St. Patrick’s Church celebrates 140th anniversary
By Connie Berry
The upside-down traffic light isn’t the only tradition Tipperary Hill in Syracuse is noted for; St. Patrick’s Church has been a fixture in the neighborhood since the late 1800s. On Sept. 19, the parish celebrated its 140th anniversary with a special Mass and a dinner at the Empire Room at the state fairgrounds.
It was the Erie Canal and the expansion of the railroad that brought the early waves of Irish immigrants to the area. The green hills were said to remind them of home and hence the name “Tipperary Hill,” or Tipp Hill, for the upper west side community. Many of the Irish Catholics had emigrated from County Tipperary in Ireland. The first Masses were held in Cool’s Hall on Hamilton Street before the church was built. Prior to 1870, the immigrants were part of St. John the Evangelist Parish. The Syracuse Diocese was finally formed from the Albany Diocese with Bishop Patrick Ludden, a native of County Mayo, Ireland, as its first bishop.
Father John Fenlon is the current pastor of St. Patrick’s and he said he loves the job. He noted the parishioners’ strong faith and love of tradition as the foundation of the parish.
“At first this area was not part of the city but the Town of Geddes,” Father Fenlon said. “The Irish came especially to work on the Erie Canal and the quarries. A lot of them settled up here on this hill. It looked so much like home that they called it ‘Tipperary Hill.’ The bishop in Albany didn’t want them to call the church St. Patrick’s. He said there were already too many churches with that name but the people here insisted it must be given that name.”
The parish is known for the its close-knit sense of community. This comes from the tradition of the church being the focal point of the community, according to Arlene Hughes, a parishioner of St. Patrick’s. Hughes lives in Baldwinsville but commutes to Tipp Hill for Mass. She’s a classic example of someone born and raised on Tipp Hill. Hughes graduated from St. Patrick’s grammar and high school. She eventually had a legal career that took her all over Central New York. She moved back to the area to help take care of her mother. “A number of us have moved out of the area but loyalty brings us back,” Hughes said.
Loyalty and commitment are two attributes Gary Spath admires about the St. Patrick’s community as well. He has been a parishioner for nearly his whole life. He’s lived in the same house on Milton Avenue for 55 years. He’s been everything from an altar server to parish council president.
“I love the place,” Spath said. “People have asked me over the years, ‘Do you have reunions?’ and I tell them we don’t need to because I still see my classmates every week at Mass.” There’s a bond there that was created through the parish and the school, Spath said. “Many people will never see their classmates again once they walk off the stage at graduation. It’s very, very unique here.”
The Irish settlers brought their traditions to the area all those years ago and St. Patrick’s Church was always in the thick of it. The first few pastors of St. Patrick’s didn’t stay long for one reason or another but the fourth pastor, Msgr. James Magee, served the church for 54 years until his death at age 88 in 1929. A few more pastors followed, each staying not more than a few years.
Then in 1938, Msgr. Thomas Driscoll was named pastor. He served for 30 years revitalizing the religious education program and reining in the debt caused by the earlier expansion of the parish school. Msgr. Driscoll was followed by Msgr. Frank Sammons, who served 27 years. He steered the parish through Vatican II, the Vietnam War era and restructuring of Catholic schools in the area. Father Peter Reddick was named pastor in 1995 and he stayed until 2007, when his 12 year assignment was completed. Father Reddick was able to oversee an ambitious repair and restoration of the church and school. The generosity of the parishioners and alumni enabled several projects to be finalized. Early in 2006 the parish was notified that St. Patrick’s School would be closing due to rising costs and declining enrollment. The high school had closed in 1976. The news was met with an understandable degree of sadness as it meant the end of part of St. Patrick’s great heritage. When Father Reddick left to begin his new assignment at Blessed Sacrament Church in the Eastwood neighborhood of Syracuse, Father Fenlon arrived. He led the parish through a further loss as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet left the convent at St. Patrick’s. The sisters had taught and lived at the parish since 1911. Today, Sister Ruth Dowd, CSJ, continues the religious community’s tradition as she serves as parish minister.
The neighborhood still boasts significant Irish flavor which includes an annual summer Irish Festival complete with Irish music, food, dancers and more. It is a significant source of fund raising and “fun raising” for the parish. Hughes said the festival is an opportunity for people to come back and visit the neighborhood and the parish. “It’s nice,” she said. “They come back and you recognize them and it feels like yesterday. The church has been the same for years. Like in Ireland — it’s the same thing, you look to the church for Mass and as a social hub. St. Patrick’s still has that feel.”
For John Cowlin, a young parishioner and one person responsible for keeping the parish grounds in tip-top shape, it is the strong sense of welcome and community that draws him to the parish. His mother called St. Patrick’s her home parish and a few years ago, the family returned. “I feel very at home here,” Cowlin said. He was part of the committee working on the 140th anniversary and he serves on the parish council. Cowlin hopes to keep working on the parish’s web site as well. “Father Fenlon is great and everybody here is so wiling to help out with whatever needs to be done,” he said.
Approximately 250 tickets were sold to the dinner alone, Father Fenlon said. There are some bright green T-shirts available with “cead mile faillte” or “100,000 Welcomes” printed on the back. The parishioners of St. Patrick’s on Tipp Hill are ready to welcome at least that many to Mass on Sunday.