Riders on the storm

July 20-Aug. 2, 2006
Riders on the storm
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Heather Ainsworth
St. Francis de Sales and other Eastern Region churches weather transformation

“I don’t know about you, but if I was out in a boat in the middle of Oneida Lake in the middle of the night in a rowboat — and a violent thunderstorm came up, and the waves were breaking over the side of the boat — I’d be scared to death. Even if Jesus was in the boat sitting next to me,” Father Fred Daley confessed to the attendees at the final Mass at St. Francis de Sales in Utica Sunday, June 24. Along with St. Francis de Sales, St. Mary’s Church in Utica closed. July 1, the churches merged with Historic Old St. John’s Church to become the Catholic Community of Historic Old St. John’s — St. Francis de Sales — St. Mary’s Church. Blessed Sacrament has joined with St. Mary of Mt. Carmel to form a new faith community, St. Mary of Mt. Carmel/Blessed Sacrament.

The imagery of crossing water during a storm was a constant refrain during Father Daley’s homily as he walked the parishioners through St. Francis de Sales’ history, which is caught up in the transformation of Upstate New York in general and the city of Utica in particular.

“Fear is a normal human emotion,” Father Daley continued. “Having faith is not being fearless but rather faith is taking the risk in the midst of our fears — to cross over to the other side, to endure the storm, to go through the storm to the other side.” Upon its dedication in 1888 the little church in Cornhill was surrounded, as the neighborhood’s name suggests, by cornfields. The city expanded and enveloped St. Francis De Sales in the early part of the 20th century. Now St. Francis de Sales is located in an epicenter of Rust Belt decay. Along with four other churches in the city, it closed its doors last month. “St. Francis de Sales was born in a storm of change,” Father Daley said in reference to the explosion of the immigrant population in the U.S.

The parish community of St. Francis de Sales is one of inclusion. There are portraits hanging just inside the entrance of the church. Many of the images depict Catholic saints, while many others depict figures from other traditions. Alongside Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the martyrs of the Jesuit University in El Salvador, are images of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harvey Milk, a former mayor of San Francisco who was the first openly gay person elected to public office. Parishioner Nancy Marafioti observed, “It’s been a very sad event. It’s going to be hard to reflect the sense of family [in the new church]. St. Francis is a very inclusive parish.”

Maureen Zumpano has been a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales for 48 years. She is also the president of the parish council and was a participant in the transformation committee. “It’s going to be different but we’re hoping it’s going to be comfortable,” Zumpano said. “I’m going to miss St. Francis, I’m going to miss Father Fred but I’m looking forward to the change.”

During its early years, the church could barely contain its population. When Father Daniel Doody sought to open a school, classes were taught in the houses surrounding the church. Father Daley described that phenomenon as “vintage St. Francis de Sales.” When the parish finally opened a school proper in 1932, the Utica Observer-Dispatch described it as “the most modern and up-to-date school in the city.”

With the composition of Cornhill changing in the 1960s and 1970s, St. Francis de Sales began to reach out to the community, Father Daley relayed. “In the midst of the storm, people were able to cross over,” he said.
The message of inclusion is a like a drumbeat. The philosophy pervades the atmosphere at the Utica church. A portion of the liturgy was uttered in Vietnamese and parishioner Grace Sunday, a native of the Sudan, sang a hymn in Swahili. When the first Vietnamese couple arrived in the Utica area, Father Daley said, they joined St. Francis de Sales. The church’s importance to the Vietnamese community was made apparent by the significant percentage of parishioners with roots in Southeast Asia. Many attendees were parishioners at St. Francis de Sales but the final Mass also brought in supporters of Father Daley along with several people who had been raised in the parish but are living and attending church elsewhere now. Gloria Hosey attends St. Patrick’s in Clayville but she was born near the Cornhill area and was baptized and confirmed at St. Francis de Sales. She returned to the church of her childhood, she said, because of the memories she has of the place. “It’s a pretty emotional thing,” she said.

St. Mary’s parishioner Jim Cittadino serves on the board of directors for Abraham House along with Father Daley. After Mass at his home parish, Cittadino sped over to St. Francis de Sales to say farewell to Father Daley. Cittadino expressed sympathy for those who attend not only St. Francis de Sales but all those who were losing their parishes due to closing.

“It makes you feel bad,” he said. “These churches have been home to generations of families. It’s got to be tough on them.” After receiving various honors following the Mass, Father Fred exited the church and was swarmed with well-wishers. Upon leaving the church, he was met with a dozen children from the area dancing and singing in his honor. On his way to a reception, Father Daley paused briefly to chat with reporters.
“I’m overwhelmed, thrilled with the response of the community,” he said.
In August, Father Daley will depart the Mohawk Valley region for Baltimore where he will participate in a preparatory program for service in Africa. In early September, Father Daley will arrive in Lesotho; a tiny nation embedded in South Africa, where he expects to stay for one and a half years. Following the sojourn, Father Daley looks forward to returning to Central New York and hopes to return to the Utica area in particular.

“I really feel like I’m going on a little excursion, not a permanent goodbye,” he said. “I’m going as a student to learn from the people of Africa.”

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