by luke eggleston
SUN staff writer
The Syracuse Diocese’s reconfiguration process is really just another phase for an institution that has been subject to flux throughout its history in the U.S.
Immigration, changing demographics, the Second Vatican Council and the more recent priest shortage are all events that have compelled the diocese to either embrace change or fight it.
Roman Catholicism cherishes its traditions as much as any other faith. Among the most important guardians of tradition throughout the diocese are its parish historians.
Polish immigrants founded St. Stephen the King Church in Oswego in the early 1900s. During the last 100 years, the parish has observed more than its fair share of changes. Originally, most of Oswego’s parishes were home to one ethnicity or another. For instance, St. Louis Church, which has since closed, was the home parish of French speakers and most of the writing on the stained glass windows and statuary was in French.
In Oswego, like many small cities, the divisions that once existed between immigrant communities have largely eroded. While St. Stephen’s has enjoyed the leadership of Polish speaking priests in the past, its current pastor, Father Amadeo Guida, is Italian. Nevertheless, Mike Lupa, the historian at St. Stephen’s, is committed to keeping alive his home parish’s Polish roots. Lupa’s ancestors were among the church’s founding parishioners.
“Our family started this parish and I’ve always been interested in Polish history,” Lupa said.
Lupa was born in Oswego and baptized at St. Stephen’s. He left Oswego in 1963 to attend the University of Detroit, a Jesuit school. After college, Lupa joined the U.S. Army but returned to Oswego in 1979 to accept a position as an engineer at a nuclear plant. Shortly thereafter, he became the historian at his home parish.
Although the ethnic composition of St. Stephen’s has changed dramatically, Lupa said the parish retains its Polish traditions, which new parishioners enjoy.
“We try to do that. Tonight we’re having a traditional international dinner with pierogi and golumpki. During Lent, the parish offers pierogi as part of its fund raising efforts and during the summer when it holds its Polish festival, they offer Polish food,” Lupa said. “Of course we still have Polish singing and Polish processions and we decorate the church for Easter in a Polish fashion.”
At some parishes, historians must chronicle more drastic changes, especially during an era of mergers and closings.
Anne Miller was the historian at her home parish St. Patrick’s in Williamstown before the mission parish merged with St. John the Evangelist in Camden. In an effort to welcome the new parishioners, people at St. John’s incorporated many of the elements that had been in St. Patrick’s such as its altar and its Stations of the Cross. Miller brought her parish’s sense of history and now she works closely with St. John’s historian Ed Finnerty.
“They welcomed us so much. We used to go back and forth. But they really welcomed us. You just have to live with it. This is history and the facts are you just have to make the best of it,” said Miller, who had attended St. John’s during summer vacations at her family’s camp at Panther Lake near Camden.
The nexus of parish histories in the diocese can be found in the basement of the Chancery in downtown Syracuse. There, under the supervision of archivist Carl Roesch, several volunteers dutifully collect and file news clippings for each article that features a diocesan church or school as they appear in local newspapers. The archives are also stocked with numerous photographs and historically significant vestments and liturgical items.
Roesch graduated in the first class at Le Moyne College with a bachelor’s degree in education. He also received two master’s degrees from Syracuse University and taught history at North Syracuse High School. He took over the archives in 1983 after retiring.
“It’s a love,” Roesch said in reference to his interest in diocesan history.
Virginia Millert, who was the historian at St. Matthew’s in East Syracuse before moving to Central Square where she attends St. Michael’s, has been assisting Roesch in the archives since the early 1980s. A graduate of Nazareth College in Rochester, Millert wrote a book on the history of her home parish, The History of St. Matthew.
“I like the history. I love local history and I love the people I’ve always been working with whether it’s down here in the archives or with other historians,” she said. “I do this research on genealogy and letters that are sent in.”
David Dinneen took up parish history at his parish, St. Mary’s in Hamilton, after many years as a successful school administrator in several Upstate New York school districts. Dinneen also helps in the diocesan archives. He said that working as a parish historian has expanded his own faith.
“[I enjoy] discovering facts, discovering heritage. My experience as a parish historian has enhanced my faith. I’ve had some great experiences,” said Dinneen, who was a high school history teacher for eight years before becoming an administrator. “It’s made a better believer out of me. It’s made me more aware of Catholic traditions and traditions of faith.”
Among the highlights of his tenure as a historian was a trip to the crypt underneath St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, according to Dinneen.
Dinneen, who obtained his bachelor’s degree from Utica College but earned his master’s degree at Syracuse University, attends the Big East Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York City each year. During the tournament, Dinneen attends Mass at St. Patrick’s. On several occasions, he had attempted to visit the crypt but was rebuffed by volunteers at the cathedral. Dinneen finally received official permission to enter the crypt when Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York visited Syracuse three years ago.
“He was very personable and he said, ‘What can I do for you?’ And I said that this year when I go to the Big East Conference Tournament I would love to go down to the crypt in the cathedral,” Dinneen said.
Cardinal Egan told Dinneen to write a note to his secretary and he would give him an opportunity to examine the crypt.
The day before the Big East Conference Tournament, Dinneen received a call from Cardinal Egan’s office confirming that arrangements had been made for him to enter the crypt area.
“The thing was, these are all the legends from the beginning of the Diocese of New York, which became the Albany Diocese then Syracuse broke away,” Dinneen said. “All the archbishops and cardinals since John Hughes in 1838 right up to the present are all down there.”
The archivists hope that some new volunteers will make themselves available in the near future. One volunteer noted that many of her friends have passed away. Dinneen said the ideal volunteer is someone who has recently retired.
Shirley Ride, the historian at St. Mary’s in Baldwinsville, is hoping that her family will one day pick up the torch for her home parish’s past.
Ride has attended St. Mary’s throughout her life, becoming its historian in 1990. She sees history as a vital part of a parish’s identity.
“I think it’s very important,” said Ride, who in 1992 became the historian at the request of Msgr. George Sheehan, who was pastor at St. Mary’s at the time.
Ride is trying to pass along her enthusiasm for parish history to her daughter-in-law, Ethel Ride, as well as her granddaughter, Skye Ride. They both joined Shirley Ride at the annual meeting of parish historians at St. Stephen’s on Saturday, May 18.
“She [Ethel] helps me quite a bit, just getting things together,” said Ride, who volunteers her time at a number of other parish ministries. “Skye likes it. She’s involved with youth group, she’s an altar server, and I’m sure some day she’ll get there, too.”
Joe Titti, the historian at St. Ambrose in Endicott and a professional genealogist, noted that parish history is inseparable from family history. St. Ambrose celebrates its centennial this year and Titti is using the opportunity to demonstrate the relationship between the parish and its families.
“Parish history and family history is all intertwined,” said Titti. “Preserving the history of the parishes is tied right in to preserving the history of the families. By being a genealogist and being interested in family history, it all ties in together.”
Those interested in becoming parish historians should discuss it with their parish’s current historian or their pastor.