Transforming traditions

By luke eggleston / sun staff writer

The history of the Catholic Church in the U.S. is inextricable from that of immigration in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

As Irish, Italian and Polish nationals flocked to America in order to improve their lot, the church accommodated them with ethnic parishes in which they could continue to worship as they had throughout their lives.

In as few as 50 years, changing demographics have altered the ethnic landscapes of certain parishes, while others have steadfastly maintained their heritages.

St. Stephen the King Parish in Oswego was built in 1910. Mike Lupa has attended the church throughout his life. Currently, he sits on the parish council and considers himself a parish historian.

The parish is proud of its grounding in Polish history and adheres to those traditions, particularly during the holy seasons of Christmas and Easter. When Oswego hosts its farmers’ market, parishioners make sure they bring Polish food to the event and the church often hosts Polish dinners. Many of the hymns sung at St. Stephen’s are also in Polish. Many of the choir members who don’t speak Polish learn the language phonetically in order to participate.

“It brings a little culture to the people who aren’t Polish…it has a lot to offer,” Lupa said.

According to Lupa, the pride Polish people and descendants take in their origins is linked to the strength of their faith.

“Poland has an extreme devotion to the church and fidelity to the pope,” he said.

St. Stephen’s in Oswego and Sacred Heart Basilica in Syracuse were both built by Polish immigrants.

Msgr. Peter Gleba, who is Polish, has been the rector at Sacred Heart Basilica on Syracuse’s west side for 18 years. His mark on the Polish community traditionally associated with the parish is registered in a street sign bearing his name. Another larger sign reading “’Witamy’ (Welcome) to Syracuse’s Historic Polish Neighborhood” honors the traditional association between the Polish immigrant population and the area.

In recent decades however, the near west side has become home to many of Syracuse’s Latino immigrants. Nevertheless, the parishioners and pastors have worked hard to help the church retain its traditional ethnic identity.

Msgr. Gleba believes holding on to Polish traditions is vital to Sacred Heart Basilica.

“You better believe it,” he said.

Many of the parishioners are bilingual and new immigrants from Poland still gravitate to Sacred Heart. A 10:45 a.m. Mass on Sunday features the liturgy in Polish. Moreover, the parish offers a Polish Heritage Society.

“They keep alive the traditions,” Msgr. Gleba said, adding that the richness of Polish history inspires many of his parishioners. “Ninety percent of the country [during the two world wars] was destroyed and they built it back up.”

The nearby Polish Home was also instrumental when immigrants began arriving in the west end. When immigrants arrived initially, they were unable to speak English and the Polish Home provided them with a place where they could socialize with others who spoke their native tongue.

When certain other parishes have seen their original ethnicities decline, newer waves of immigrants have, in some cases, revitalized them. Msgr. Neal Quartier is the pastor at St. John the Evangelist. Initially, the parish was home to a segment of Syracuse’s Irish population. But the Irish population that dominated the neighborhood eventually dispersed into the suburbs surrounding Syracuse. The Vietnamese population, however, moved into the area and they infused St. John’s with renewed vigor.

“It has kept St. John’s open the last 25 years,” Msgr. Quartier said.

When Vietnamese immigrants began settling on the north side, according to Msgr. Quartier, St. John’s made welcoming them a priority.

“They went out and welcomed them and that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to this parish,” he said.

Now both the Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese at the parish engage in many bi-cultural activities. For non-Vietnamese, hearing about their co-parishioners’ experiences has been illuminating. Msgr. Quartier said that their tales of faith and of the war have expanded the horizons of many non-Vietnamese parishioners.

“It brought life back to the parish,” he said.

Decades ago, suburban migration scattered the German and Irish population that once constituted the parish community of St. Lucy’s Church in Syracuse. However, the parish has become a haven of diversity and multiculturalism.

According to Father Jim Mathews, it is that very diversity that makes the parish so attractive.

“Diversity is such an enriching element of our congregation,” he said. “It’s the richness of experience in our diversity [that people appreciate].”

St. Lucy’s routinely uses Spanish in its liturgy and twice per year it is celebrated in Mohawk. Moreover, the parish attempts to make itself accessible to the local African-American population —
a substantial suburban element — and those with special needs.

“The diversity here is more comprehensive,” Father Mathews said. “That in itself has been a real jewel for the parish.”

St. Patrick’s Church in Binghamton was erected for the burgeoning Irish population in 1840. The month-long St. Patrick’s Day celebration still highlights the parish’s Irish origins. However, with the increased presence of Vietnamese and Latino populations, the church has made adjustments to remain open to everyone, while not attempting to push for multiculturalism in particular.

“We just try to serve everyone,” said Father Laurence Lord.

St. John the Baptist is the traditionally Italian parish in the heavily Italian community of Rome, N.Y. Over the years since the parish’s founding in 1909, however, its ethnic identity has slowly dwindled, according to Father John Hogan.

“Certainly many of the long-standing names of the families are Italian but it’s very mixed,” Father Hogan said.

Father Hogan, who is of Irish descent, said that he is the first non-Italian priest at the parish but he has never felt unwelcomed.

Although it is of ethnic Italian origins, St. John’s has not maintained the kinds of traditions other parishes often do.

“I think it’s just a natural progression of things,” Father Hogan said. “This parish was built by immigrants but we’re not a parish of immigrants anymore. Now it’s a melding of people and it’s part of the natural march of time.”

Especially in light of reconfiguration in the Syracuse Diocese, Father Hogan believes that clinging to differences in ethnicities or other external factors is something to be cast aside.

Last year, each of the parish communities in Rome converged at St. Paul’s for Holy Thursday. During his homily, Father Hogan underscored the importance of the commonality of faith and the fact that all of these parishes had joined to celebrate the Eucharist and the priesthood.

“We have to move beyond brick and mortar,” he said during his homily. “We need to be respectful of the past but move forward.”

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