Network of ministries survives despite parish closing

by Luke Eggleston
SUN staff writer

UTICA — The caterpillar’s transformation into a butterfly is a popular symbol for Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Although familiar with the before and the miraculous after, one may not know that while it is lodged within the cocoon, the creature is little more than primordial goo.

Sister Betty Giarusso, CSJ, believes the Cornhill neighborhood in Utica is going through a similar process.

“This is a time of transition,” said Sister Betty, who arrived in Utica in 1992. Sister Betty and her sisters minister in several different capacities throughout the Mohawk Valley — they have given Cornhill their presence in community.

Sister Betty currently resides on Eagle Street with three other women religious: Sisters Theresa Fournier, Lynn Abdelnour and Pat McNally. All four of the sisters participate in distinct ministries throughout the Utica area.

“My ministry here is presence,” she said. “We are here as neighbor. Our gift is presence.”

Even in transition, Cornhill sustains the foundations of a community. Recently, the sisters collaborated in a program called “Neighbors’ Network,” which strings together people with different skills throughout the community.

“These are the creative things that our time is calling for,” Sister Betty said. “We have people who are homebound, but they can knit or crochet. They just don’t know that [they can contribute].”

Meanwhile, other former homes have been converted for charitable services. Next door to the sisters’ home above Revels T-Gibson Funeral Home, for example, Faith Furniture offers affordable beds and couches for the poor. A small $10 donation is requested for delivery. In addition, the service holds an annual sale that also functions as a block party. According to volunteer Pete Campola, the funds from the party are donated to neighborhood charities or the sponsoring church, Trinity United Methodist in Whitesboro.

The network of charitable services on Cornhill is called Hospitality Row and it was generated largely through the efforts of Father Fred Daley.

When Father Daley arrived at St. Francis de Sales Church, the Utica neighborhood of Cornhill that surrounded it already had a reputation for crime and hopelessness.

But until the closing of the parish in 2006, Father Daley helped establish a network of hope called Hospitality Row, a series of private and independent social service centers that, to this day, continues to offer hope to the area.

The former St. Francis de Sales Church is the nexus for Health Friends, Hope House, Thea Bowman House, Abraham House and New Horizons, each of which provides some form of relief to Utica’s urban poor.

Health Friends offers prescription medicine and other forms of health care to the uninsured, and the recently-founded New Horizons, which is located in St. Francis de Sales’ former rectory, provides shelter for young women struggling to get by. The Thea Bowman House is a nurturing place that makes daycare available for economically-disadvantaged children and families. St. John’s Church, which merged with the parish community of St. Francis de Sales, still opens the doors of its food pantry and Hope House also provides food. The common thread between each is the support of local Catholics, but Father Daley stressed that people of many different backgrounds contribute.

“It’s a great example of a continued interfaith effort,” he said.

Although Father Daley has moved on to new accommodations at All Saints Parish in Syracuse following a brief stint at Christ Our Light in Pulaski, his example helped create the independence each member of Hospitalty Row now enjoys, according to Bob Kloster, the president of Health Friends, which Father Daley co-founded in 1999.

Kloster explained that Father Daley’s plan ensured the sustainability of each center on Hospitality Row.

“First of all, Father Fred’s method of operation [was crucial]. He would help found each place and set up boards but then he let them become independent,” Kloster said. “We’re all freestanding entities. We interact through referrals as the need arises and we deal with a lot of the same people.”

Health Friends has enjoyed considerable success during the last decade. Since it opened, in 1999, Health Friends has provided a total of $3.5 million in medication. The ministry recently held its major fund raiser, the Celebration of Health Friends, at which Father Daley was honored as the Health Friend of the Year and which raised $50,000.

Because of Father Daley’s approach, each center remained viable after St. Francis de Sales closed its doors.

“The closing of the church did not impact us negatively and that’s largely due to Father Fred’s modus operandi or setting up freestanding boards,” Kloster said. “The biggest impact was that Father Fred is no long in our community and that left an energy void.”

But most of the ministries were inspired by the example Father Daley provided when he was in Utica.

“We tried to emulate his way of doing things and his approach to ministry,” Kloster said. “He set a wonderful example. He was a catalyst.”

Despite the economic problems plaguing the U.S. currently, Health Friends has retained a steady stream of local support.

“Most of our support has been consistent,” Kloster said. “I think people like to see funds put to use in their own communities.”

Sister Betty explained that when the local ministries were in their infancy, they could rely on St. Francis de Sales Church for support. But since the church’s closing, the network has become self-sustaining and has expanded its operations.

“When the different ministries were birthing, they were in the shadow of the church,” she said. “It was a conscious choice that they would become collaborative ministries. Think of it as an ever-widening table, which accommodates more and more.”

Sister Betty stressed that Hospitality Row was inspired by people in need, not the church building.

“They were dreams that needed to be actualized and they were dreams being born from the needs of people,” she said. “The church is here on Hospitality Row even if the building is closed.”

Despite the problems people confront on a daily basis in the Cornhill area, Sister Betty believes it presents people with a unique matrix for interaction. Within a short walk from St. Francis de Sales is a Buddhist facility. In another direction, one encounters a mosque.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for reconciliation,” she said. “Trust develops and then the healing begins.”

Recently, Sister Bernadette Kapfer, CSSF, helped facilitate hope for peace and reconciliation in the troubled area when she assisted in founding the Memorial Peace Garden at the Thea Bowman House. The monument was built to memorialize children who have died as a result of violence. According to Sister Bernadette, “It provides an island of color for this area in the west side of Utica.”

The former St. Francis de Sales School is another institution that brings together disparate people. In addition to helping immigrants and refugees acclimate to life in the U.S., the center provides a place for those seeking help.

“This building has really become a hub for social services on Hospitality Row,” said the facility’s literacy liaison Mickey Smith.

According to Smith, many immigrants take advantage of the services as soon as they arrive. Shortly after, however, they contribute to the community.

Recently, several refugees sold some of the crafts they had been working on at the center and donated half of their proceeds to Hope House.

Victoria Naw is a 16-year-old Notre Dame Junior/Senior High School student. Her family fled from Myanmar into the U.S. six years ago. Once a student at the center learning English for
the first time, Naw is now a teacher’s assistant at the school.

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