By Jennika Baines
Sun Assoc. Editor
They are the gatekeepers. They are the historians, the number crunchers, the congratulators and the consolers. Parish secretaries are the tirelessly devoted forces that keep parishes moving forward, and the Syracuse Diocese has many women who have served in their positions for over 20 years. Below are some of the women who have devoted their lives to keeping parishes running smoothly.
Shirley Miller has worked at St. Patrick’s Church in Chittenango since 1988. She has held the position through seven parish priests.
“I try to help people that come in and they ask questions or they want a Mass card or they want to talk a little bit, that kind of thing,” she said.
Actually, Miller’s job description is six pages long. From coordinating the schedule for lectors, altar servers, sacristines, ushers and Eucharistic ministers to helping to care for Dooner the parish pooch, Miller keeps St. Patrick’s running.
But while her time as parish secretary means she knows the ins and outs of the parish, there have certainly been some challenges along the way. “Probably one of the biggest was realizing that the computer was here to stay. I was a little reluctant to go from the typewriter to the word processor,” she laughed. “I went from a typewriter to a word processor to a computer to being able to go online. Now I can go online to do lots of things that we would have had to wait for snail mail for before.”
She said she enjoys meeting with all of the people who come to the parish every day and she loves the people she works with. “We have a nice team,” Miller said.
Marie Magliocca has worked at St. Joseph’s Church in Oneida since 1975.
“I’ve worked under seven pastors, including the present one. Even when I worked in the business world I used to do the bulletins,” Magliocca said. “I used to come in on my lunch breaks.”
The house she has lived in all her life is just a few steps away from the rectory, and the church has always been a part of her life. When she was a little girl the pastor would stop by and ask Magliocca’s mother to send one of the girls over to help with filing or to run to the store.
“Here I’ve been retired for 25 years from the business world but I’ve been working for the parish all that time,” Magliocca said. “If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. But I love it. I love the work I do.”
One of the blessings of her work, she said, is the opportunity to build a good relationship with the pastors.
“I just loved some of our pastors. We were very, very close to them and to the family,” Magliocca said. “It got to being like a friend to the pastor, even though they were our spiritual advisors, even though I’ve always looked up to them.”
Adele Curcio has worked as parish secretary at St. Patrick’s Church in Syracuse since 1990. She has worked for three pastors so far and said she thinks she’s gotten lucky.
“I have been very blessed with my bosses,” she said. “I couldn’t have had it better, I mean it sincerely.”
Curcio splits her duties with Margaret Brady, who once worked as secretary for St. Patrick’s School, which is now closed. “We work together on everything. We just share the duties and it’s been really very good,” Curcio said.
Working close to home with people she likes is what makes her enjoy the job so much, she said.
“You don’t make a lot of money, and I guess it’s not like you’re putting on a suit and high heels and going out in the world,” Curcio said, “but if you work under a good pastor, and you enjoy the work and the people that you work with, it’s really like a family.”
Mary Conti began her work as parish secretary at St. Anthony of Padua in Endicott in 1975.
“I really enjoy my work,” Conti said. “The people are wonderful and I have a lot of help if I need it.”
Conti speaks softly on the phone and peppers her conversation with terms of endearment like “honey.” But she’s uncomfortable speaking about herself and her duties for the parish. “There’s so many little piddly things I do but they all add up,” Conti said.
Antonette Diles said there is much more to Conti’s work than she lets on.
Conti visits shut-ins on her way home from work and writes letters of thanks to people who name the church or its food pantry as a recipient for memorial donations. Her candy dish is always full and she brings in donuts once a week.
“When people come in, they only want to talk to her,” Diles said, laughing. “If she’s not in, they say, ‘When will Mary be there?’ They don’t think anybody else can help them.”
And Conti knows almost everyone who comes in by name and where they live and who they’re related to, Diles said. “She’s very humble, she’s always giving other people credit,” Diles said. “Everyone just loves her.”
It was 1986 when Janet Barry first started working part-time as the parish secretary at Blessed Sacrament in Syracuse. In those days, and until 1994, Barry was also the confirmation coordinator for the parish.
“Now I think about it and I don’t know how I did it,” she said, laughing.
For Barry, her family has been involved in the life of Blessed Sacrament for decades. Her grandparents attended the church, her father-in-law was the head usher for many years, her children attended Blessed Sacrament School.
And now, along with answering phones, e-mails and visitors to the door, along with bookkeeping, bill paying and bulletin writing, she maintains the records for future parishioners to share in the parish’s rich heritage.
She said the church helps to keep her going just as much as she helps to keep it going.
“It’s not a pressure job. I just enjoy the work,” Barry said. “I just enjoy getting up and coming to work and meeting the people I’m working with. The parish has always been a part of my life.”
Ann Padula came to work at St. Mary of the Lake Church in Skaneateles in 1986. She said there’s been a standing joke in the office that there’s more to the job than just doing Mass cards.
“When you work for the church, you have to be able to handle anything that happens,” Padula said.
One of the biggest parts of Padula’s job is maintaining the parish cemetery’s records.
“Probably my biggest accomplishment since I’ve been here was organizing our cemetery records,” she said. The grave sites are now all recorded and cross referenced, which means that family members and genealogists will have an easier time finding ties to the past.
Padula has taken cemetery maps and walks through sections plot by plot, name by name, sometimes referring to burial permits to locate a grave.
“It’s not something we do all the time,” Padula said, “but we do it when we can.”
After the first few months on the job Padula said she thought she’d like to try working elsewhere. But she ended up coming back. “It was home to me,” she said. Whether it’s chatting with parishioners who enjoy the company or grieving with families who have lost a loved one, Padula knows her job matters. “I want to be here another 25 years,” she said.
Gail Baldwin started working at St. Thomas Church in New Hartford in 1976. She said people are often surprised to learn how much she handles as part of her job.
“This is a business, and all the things that a business office has to do have to be done here as well,” Baldwin said.
Working as a secretary has been Baldwin’s dream since she was in eighth grade. But she knows as well that the work has some challenges. “You always have to be welcoming and warm, even if you may not be having a good day yourself,” she said. And as a parish secretary, she is also there when families are at their highest and lowest points. “Sometimes you’ll just spend an hour crying and being there for someone,” she said.
During her time at the parish, she has worked with five pastors. “When they come here they don’t know me from Adam, so I really have to earn their trust and do things the way they want them done,” she said. “For lots of the pastors this is their first parish, and usually it’s been their dream to have their own parish, and they’ve had these dreams and ideals for a long time.”
But each pastor has also brought good changes to Baldwin’s life. “All the different pastors, they’ve been, from soup to nuts, as different as they could be,” she said, “but all had their gifts and really helped me grow as a person.”
Joan Sweeting has worked as the parish secretary at St. Mary’s Church in Cortland since she was in high school. She started part-time in 1975, and when she graduated in 1979 she asked if she could have a reference from the parish to find a full-time job.
“And they just said, ‘Well, you can have a full-time job here,’” Sweeting said.
In that time, she has worked with six pastors. “I’ve been lucky, each one brought something different to the table,” she said.
For her, it’s the people that make the job so enjoyable. “It’s the people that make the parish,” she said. And the parishioners of St. Mary’s in Cortland are always there to fill any need, however big or small.
Sweeting said it’s the “wow moments” that make the job so special. “You’ll get that phone call where somebody presents a need and not five minutes later you’ll get the phone call with someone presenting the solution to the need,” she said. “Your goosebumps come on and you’re just there to put the two together.”
Barbara Vota has worked as the administrator at St. John the Baptist Church in Rome for 27 years.
In that time, Vota has become familiar with the unique concerns and schedules of her parish. There are over 100 funerals a year at the parish, and its strong Italian tradition means that people are often coming in to ask for Masses, candles and memorials for the deceased.
Vota also keeps the records for the parish’s cemetery. So in addition to helping organize funerals by scheduling the organist, notifying the cemetery manager and finding a grave lot, she also makes sure that monuments are appropriate for a Catholic cemetery.
Vota also keeps the parish census, helps families with the food pantry, and orchestrates the schedules for the Masses. “When you’re the administrator you have to have your hands in a lot of things,” Vota said. “But that’s what makes the job very interesting because you’re not doing one thing for the whole day, you’re always getting interrupted by something new.”
Peg Olson has worked as parish secretary at Most Holy Rosary in Syracuse since 1986. “Every day is a little different,” she said. “You never know who’s going to be coming through the door or calling on the phone.”
This unpredictability is something she enjoys. “I do like that every day you never know what’s going to happen. There’s no typical day,” Olson said. “People call here and I can hopefully take care of their needs.”
With 800 families in the parish, there are many needs to address in the day. But over the years, the number of people working in the office has dwindled. Olson said when she started there were three priests serving the parish and another who lived there but worked as the chaplain at a nearby hospital. Now there is only the pastor of the parish living there.
“There was a lot of movement in those days,” Olson said. “Now there are fewer people in the office but it’s bustling just as much.”
But although there is more to be done by fewer people now, Olson said she gets back even more than she puts into the job.
“Over the years my spirituality has grown,” Olson said, “and it has a lot to do with working here.”
In January, Mary Beth La Neve celebrated her 25th anniversary of working as the parish secretary at St. Mary of Mount Carmel/Blessed Sacrament in Utica. In that time, she has worked for five pastors.
“Each pastor has their own style,” La Neve said. “Some are more laid-back, some are very detail-oriented. You have to be flexible.”
For La Neve, the parish has always been a part of her life. She’s a lifelong parishioner and attended school there. This means she’s able to tell pastors the history of the parish and its families.
It’s the people of the parish that she enjoys the most, La Neve said. And she also likes how the church interacts with the community. A woman who works on the next block walks around the church building during her lunch break, going by La Neve’s window each day.
“We’ve watched her get thinner and thinner,” La Neve said, laughing. “We’re rooting her on.”
But while La Neve is in charge of so many tasks that keep the parish running, she said in many ways it’s the job that’s kept her going over the years.
“Being with the priests and the parishioners, it becomes your family, your support system. They know about your children as they’re growing up and they know what’s happening in your life,” La Neve said. “It really is like a family.”