Catholic women in Syracuse live distinct lives, share purpose
by luke eggleston
sun staff writer
Sister Joan Sauro, CSJ, and Joan Fiore share a common city, Syracuse, and a common name, Joan, and a common purpose of serving God. But that’s where the similarities end: both have found unique ways to achieve their common goal.
Growing up on the west end in Syracuse, Sister Joan always admired the sisters who taught her at St. Patrick’s School on Tipperary Hill. An English teacher, who was also a religious, inspired Sister Joan not only in her vocation but also in her desire to become a writer.
“I was probably attracted to the vocation the way most of us were. We were attracted to some extraordinary teacher,” said Sister Joan, who decided to join the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet at the age of 18.
While she was attending the College of St. Rose in Albany, Sister Joan was initially asked to learn Latin in order to teach it. She was reassigned, however, to pursue her bachelor’s and her master’s degrees in English.
Sister Joan said that, for her, the sisters were an extension of her years spent within her own family.
“My parents really did a wonderful job raising us, and when I went to the sisters it was like a continuation,” she said.
Sister Joan’s writing and her vocation have paralleled one another closely.
“I guess my vocation as a sister and a writer are wrapped together,” she said. “It’s a search for God. This community helped me grow in that search.”
She has been writing professionally for over 30 years and has been published in America, Commonweal, St. Anthony Messenger, US Catholic and the National Catholic Reporter.
When she isn’t producing her own writing, Sister Joan teaches. She has taught creative writing to children at Holy Cross School in DeWitt and also memoir-style writing to adults at the Hazard Branch Library on Syracuse’s west end and at the Maxwell Library in Camillus. She has also conducted writing retreats at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Skaneateles.
Most recently, she completed a book of personal memoirs entitled No Way to Say Goodbye and her literary agent has been presenting it to various publishers.
Much of Sister Joan’s writing deals with finding the sacred in ordinary things. She observed that such objects reflect Catholicism’s emphasis on sacrament.
“We are a sacramental people,” she said. “We baptize with water, we anoint with oil, we celebrate the Eucharist with bread and wine.”
Through the objects in her books, Sister Joan said she looks for transcendence.
Quoting the Catholic Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Conner, Sister Joan said, “I stare stupidly at things until I see transcendence.”
For Joan Fiore, doing “ordinary things” amounts to doing the extraordinary for people. A former restaurant owner who turned over the business to her nephew in the early 1980s, Fiore has always worked in and around churches. Fiore has been a communicant at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where she was a lector and a extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and a volunteer with the human development office when the late Father Joseph Champlin was rector there.
In addition, she served as a extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at Van Duyn Nursing Home for 16 years. She was also involved in helping Oxford Street Inn as well as the Samaritan Center. For over 20 years, she served as the cook at St. Vincent de Paul’s rectory.
Early in her career as the rectory cook, Fiore met Bill Cuddy, who was a priest at the time. Cuddy instituted Jail Ministry in the Syracuse Diocese in 1976. Cuddy was in residence at St. Vincent de Paul in the early 1980s. Once, over dinner, he described Jail Ministry to Fiore and she said it was intriguing to her from the outset.
“I was always sympathetic to people who are incarcerated — whether they are guilty or not,” she said.
One of Fiore’s strongest memories of working in advocacy at the now-closed Public Safety Building are those of a young man who was incarcerated there when she began volunteering. The young man was incarcerated for several months.
“I had a young lad there for the longest time and it was very heartbreaking because he came from a very dysfunctional family,” Fiore said. “What we try to do in jail ministry is give them your ear and listen and try to do for them…His father got him into drinking and that’s how it happened. He was in the Public Safety Building for the longest time.”
Fiore said that since she was new to the program and the young man was new to the incarceration, they learned about Jail Ministry together.
“I went into there and I spoke to him. I said, ‘I’m new. I’m here to help you and you don’t know what you’re talking about and neither do I so let’s go from there,’” Fiore said.
Cuddy and Fiore have remained friends ever since and still work together at Jail Ministry on Slocum Street.
“Joan is elegant. She is exquisite in her appearance. She could be any place in society and yet she has the heart of a tough fighter who will be after justice. Her heart for anybody down and out is just wide open,” Cuddy said.
Fiore has been a godsend for Cuddy in his personal life. Several years ago, Cuddy moved his mother from their hometown of Auburn to live in Syracuse so that he could care for her. Whenever Cuddy had other business to attend to, Fiore was one of a handful of people who volunteered to care for his mother. More recently, Fiore helped by taking care of Cuddy’s grandchild by marriage.
“Joan has been a gem personally even beyond Jail Ministry,” Cuddy said.
Fiore was born in 1920 on the north side of Syracuse and was baptized at St. Peter’s Church when it was still on State Street. The church has been moved to James Street since. She was a middle child among seven and her parents passed away early in her life. Her father died when Fiore was seven and her mother died when she was 12. In the face of such adversity, Fiore and her six brothers and sisters bonded.
“If you ever fell then there were six others right behind you,” she said. “We always helped one another and we never really stopped. It’s the way it’s always been.”
Fiore’s husband, Nicholas, passed away in the 1960s and she raised their three children on her own while running a neighborhood bar and restaurant called Peoples on the lower east side of Syracuse. When she left the restaurant to her nephew, Fiore said she was beside herself with boredom when a sister recommended she work at St. Vincent de Paul.
Since participating in the training for Jail Ministry in 1981, Fiore has been involved in many aspects of the program, including participating in the Glory Bee Jail Ministry bread program. After working as an advocate, she recently took over clerical duties at the Jail Ministry building. There she connects incarcerated people with attorneys, family members or probation officers. She also helps people who come in off the street and who bus tickets to go to Unity Acres.
Fiore said that there is quite a bit of overlap between her different areas of ministry. Many of the people who require help from Jail Ministry, for instance, take shelter at the Oxford Street Inn. She has stayed with the program because of the sense of gratification it has given her.
“I stayed with it because I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the people,” she said. “It’s my way of giving back.”