By Dyann Nashton | Contributing writer

NEW HARTFORD — Pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish Father Kevin Bunger stood before a group of almost 40 in the church pews Saturday. He provided a brief history of the building, the first in the diocese built following Vatican II in 1966. Then he said, “God bless you and thank you. Now let’s roll!”

Father Bunger pulled his white vestment over his head and clicked down the aisle in his cycling shoes and biking attire.

The Ride4Faith was a program for junior/senior high school students to explore the churches of the Greater Utica area. The all-day event featured nine churches on its itinerary, all with a unique program. In addition to St. John, the ride included Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of the Rosary, Sacred Heart & St. Mary’s Our Lady of Czestochowa, St. Joseph’s/St. Patrick’s, Holy Trinity, St. Louis Gonzaga, and St. Anthony & St. Agnes. The free event concluded with a closing ceremony and Mass at St. Mary of Mt. Carmel/Blessed Sacrament Church.

Non-perishable food items were donated throughout the event for Mother Marianne’s Soup Kitchen.

Before lunch at St. Joseph’s/St. Patrick’s, Ellen Benton, parish evangelization director, explained the story and significance of St. Marianne Cope, who grew up in Utica. She told the young people, “Here in this vicinity, we’re really walking on holy ground … Pray to her. I know she is watching over our valley. We’re her people … The new saints aren’t as busy as the older ones like St. Anthony. We bug him every day whenever we can’t find something.”

Coordinator Christine Gray said it is common for young people to not be engaged in Church and say they attend Mass because “Mom makes me.” She said, “It’s okay not to have a perfect fit in your home parish. Each church is uniquely beautiful and has something different to offer. They may grow up, move away and return as adults and this exposes them to different parishes. Maybe they are having a difficult time with something and now they know there’s a grotto… where they can go for quiet minute or two. Or, perhaps there’s a parish program or outreach activity that appeals to them.”

Today’s technology is a big aspect in the lives of youth and has to be taken into consideration, Gray added.

“The Ride4Faith helps them detach from their devices and take in reality,” she said. Sometimes, she added, the technology can be used to develop and share faith as well. “The kids have my cell number and I tell them to text with prayer requests. They don’t need to identify themselves, but if they need someone to pray for them if they’re struggling at school I can help with that.”

Ray Durso, executive director of the Genesis Group, a Mohawk Valley civic organization, said he appreciated that the Ride4Faith was a “faith raiser not a fundraiser.” Durso’s daughter, Gianna, participated in the ride. Gianna and friend Brenna LaFountain are both Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School sophomores and members of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish.

Brenna said she learned about the ride from her Confirmation teacher. The girls said highlights of the ride included learning about the rich history of the churches and they particularly liked learning about the Black Madonna at Holy Trinity.

Eighteen-year-old Mark Lewis is a senior at Clinton High School and a member of St. Louis Gonzaga, a Maronite Catholic parish.

“Our youth group is really active. So it was really good to come out and see other youth groups from the area and other ethnic parishes. Visiting the different churches was more interesting than expected. Sometimes we’re more detached in religion classes because of the subject matter, but this was different.” His 15-year-old brother Jacob said, “I liked the workout of getting to each church” rather than being dropped off to a program by parents.

The event required insurance policies and numerous permits from several municipalities and the New York State Department of Transportation, said Gray. Several local law enforcement agencies served as police escorts to ensure rider safety, she added.

“We worked the timeline over, under, front and back with all the participating churches and each one had fascinating things to share with the riders,” she said.

Dyann Nashton is a writer from Oneida.

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