By Connie Berry
UTICA — Green-and-white striped tents filled the parking lot at St. Mary of Mt. Carmel-Blessed Sacrament Church on Jay Street when Bishop Robert Cunningham made his first visit to the parish. The pasta figioli and mushroom stew were not quite ready but the 70 pounds of meatballs had already been simmering in the sauce when he arrived on Wednesday, July 14, for the final night of the novena to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.
For 114 years the parish has honored the Blessed Mother with the annual nine-week novena followed by a weekend festival and a procession through the streets of the neighborhood before ending with benediction the final day.
The church’s pastor, Father James Cesta, invited several different guest priests to celebrate Mass and recite the prayers of the novena. He invited Bishop Cunningham for the final evening. The church was packed with members, most of them wearing the brown scapular designating their devotion to the Blessed Mother. “What a wonderful sight on a Wednesday evening to see a church full of people,” the bishop told the congregation.
Bishop Cunningham explained a connection he has with the parish. When he was ordained a priest in 1969 his first assignment in the Buffalo Diocese was with a parish named Blessed Sacrament. Many years later when he worked in the offices of the Diocese of Buffalo he was named chaplain to the monastery of the Carmelite sisters there. “My devotion to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel deepened then,” the bishop explained.
“Tonight those two memories come together as I form a new memory so I feel very much at home with you,” Bishop Cunningham said.
The bishop’s homily drew parallels between Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the church as mother. He said the faithful look to Mary and to the church for assistance in dealing with contemporary problems and the “pressing needs of our brothers and sisters.” He said the basic needs of people today are strikingly similar to those in Jesus’ time and just as the needs are the same, the teaching of Christ is the same as well. Both the church and the Blessed Mother are instruments for carrying God’s message to the world, he said.
“She [Mary] carried the Light of the World in her womb…. she raised the Son of God. Who could know Him better?” Bishop Cunningham asked. “She brings hope. She embodies love and Mary never goes away — she transcends time. She continues to appear to the most fragile among us to speak her message of enduring peace.”
Bishop Cunningham, along with Father Joseph Scardella and Father Cesta, joined the parishioners afterwards for refreshments, which included several trays of homemade Italian cookies. Parishioners could not have been more pleased to have the bishop join them for their annual celebration.
Pam DeSarro, 89, and Anne Marie Mezzanini, 80, are two members who have been coming to the festival and novena their whole lives. Their parents came before them.
“All week long we cook,” Mezzanini said. “We have people who do nothing but cut peppers and onions.” Mezzanini’s brother makes the trip back to Utica from Florida every year to visit old classmates and enjoy the festival.
“They’ll come from all around,” Gordon Schindler, another parishioner, said. “We’ll have a great crowd.”
At the end of the Mass and novena, Bishop Cunningham gave a special blessing adding that he would pray for good weather for the weekend festival.
“If you get it, then I’ll take the credit. If you don’t, it’s the pastor’s fault,” Bishop Cunningham joked.