By Elizabeth L. Pratt
Sun contributing writer
Historic Old St. John’s Church in Utica and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville are the oldest and youngest, respectively, parishes in the Syracuse Diocese. As the diocese celebrates 125 years this month, the stories of each of these parish communities — founded 166 years apart — celebrate their Catholic faith and Christ’s call to serve others and share His message of love.
Located in Utica, Historic Old St. John’s Church is the fourth oldest Catholic Church in the state. The parish was established in 1819, long before the Syracuse Diocese was formed. The third structure, which is the church building currently used, opened at Christmas 1869.
“Since we’ll be celebrating our 200th anniversary in eight years, we decided to do the best we possibly could to restore and update the church for future generations,” said Father John Buehler, pastor at St. John’s. “The people here are extremely generous.”
Generous they are, as evidenced by the $1.2 million in pledges for their five-year capital campaign, and the more than $900,000 already received. The funds made it possible to make improvements to stairs, steeples and the roof; a new restroom and special doors have increased handicapped accessibility. There are new storm windows over the stained glass ones, and air conditioning has been updated.
“The people here are not only proud of the church structure, but they’re proud of the history of St. John’s,” Father Buehler said, noting that some families in the parish had ancestors dating to 1819.
The church offers five Masses each weekend, one in Vietnamese and one in Spanish. People come from all over to attend St. John’s, including Boonville, Ilion, New Hartford and Rome. The church’s 35-member choir draws large crowds, especially during Holy Week and at Christmas, and incorporates Spanish, Vietnamese, German, Italian, Polish and Latin hymns into the celebration.
The church is an outreach center, helping more than 600 people a month with food and more than 250 with clothing. The Christmas program supplies toys for about 60 children and food for 300 families. In the summer, a month-long vacation Bible school is open to all, but especially to inner-city children.
“These people are just so generous, they’ve been an inspiration to me,” Father Buehler said. “They have taught me to depend on God and to live the Beatitudes, and that God’s grace is sufficient for us all.”
For more information about Historic Old St. John’s Church, call (315) 724-6159.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville, with 1,250 families registered and numerous programs, is a very active and modern parish, which fosters a family environment.
“There are lots of young families, lots of excitement,” said Father John Finnegan, administrator at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. “When the parish was first founded, there was almost a feeling of pioneering.”
Established in 1985, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church began celebrating Mass before it even had a building. Local developer Frank Fatti, a parishioner of St. Joseph’s in Camillus, donated eight acres for the new parish. During construction, Masses were held at the Moyers Corners Fire Hall, Aspen House in Radisson, Maurer Funeral Home and Palmer Elementary School.
“It worked out wonderfully well,” Father Finnegan said. “That first year before we had a building, we had 55 children make their First Communion.”
The building was designed to reflect the principles of the 1978 American Bishops document Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. There is seating all around the altar, and there is gathering space outside where people greet each other before and after Mass.
Another hallmark of this young parish is its youth program. Students take part in community outreach programs at local nursing homes and have been part of Young Neighbors in Action, a service learning program for teens, traveling to Buffalo to work with inner-city youth.
An active CYO basketball program has had 500 participants in grades eight through 12 over the past 15 years. Father Finnegan said 45 to 75 kids can be found in the parish’s gym on Friday nights, playing basketball or enjoying games of pool, ping pong, air hockey or even singing karaoke.
Youth are also very involved in Mass, especially at the youth Mass at 11 a.m. on the first Sunday of each month.
The parish also has a vibrant religious education program, with about 100 students in each grade. The church also runs a preschool on site. The “Die Hard Disciples” is comprised of youth singers and instrumentalists and provides the music for the youth Mass. The parish also has plenty of active adults, especially on the parish council.
“I think our parishioners love their parish,” Father Finnegan said. “It’s their parish, they made a lot of the decisions, and they still have lots to say. They’re always trying to make things better.”
For more information about St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, call (315) 652-4300.