small, accommodating only 300 people, and almost from the beginning on that Christmas Day in 1842 the church was crowded and standing room was at a premium. Father Heas brought an energetic nature to St. Mary’s and under his care and efforts the tiny congregation rapidly expanded. His parish covered an immense territory—all the land south of the canal in the City of Syracuse and the adjoining villages of Fayetteville, Jamesville, Cazenovia and Split Rock. The first pastor of St. Mary’s died in 1859, but the faithful congregation continued to carry out his legacy.

In July of 1859, Father James O’Hara was appointed to St. Mary’s. He realized the need for a large and beautiful church. As the first step in his quest, he bought property at the present location of the corner of Montgomery, Jefferson and East Onondaga Streets. He felt the site was ideal because of its central location. He then hired architect Archimedes Russell from New York to complete the plans which were considered daring in those days. In November of 1874, Bishop McNierney traveled from Albany to lay the cornerstone for “the most costly and beautiful church in the city.” When Father O’Hara died on Dec. 23, 1889, large crowds mourned his passing and the bell in City Hall was tolled. This was an unprecedented honor to a minister of the Gospel. Father John Grimes became third pastor of St. Mary’s in 1890. He installed the present Cathedral organ in 1892. St. Mary’s was formally dedicated as the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on March 13, 1904. The new sanctuary was enhanced with five massive stained glass windows depicting the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Immaculate Conception, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

Father Grimes remained as rector of the Cathedral. On Sept. 25, 1910, the Cathedral was consecrated with the Most Rev. John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York celebrating Mass. Father Grimes was consecrated as a bishop in 1909. He supervised construction of a new episcopal residence completed in 1914. Built on East Onondaga Street at a cost of $85,000, it contained the rectory and chancery office with each one separate and distinct. A passageway conveniently connected this new structure to the church. It stands today as the present Cathedral rectory. Following Bishop Grimes’ death in 1922, Father James McPeak was named rector in 1923. He served the parish for 36 years. The following year, a lengthy and expensive program of repairs and improvements was initiated. This program included the construction of a new convent on Montgomery Street. Extensive renovations were made under Bishop Walter Foery in 1958. At the Pontifical Ceremony marking the rededication of the Cathedral, Bishop Foery declared that “The Lord has done wonderful things for us.” Msgr. McPeak died on Nov. 19, 1972. He served four bishops during his almost 50 years as rector. To honor his many years of service, he is interred in the Cathedral crypt.

In 1973 Father John McGraw was appointed Cathedral rector. He and Bishop David Cunningham directed a major renovation of the Cathedral at a cost of $6,000. Father James O’Brien was appointed Cathedral rector in 1986. At that time, he and Bishop Frank Harrison started the last major renovation. One of the highlights of Father O’Brien’s 12-year sojourn was witnessing the joy on Bishop Harrison’s face when the renovation was completed. Bishop Harrison took pride and satisfaction in the job that had been done. “The biggest challenge was responding to the needs of the people in the community,” said Father O’Brien. Many of the parishioners were lacking in the areas of housing, food and spiritual support. Msgr. Joseph Champlin has been serving as rector of the Cathedral since 1995. The Cathedral boasts 900 registered households. A mixture of regular parishioners and visitors attend weekend Masses. When compared to a typical parish, the Cathedral doesn’t have the same, steady group of people that attend Mass every week. “The parish is unique in many ways,” said Father Champlin. “It’s not simply a parish; it is also the Bishop’s Church, the Mother Church of the diocese and a centerpiece for the church in midst of the city. It is a spiritual home away from home for many in the area. Another way in which the parish is unique is the beauty and size of the church structure itself.”

Father Champlin has initiated numerous improvements that have enhanced the church’s beauty and enriched the liturgical life of the Cathedral community. The many improvements include the Prayer Park, landscaping around the convent and school, the quality of the diversified music program and improvements at the Lady of all Nations Chapel that is used on weekdays. Technology at the school has been greatly enhanced. The 5:10 p.m. Mass on Sunday was made into a special young adult service, resulting in a tripling of the Mass attendance. An intense effort is made to maintain the cleanliness of the church at all times. The Osendorfer Imperial grand piano is also regularly maintained. A new state of the art sound system has been added to the Cathedral, and a new array of lights added to the sanctuary. A newly-renovated play space is now enjoyed by Cathedral School students. The most memorable experience for Father Champlin since coming to the Cathedral took place on the National Day of Prayer after 9/11. Attendance peaked at 2,000 people for the special Mass at noon.

Father Champlin faces a number of challenges as the rector at the Cathedral. Maintenance of the older buildings, including the church is a concern because something is always breaking down. He finds it challenging when he tries to combine a welcoming environment for all and at the same time provide a safe and secure location for prayer and worship. Father Champlin lists responding pastorally to the many people that come for spiritual assistance, the frequent requests of the poor, and patiently interacting with those who are homeless or disturbed as some of the challenges that he faces. He is also challenged by the financial demands of maintaining the church and other buildings and by financially supporting Cathedral School. Betty Gravell has been a member of Cathedral since 1955. She has seen a number of rectors come and go, and she thinks each one has left his mark. “It’s a challenging parish,” said Gravell. “We’re very diverse.” She has been parish minister since 1985 and works with sacramental records. “We have had very good clergy here. It’s an active church,” said Gravell.

Pio Carrenti has served as deacon for 25 years. He has worked with Father McGraw, Father O’Brien, and now Father Champlin. He said they each have their own special talents and he has learned a lot from each. He fondly remembers assisting the bishop and other clergy at Christmas and Holy Week ceremonies. “To be a part of it is very enlightening,” said Carrenti. The Cathedral has been described as the most human spot in Syracuse: a place where one feels the heartthrob of humanity and shares its penitence and aspirations.

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