St. James Church deepens relationship with community and the homeless
By Connie Berry
Parishioners from St. James Church in the Valley neighborhood of Syracuse have been making sandwiches for the homeless men at Catholic Charities’ Oxford Street Inn for 25 years. When Father John Manno arrived four years ago, he challenged them to go deeper, to find a way to expand their commitment to the marginalized. The first time the parishioners cooked and served a hot meal at the Ox it was on a cold night a few years ago. One of the men asked innocently enough, “Will you be back?” and that simple question made all the difference. The parishioners answered with a resounding “Yes!” and that began their very real commitment to serve.
Last Saturday, March 3, Father Manno blessed a new kitchen in a renovated space that used to be a crowded storage room at the parish. A couple of shiny ovens, metal shelving, a brand new washer and dryer and tables to work from now make up the St. Marianne Cope Outreach Center at St. James Church. Now the parish has a sort of “central command” area to provide its outreach in the community.
The parish has named its outreach efforts “Emmaus Ministry” and it has expanded since that first trip to the Ox. Emmaus Ministry includes several opportunities at the Ox such as monthly foot care, weekly haircuts, meals five times a month, holiday greeting cards for the men, coffee and donuts all holidays, Scripture sharing, monthly birthday cards and Holy Thursday washing of the feet. Although St. James Church is the base of operation, there are now other parishes joining the ministry efforts. St. Lucy’s Church, Holy Cross Church and School, St. John the Evangelist in Camden, Holy Family in Fairmount, Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, Onondaga Valley Presbyterian Church and Onondaga Community College have all joined St. James’ efforts.
The recent blessing of the St. Marianne Cope Center paved the way for a project taken on by the combined confirmation classes of St. James and Our Lady of Lourdes. After the ribbon cutting and blessing, the teenagers cooked some large pans of ziti, put together some snack bags, followed their culinary efforts with 4 p.m. Mass and then trucked the dinner over to the Ox where they would spend their Saturday early evening serving the men and touring the facility. For nearly all of them, it was their first real encounter with homelessness.
Paige Kelly and her sister Madelyn are confirmation candidates and they made the trip to the Ox after helping package some sweet treats. The girls are sophomores at Corcoran High School. Paige said she was a little nervous about visiting the homeless shelter, but later said she really shouldn’t have been.
“There really wasn’t any reason to be [nervous],” Paige said. “The men there were very helpful, they helped carry in the food and they were very kind and appreciative.”
Paige said the experience at the Ox made her realize just how lucky and privileged she is in her own life. She said she would recommend a trip to the homeless shelter for people her age. “It is extremely fulfilling and to actually serve the food and go to the homeless shelter made it feel like I actually made a small difference.”
Her classmate in confirmation, Brett Puglisi, is a sophomore at Westhill High School. Brett said he didn’t expect the beds to be out in the open and he assumed there would be tables for the men to sit down and eat.
“My trip to the Ox made me become more aware of how many unfortunate people there are only four miles from my house,” Brett said. “I realized how unfortunate other people are and how fortunate I am to have my luxuries. It felt really good to help them out and do my part in my faith and community. I am glad I went to the Ox.”
Sheila Austin is coordinator of Emmaus Ministry and her experience serving the marginalized has changed her life. Her father, General Curtis Irwin, passed away last October and funds he left behind made the renovations and new kitchen possible at St. James.
Looking back, Austin said memories of her father’s generosity have much to do with what she does today. He was aware of the outreach Austin was doing from St. James Parish and she shared stories with him. Austin said she remembers years ago when a woman was about to be evicted from her south side home and her father and some of his friends from the 174th Fighter Wing came to the rescue repairing the house allowing the woman to stay in her home. Now his legacy allows space for Emmaus Ministry to store food for the end of the month when the food stamps run out for families. The space also holds winter coats, jeans and boots for homeless men. There is an area to store the products used for foot care and a place for the toiletry items collected. Roland Diaz does all the laundry after the monthly foot care visits to the Ox and he also launders the donated clothing before it goes to the men. Austin said there are now dozens of parishioners who regularly give their time and talents to Emmaus Ministry. Along with the donations from the community and parishes, a HOPE Appeal grant helped stock the food pantry shelves.
Father Manno said there is a very real difference between making sandwiches and dropping them off and the more hands-on, present ministry happening now.
Last summer Emmaus Ministry hosted barbecues in the city neighborhoods. On hot summer days, members brought popsicles to the kids and parents at the parks in the area. Chris and Brenda Casinella from Holy Cross Parish offer a soup and coffee canteen ministry for the homeless living under the bridges and on the streets. This, Father Manno said, leads to people asking “Who are you?” It makes the church visible to people in the community and more importantly, he said, it brings Christ to the people.
“I don’t think we knew where this was going when we started,” Father Manno said. “We’ve all driven by homeless people or seen them. There are 400 people homeless in this city every night. Think about it. We’re forced to respond to this. These are beautiful people. We have to accept them like we accept Christ.”
The new kitchen and center at St. James means that Emmaus Ministry can offer all parishes a complete service experience. They can come to St. James, cook a meal and then deliver it to the Ox all from one site. Austin is available to coordinate the efforts and she is also willing to come and speak at any parish or other community organization. She can talk about the relationships she has built and the satisfaction she has knowing there is a way to make a tangible difference in any community.
To contact Emmaus Ministry at St. James Parish, call (315) 469-7789 or email