Frank Woolever, Syracuse peace activist and former priest, dies after brief illness

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By Jennika Baines
Sun Assoc. Editor

Frank Woolever, who committed his life to being a peacemaker and father_woolevercommunity builder, died July 5 after a brief illness. He was 77.

Woolever’s funeral Mass took place at St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse on July 9. As the Mass began, Father Jim Mathews called everyone to celebrate the life of a man who shared his gifts so freely “especially with the poor, the drop-outs in society and those who didn’t matter much.”

Bill Cuddy, a friend of Woolever’s since 1956, offered a reflection at the Mass. “I think what stood out in Frank was his integrity,” Cuddy said. “Whatever he thought, whatever he said, whatever he did was one of peace, in great affairs or in small.”

He spoke of Woolever’s tireless dedication to peace and justice, even when protests led to his own incarceration. Joking with Woolever’s two daughters, Heidi Woolever Daly and Amy Woolever, Cuddy said that this was so much the case that their grandmother once commented, “Here I keep meeting people who are either coming from jail or going to jail!”

Born on the south side of Syracuse, Woolever graduated from St. Anthony’s School and St. Bernard’s Seminary. He was ordained a priest in 1959.

Old and yellowed copies of the Syracuse Herald-Journal tell of the long history of Woolever’s dedication to the community. In 1965, he was assigned by Bishop Walter Foery to spend a year at Syracuse University’s Community Action Training Center.

“I want to learn how to relate to these people [the poor],” he said then.

In 1967, he was appointed assistant director of the newly-formed Department of Inner City Development for Catholic Charities. A year later, he was assigned to be the chaplain of the 174th Tactical Fighter Group in the New York Air National Guard.

Woolever helped establish Unity Acres, Time of Jubilee (a housing land trust), and the Jericho Project. He was also involved in the civil rights movement.

Woolever left the priesthood and married Meme (Mary Elizabeth) Schmalzi in 1971. He served for three years as director of Drug Abuse Services for Greene County, N.Y. and returned to Syracuse in 1974.

He was the director of Euclid Community Open House and worked for Cornell’s Family Matters Project.

“Pax Christi began in the Woolevers’ dining room,” Cuddy said.

Woolever provided spiritual and psychological assistance to those in need at the Onondaga Pastoral Counseling Center. He came out of retirement to serve as the director of L’Arche Syracuse from 2001 to 2006.

He also served on the Human Rights Commission and the Citizens Review Board. He was a longtime member of the Syracuse Peace Council, Jail Ministry and Witness for Peace.

“In the end, Frank was a consummate community organizer, a community builder. He was that by profession and orientation of life,” Cuddy said.

Woolever earned a doctor of ministry degree in 1995 from Colgate Rochester Divinity School. He traveled several times to Nicaragua to the sister community of St. Andrew’s Parish.

He also participated in the School of the Americas Watch protests in Fort Benning, Ga. Cuddy told those gathered of Woolever’s contemplation of “crossing the line” onto the facility, a symbolically significant act of protest that can bring with it a jail term. There was his age to consider, Cuddy said, and some medical issues. Still, in 2007, Woolever crossed the line and was sentenced to three months.

But when Woolever got to the prison, “he didn’t see a prison. What he saw was a large expanse of fields … So he had this idea that they could create beautiful flower beds, expansive vegetable gardens and become the composting center of the prison world for the whole country!” Cuddy said to the knowing laughter of those gathered.

At his core, though, Woolever was a deeply spiritual man who read the Scriptures every day, Cuddy said. He was also a devoted father, husband and friend.

“So Frank stepped over another line,” Cuddy said, “and we’re here dealing with it.”

But he recalled that Woolever always sought out the bright side of situations. “And he often reflected on Julian of Norwich. ‘In the end, all will be well. All manner of things will be well.’”

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