By Dyann Nashton | Contributing writer
UTICA — During the Nov. 4 Mass to conclude the yearlong bicentennial celebration of Historic Old St. John’s Church, Syracuse Bishop Robert J. Cunningham affirmed, “This 200 years is a benchmark … and a sign of God’s enduring grace and the people’s response to it.”
Historic Old St. John’s Church was founded as The Saint John’s Catholic Society of the City of Utica on January 25, 1819. Nearly 1,000 families have called Historic St. John’s their parish home. The church has the distinction of being the first Catholic church in the Diocese of Syracuse and the fourth oldest Catholic church in New York State.
Bishop Cunningham, who concelebrated the Mass with 30 area priests, described Pope Francis’ discussions on “the journey” and told those assembled that “it is a journey of hope and memories” which mirror the past and the future. He said this includes the many parishioners who had come before them who were “witnesses too numerous to count.”
Historic Old St. John’s Church’s red brick structure welcomed visitors to Utica’s downtown area on this special day with the peal of church bells, just has it has always welcomed generations to the area. It was part of the Archdiocese of New York long before the Diocese of Syracuse existed.
“It was our first church west of Albany and North to Canada,” noted Father John A. Buehler, pastor.
The church building itself is actually the third rendition of St. John’s. The original was a 45- by 60-foot white, wooden structure. Bishop John Connolly, the first bishop to ever visit Central New York, dedicated the church in 1821. The second church was a Greek Revival building costing just $20,000. The third church was dedicated in 1872, two years after a Christmas Mass was offered there before the building even had windows, plaster, or pews. A 2013 renovation provided a fresh coat of paint inside, an elevator, and some special pieces from the former St. Francis DeSales Church including lighting and a sacrificial altar.
“So many people think of the church as the church building, and we have a beautiful building. But what is truly beautiful to me is the United Nations of faces that you see worshiping here,” said Father Buehler. Once, he said, St. John’s and indeed Utica was an “outpost” that welcomed all people of all nationalities.
Later, different churches grew up where people with similar backgrounds worshiped together. “Today, the City of Utica is again a city of immigrants. The refugee center is here and we have a lot of new residents” including those who are Spanish-speaking, Vietnamese or from South Sudan, Father Buehler said. Mass is offered regularly in Spanish by Father Luis Olguin and in Vietnamese by Father Tuoi (John) Nguyen, who travels from Our Lady of Pompei/St. Peter in Syracuse.
Families who were a part of the parish for generations and who now live in other parts of the county still call Historic Old St. John’s home. “We have one parishioner turning 100 this month,” Father Buehler said, “and she says St. John’s is the only parish she has ever known.”
“Our parish was built on the backs of Irish immigrants who came helping to build the Erie Canal,” Father Buehler said. “Then when the railroad came through it brought many other people of Italian, Polish and German descent.” A study of the church’s historical facts traces the advances in modes of transportation. The bishop who made that first visit to Central New York arrived via stagecoach.
The parish also has a rich history of ministry with its food pantry, clothing store, and Christmas toy programs for those in need. Father Buehler said the parishioners and the greater community are generous because they know they are supporting these outreach efforts. “And they do it in such a quiet way,” he remarked.
Anita Brown, bicentennial committee chair, and her committee worked hard to plan the year’s festivities, which kicked off with a concert in June and continued with historic tours, a golf tournament, and the annual parish bazaar. She said 350 attended the gala dinner at Hart’s Hill Inn held after the Nov. 4 Mass. Leila and Mishkar Nunez-Fredell, nationally and internationally famous violinists, entertained the crowd before dinner and played during the Mass earlier in the day.
At the gala, speakers and presenters were brief and represented many of the cultures of Historic Old St. John’s. Historian Kevin Schultz addressed the crowd on behalf of the church’s German descendents. He noted that Germans were the largest minority population in Utica for a time in the late 1800s. Germans established what is known today as the F.X. Matt Brewery and many of them became part of the fabric of Historic Old St. John’s, as so many others did.
Together, they all raised a glass around the table Historic Old St. John’s has set for the members of the community for 200 years.