Sign of hope

June 22, 2006
Sign of hope
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Possibility of a new beginning to bloom in north side garden

If one were to drive by 1118 N. Townsend St. right now, one wouldn’t see much other than a wedge of dirt and hay. But that wedge of dirt is, in fact, an improvement over what preceded it and, according to Franciscan Friar Phil Kelly, that same plot will one day yield another haven of hope on the north side of Syracuse.

The dwelling at that address previously was a locus for criminal behavior and vice on the north side. When Friar Phil made his early forays into the neighborhoods around Assumption Church, one of the properties the people in the community pointed to was 1118 N. Townsend St., saying that if the Franciscans wanted to make a difference in the area eliminating that dwelling would be a good start. Shortly after, Friar Phil met with Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll and mentioned the problem property to him. The mayor suggested that the city would level the dwelling on its own dime and then turn around and sell it to the Franciscans for one dollar. The Franciscans, in turn, would make the lot a home for a peace garden.

Under Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative (SNI) No. 3, the house was dismantled but the Franciscans and Home Headquarters determined that an adjoining property would also have to be addressed. Home Headquarters was able to relocate the family living in the house via SNI No. 5 but that took several years as the father was suffering from a medical condition. Finally, after five years of toil, both dwellings were taken down and the Franciscans were left to devise a use for the property. At a meeting of the SNI Advisory Board, of which Friar Phil is a member, realtor Tai Shaw suggested that the Vietnamese community be entrusted with taking care of the peace garden.
Some 3,000 Southeast Asian families live on the north side and, according to Friar Phil, their homes are noted for their tidy shrubbery and well kept gardens.

The friar explained that the planners hope the garden integrates both Vietnamese and American sensibilities. In order to accomplish this successfully, the Franciscans are seeking advice from SUNY ESF’s school of land design. The day of dedication for the park is many years in the future, according to Friar Phil. “It took five years for the buildings to come down and I believe it will be five years before we dedicate the garden,” he said. In the meantime, a poster heralding the lot as the future site of Franciscan/Vietnamese Peace Garden will be put in place. Currently, youths at Northside CYO and in the St. John the Evangelist Children’s Program are participating in a poster contest. The posters will be put on display and a winner selected June 28 at 7 p.m. during a Tomorrow’s Neighborhood Today meeting at the Assisi Center near Assumption Church on North Salina Street in Syracuse.

The garden is another phase in the Franciscan mission on the north side, where preserving Assumption Church and expanding the Franciscan mission throughout the community is paramount. Established in 1845, Assumption Church is the oldest Conventual Franciscan church in North America and was the staging point for the Conventual Franciscans’ spread throughout the continent and beyond, according to Friar Phil. Friar Phil describes the Franciscan mission as tripartite. The first aspect is presence in the community; the second, service; and the third, and most important, relationships. “It’s how do I see the Christ in you and how do you see the Christ in me,” Friar Phil said in regard to the emphasis Franciscans place on relationships.

Last year, the Franciscan community opened St. Clare Gardens on the north side, a building they reclaimed from the less than law-abiding element that had previously used it as a base for drug dealing and prostitution. The community has also been instrumental in helping families obtain homes on the north side, especially immigrant families. Friar Phil and his brothers and their sister in the Sisters of St. Francis, pray at sites where murders have occurred. Often those sites aren’t far away from Assumption Church and the nearby Assisi Center.

Though it is but a patch of dirt, he hopes the peace garden, germinated with the dreams of Vietnamese immigrants as well as the Franciscan community, will be one more stepping stone toward a safer and saner north side. “It’s a sign of hope to me every day in what looks like barren, hard ground,” he said. “Somewhere a flower grows, a blade of grass grows, a bird sings.”

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