Dedication and Msgr. Brady’s legacy help provide a refuge on Syracuse’s southwest side
The Juneteenth Celebration in Syracuse sparked headlines earlier this summer when a brawl involving hundreds of young people spilled out of Clinton Square onto the streets around it.
Two people were stabbed, although neither injury was fatal, and the police arrested 14 individuals following the incident.
The episode not only elicited newspaper articles but also prompted the inner city’s leadership to take a hard look at the youth and how to solve the problem of violence in the community.
But alongside potentially volatile situations in the inner city numerous oases of peace stand, many of which emanate from or exist within the Brady Faith Center on South Avenue. Father John Schopfer has been an agent for peace in the southwest corridor in Syracuse for 27 years.
In July, the center sponsored a basketball camp under the direction of former Syracuse University hoops star Howard Triche and a vacation Bible school.
Father Schopfer’s predecessor, Msgr. Charles Brady, worked closely with Triche’s parents during the civil rights movement. Msgr. Brady was also instrumental in establishing the Southwest Community Center.
“Howard’s parents were extremely close to Father Brady,” Father Schopfer said. “If he needed something to get done, it got done. They stayed with him right to the end.”
Howard’s mother, Norma Triche, passed away during the winter and Father Schopfer was the homilist at the funeral Mass. Following the funeral, the former Orange standout began discussing with Father Schopfer the possibility of a basketball clinic in her honor. The first annual Norma Triche Memorial Youth Basketball Clinic was held the week of July 9 at Most Holy Rosary School in Syracuse.
Triche believes such events are a fitting tribute to his mother and that she would have been honored to have one in her name. In addition to giving young basketball players an opportunity to improve their skills on the court, it gives them an alternative to idle time on the street.
“Parents are always looking for this kind of thing,” Triche said. “It gives them [the kids] an opportunity to do something and it builds their confidence and builds relationships.”
Roughly 40 youths primarily from the Syracuse area participated in the clinic. Brihem Johnson of Philadelphia was one of the rare participants from beyond Central New York, whereas Frazer Middle School student Michael Givens of Syracuse was more representative. Both said that the clinic had helped them with their game, but they also emphasized that it gave them an opportunity to make friends.
“It’s good to get to know people and to make friends,” Givens said. “It feels good, working with other kids.”
Triche’s nephew, Brandon Triche, is among the most highly anticipated high school players in Central New York’s recent history. Brandon, who will be a junior at Jamesville-DeWitt High School this fall, assisted his uncle at the camp.
“I’ve been going to these camps since I was seven so it’s fun to share some of my knowledge with them,” he said.
Father Schopfer applauded Triche’s effort and explained that it is a continuation of the tradition established by Msgr. Brady.
“He’s giving back to this generation and it traces back to Father Brady,” Father Schopfer said. “It’s a wonderful sequel.”
He added such a clinic is a good model for programs that keep kids off the streets and involved in positive activities.
“This is an example right here,” he said. “This gives people role models and keeps them busy and productive and they’re learning great skills.”
The Brady Faith Center also hosted an equally popular vacation Bible school throughout July and into August.
Although few of its patrons are Catholic, parents are encouraged that their children have an opportunity to learn about Christ during the summer.
“It’s an oasis of peace in the midst of violence,” Father Schopfer said. “Parents know that their kids are with the Lord.”
Jacqueline Rowser has been around the Brady Faith Center for eight years. All eight of her children have spent their time after school and during the summer at Bible camp there. Forty-three youths signed up for the school at the beginning of summer and Rowser estimated that between 30 and 35 attended on a daily basis. The program is ecumenical with a heavy emphasis on Christ and developing identity.
“We hope that they walk away with an understanding of who Christ is,” Rowser said. “And that God has a special plan for them.”
The vacation Bible school gives young people an alternative to the anomie of idle time in the inner city. Rowser related the story of one young woman who was interested in attending vacation Bible school. Rowser said the teenager described herself as a Christian rapper who is also in a gang.
“She’s confused,” Rowser said. The program, she explained, attempts to cut through that kind of confusion.
Her son, Quinn Grohol, grew up in a Catholic school environment and at the Brady Faith Center. He went to Cathedral School before a scholarship made available by the Guardian Angel Society enabled him to attend Bishop Ludden Junior/Senior High School. After graduation, Grohol elected to join the U.S. Navy.
He said returning to the vacation Bible school to work was enjoyable.
“It’s pretty fun here,” he said. “I like talking to the kids.”
While he agreed that the level of violence in Syracuse’s inner city can be overstated, Father Schopfer pointed out that there is certainly no harm in promoting peace in the community.
“Living peacefully with one another isn’t just something you acquire,” he said. “Be an oasis of peace. Start where you are and look at where we are. We’re on the street.”
Father Schopfer singled out the vacant lot at the corner of Rich Street and Bellevue Avenue as an example of a place reclaimed for the sake of peace.
The corner has been associated with drug dealers, but one night a week it becomes a province of peace.
“They’re saying ‘Well look, we’re taking this over even if it’s for only a few hours and bringing something good and positive to this corner,’” Father Schopfer said.
As many as 100 people gather there on a weekly basis and the event features a cookout and, on occasion, live music.
Onondaga County Legislator Althea F. Chaplin (D-18th District) has represented the neighborhood she grew up in for four terms. A gardening enthusiast, she uses planting flowers as a metaphor for improving any area.
“You bloom where you plant it,” she said. “If we plant something each year and it comes back bigger and more beautiful, people will stay.”
She said that the so-called gangs responsible for so many of the problems in inner city areas were not representative of the community as a whole.
“Those groups that bicker, they’re not part of the community,” she said. “It’s these groups. You could call them mini-gangs.”
Chaplin noted that the youths are looking for a place where they can belong and those that come from broken homes may view these gangs as surrogate families. One solution, she said, is providing young people with healthy places where they can gather such as the Southwest Community Center.
Syracuse native Nicole Floyd believes that the problem of violence in Syracuse must be addressed.
Although she noted that her own neighborhood is relatively quiet, an autistic son has made her particularly sensitive to the issue.
“If you feel like your safety is being threatened then the city needs to take any necessary steps if things get wild,” Floyd said.
“My thing is, I have children of my own and my friends have children and we want the best for our kids,” Floyd said. “If we’re in a position where speaking out is going to mean the best for our kids then I’m going to always speak up.”
Floyd said that places such as the Brady Faith Center provide young people with solid role models.
“They do, they do. When you’ve got positive people [passing] positive information onto small minds that does help a lot,” Floyd said. “A lot of kids learn by visuals so if they see positive people showing them the way that we do this and we do that compared to doing something else compared to their peer, then that does help.”
With the limited number of Catholics in the southwest side, Father Schopfer is almost always working in an ecumenical environment. He said that helps him “focus on commonalities.”
“The message is the same,” he said.