By Eileen Jevis | Staff writer
“Serving others both helps those in need and creates contented hearts in those who are serving.” — Father Joseph Champlin
These words, spoken by Father Joseph Champlin, inspire his staff to carry on his vision. Twenty-five years after he founded the Guardian Angel Society and 13 years after his death, the staff, Board of Directors and volunteers work diligently each day to continue his mission of providing support and access to a faith-based education.
Father Champlin ministered for 50 years. His first assignment was the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. He subsequently served as pastor at Holy Family in Fulton and St. Joseph’s in Camillus. He returned to the Cathedral, whence he retired after serving as rector from 1995 to 2005.
Working and ministering in the heart of downtown Syracuse, Father Champlin realized that too many children at Cathedral School were not graduating from high school. He was committed to finding a way to stop the cycle of poverty by helping children receive a quality education based on a strong set of values. In 1997, he founded the Guardian Angel Society, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing tuition assistance, mentoring and tutoring services to help build a path to success for students from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. He recruited a dedicated group of 40 volunteers who helped prepare elementary school students for junior high and high school.
“In the early days, it was Father’s dream to have a mentor for every student at Cathedral School,” said Sarah Ioele, executive director of Father Champlin’s Guardian Angel Society. The mentoring program is a large part of what the Guardian Angel Society provides. Adults help the students navigate through life on many levels. “Any child who would like one, has access to a mentor to support them in their academics, emotional well-being and to assist them with developing life skills,” she said. The organization supports children from elementary school through high school graduation.
Families are required to contribute to their students’ success. Ioele said that families are asked to participate in the Society by giving of their time, talent and treasure while receiving scholarship funding so that the organization can help future students and continue Father Champlin’s legacy. To date, over $3 million in tuition assistance has benefited more than 300 students.
William Crist, superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Syracuse, said Father Champlin never wanted to turn away a student he believed would benefit from a Catholic education but did not have the means.
In 2006, Cathedral School merged with Our Lady of Pompei School. It is now known as Cathedral Academy at Pompei. “The school is a sanctuary for so many children from diverse backgrounds,” explained Crist. “It has become an oasis where they feel safe, loved and accepted.” Crist said that after completing elementary school, many students continue on to Bishop Grimes, Bishop Ludden or Christian Brothers Academy. “Father Champlin ensured scholarships would be available for those families in need until they graduated from high school.”
Melissa Morris is the mother of J’Naia Stepp, a 2021 graduate of Bishop Grimes. Morris shared with staff members how much the Society meant to her family. Morris recently received an M.S. in Social Work and is now working full time. The family is flourishing and just purchased their first home. Morris said she owes much of her success to staff and volunteers at the Society who helped keep her kids in school and guide them on a strong path to success. Once all her children graduate, Morris plans to support the Sponsor-a-Student Program as a way to pay it forward.
After a hiatus, the Guardian Angel Society is once again hosting the Kentucky Derby Party on May 7 in the historic Marriott Syracuse Downtown’s Grand Ballroom. The event will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Society. All proceeds will be used for tuition assistance and mentorship and tutoring services. Sponsorship opportunities and tickets are available. For more information, visit guardianangelsoc.org or call 315-422-7218.
“Father Champlin had a vision of opening wide the doors of education to all children,” said Ioele. “Thousands of lives have been forever changed by his dream of offering educational opportunities. We’ve made a significant impact in the lives of so many children and their families and we look forward to another 25 years of continuing Father’s legacy.”