By Katherine Long, Editor

Unsung heroes from parishes across the diocese had a well-deserved moment in the spotlight Dec. 10 as the 2017 Immaculata Awards for Service were presented by Bishop Robert J. Cunningham during the celebration of Solemn Vespers at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse.

Instituted in December 2011 as a component of the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the diocese, the Immaculata Award recognizes and honors “those who generously and unselfishly give of themselves to their parishes and whose love for the Church has been shown through their devotion to the Holy Father, as well as to our Diocese. They are the unsung heroes in our midst who build up our parish communities by extraordinary service in parish ministry in volunteer service.”

More than 100 recipients from 78 parishes and two ministries were honored at this year’s awards. The honorees “are like Mary — God-bearers,” Bishop Cunningham said in his homily. “They brought Christ to others by their acts of service. The forms of their service are as multiple as the number receiving the award. But in every instance they have shared the joy of the gospel with others. The Good News is always more than words; the words must be observed, they must be alive in acts of love and service.”

Quoting Pope Francis, he continued, “‘Love and charity are service — helping others, serving others. There are many people who spend their lives in this way, in the service of others…. When you forget yourself and think of others, this is love!’”

Though applause is generally reserved for the end of the celebration, attendees enthusiastically clapped as Philip Cornacchia of St. Mary of Mount Carmel/Blessed Sacrament Parish in Utica received his award. At 101 years old (102 in February, he noted), Cornacchia holds the honor of being the eldest award recipient in Immaculata history.

Cornacchia has been an usher at the parish for 77 years and has spent the last half-century helping to set up the stoves at the parish’s annual summer festival. Why keep serving after so many years? “‘Cause I don’t know enough to quit,” he joked.

His pastor put into words what the humble recipient wouldn’t: Cornacchia is faithful, works hard and prays well, still volunteers every Sunday, and never misses Mass.

“He loves Mt. Carmel, he’s very dedicated,” said Father James Cesta. “The parishioners are very proud of him.”

Awardees Jody and Terry Dempsey, of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Vestal, received their Immaculatas in recognition of the 25 years they have dedicated to running the parish’s Peace Camp. Terry described the annual camp as “four days of teaching children and teens about what is peace, who are the peacemakers, and how to be peaceful.”

The message is, “you don’t have to be Martin Luther King, you don’t have to be Mother Teresa,” Terry said. “If each one of us does one act of kindness every single day, what would the world look like?”

The program has enjoyed the enthusiastic and continuous support of the parish’s pastors, and each summer some 50 teen counselors and 80 to 100 youth campers participate in the camp, the Dempseys said.

It was never their intention to be recognized for the program, Terry said. “We are humbled…. We have such a dynamite parish; it’s just wonderful.”

Lucy J. Hawthorne of Holy Trinity Parish in Fulton received her Immaculata in recognition of the 15 years she’s dedicated to coordinating and teaching in the First Penance and First Eucharist programs at the parish, her pastor and longtime friend Father Joseph Scardella said.

A lifelong member of the parish and a kindergarten teacher by trade, Hawthorne said being recognized was humbling.

“I do it for the joy of it and the light in their eyes,” she said of her service. “A perfect example was yesterday. We had our First Penance, and one little girl at the end ran up and threw her arms around me and said, ‘Mrs. Hawthorne, this is the best day of my life!’ So I do it for the beauty and the joy of doing it.”

Sister Mary Celestine McCann, OSF, has taught and ministered in many places in her 70 years as a Franciscan sister. (Her most recent ministry is on the social media platform Instagram, where she and fellow Franciscan Sisters Bernadette Joseph Kupris and Marcia Barry inspire and evangelize under the handle @nunsense4thesoul.) The Immaculata Award recipient from St. Mary of the Assumption Parish in Baldwinsville said she was grateful for it all.

“I’m grateful to God for his wonderful blessings, and I’m grateful for this beautiful diocese and the parishes and schools I’ve taught in,” she said. “I’m especially grateful to our Blessed Mother.”

Pastor Father Cliff Auth recognized Sister Mary Celestine with the award because “she is the witness of witnesses,” he said. “She’s an unsung hero. She’s always willing to be the best example for our youth and our families, and we could not have a better inspiration at St. Mary’s.”

See the complete list of award recipients here.

This story will be updated with additional photos soon.

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