St. Vincent de Paul serves a diverse congregation

By Eileen Jevis
Staff writer

The parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Syracuse are a blend of young families and senior citizens. Many have migrated to the U.S. from South Sudan, Ghana, Kenya and other parts of Africa. Others are life residents of Syracuse and longtime parishioners at the church. The congregation, while diverse in culture, age, language and economic means, has one thing in common. “They all love God and are proud of their Catholic identity,” said Father Severine Yagaza.

Father Severine is a native of Tanzania in East Africa. He is the pastor at St. Vincent de Paul and Blessed Sacrament, a chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital and a priest on-call at Crouse and Upstate University hospitals.

Father Severine Yagaza, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul and Blessed Sacrament parishes, with some of the First Eucharist communicants.

He said St. Vincent’s has about 200 families who call the parish their spiritual home. “Most of the new Americans from Africa tend to be young families with a good number of children,” said Father Severine. “Since most of the elderly new Americans have their roots in Sudan, they find St. Vincent a place where they can come to worship and socialize and participate in church functions.” Father Severine said that while the children would like to participate more in the church activities offered, transportation isn’t always available because their parents work multiple jobs.

“They are very industrious, hardworking and community oriented,” added Sister Mary Joana Baidoo, head of the refugee ministry. “They cherish their faith and family. I’m inspired by their determination and commitment to keeping the identity of their various nationalities and cultures while at the same time assimilating into American culture.”

Sister Joana’s native home is Ghana, West Africa. She is a member of the Religious Institute of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of Christ. Prior to coming to the U.S., she served in Nigeria for 14 years. Her order sent her on a mission to the U.S. in 1999 to serve congregations in Indiana and Illinois. “I was one of the first Sisters from my order assigned to work in the Roman Catholic Diocese in Syracuse at the invitation of the late Bishop James Moynihan,” she said. Sister Joana has worked in missionary services for the diocese for 24 years. She was assigned to St. Vincent’s in 2004.

Carl Oropallo is a lifelong parishioner as were his grandparents before him. His ministries include lector, Eucharistic minister, chairman of the finance committee and president of the St. Vincent de Paul Daycare Center.

Oropallo has seen many changes in the parish through the years — a congregation that was previously served by three priests and a Catholic school that has closed. “It was a typical congregation with many people coming from European countries that added to the diversity of the parish,” he said. Oropallo is very involved in the refugee ministry and said he has learned a lot about the culture of the Sudanese community and their practice of the Catholic faith in Sudan. “Their family values and interest in education has led many to graduate from college, learn a trade and become a loyal employee. They are very committed to their family members in Sudan, sending them money for food, housing and medical care.”

Sister Joana said the congregations are zealous in their evangelization. They celebrate their diversity at an annual event called “Taste of St. Vincent’s” where parishioners enjoy ethnic meals prepared by the families.

The parish also runs a weeklong vacation Bible school and welcomes all children to participate. “There are different themes each year,” said Sister Joana. “We emphasize the Holy Eucharist, which is the source and summit of our faith. And we highlight the presence of Jesus at Mass during consecration under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine.” Sister Joana said that the instruction is done in the languages each child understands.

Field trips are also arranged during vacation Bible school. “The children visit various parishes in the diocese to teach them how to integrate with fellow Catholics and to remind them that we are all one Church,” said Sister Joana. “As we welcome others to St. Vincent’s, we want our children and families from other countries to know that they are welcome to hear the message of Jesus Christ at whatever Catholic parish they visit.”

“Our church has been in existence since 1897 and we hope we continue to offer sacraments for years to come,” said Oropallo. “We know that there are many obstacles — aging members, the dwindling numbers of church attendees and a large, older building. But we persevere and trust in the Spirit’s guidance.”

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