Cathedral father and son bring beauty to the diocesan campus downtown

By Dc. Tom Cuskey

Evangelization is all about breaking down walls. In this case we’re talking real brick walls, no metaphor intended.

This summer, visitors to East Onondaga Street in Syracuse, where the diocesan chancery and Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception rectory and offices are located, have been treated to a beautiful slice of God’s creation via a floral transformation of some plain — dare we say unattractive — brick walls separating chancery parking from the sidewalks on the north side of the street.

“It starts with Father Neal (Msgr. Neal Quartier, Cathedral rector),” says John Ansun, the Cathedral’s facilities chief. “He has always asked me to come up with creative ideas to make the Cathedral more inviting, more beautiful, not just for the person who comes here but for everybody, visitors and people who just walk by.”

That’s what makes this beautification project a form of parish outreach to the community.

“Like the Prayer Park,” John adds, referring to the area between the Cathedral and the rectory where one can sit in peace and enjoy the flowers and shrubbery. After he joined the parish staff in 2018, the area once used for parking during the Cathedral renovation was transformed into the garden. That turned out to be just the beginning.

“When (diocesan facilities director) Ed King said that they’re going to chop these walls down, I thought we could extend the gardens,” Ansun adds. Reducing the height of the walls was a security and safety measure, to give a clearer view of the parking lots and protect pedestrians. “It’s hard to see people as they pass by and there was a big concern. So, when he said they were going to cut them down, that made this possible. I got creative with Shaughn; we put these together.”

Shaughn is John’s son, also a very capable craftsman who was helping at the Cathedral this summer.

“We built it, start-to-finish. We got the steel that goes underneath it, acts as support. We cleaned it up, painted it, attached everything,” the younger Ansun says. “I didn’t plant it though, he planted it,” Shaughn laughed, pointing to his father.

“Yeah, it was just a chance to make something, to add some beauty to the city, to the Cathedral,” John replied, with a trace of a proud smile on his face. Proud of the work and unmistakably proud of his son.

It wasn’t long, though, before other voices inevitably got involved, recommending they plant this or that.

“Basically, it’s timing,” John states. “It’s whatever is in bloom at that time. When we finished, we were ready to plant it, and it’ll be in constant change. I’m thinking about doing some bulbs or something so that, come springtime, it’ll add more interest.”

John has a long history of working within the diocesan structure, having also spent time working directly for the diocese and facilities such as Stella Maris Retreat House when it graced the shore of Skaneateles Lake. Father and son have worked together these past years on various projects, but Shaughn is now planning to take the legendary advice of 19th century newspaper editor Horace Greeley to a young man in his day.

“I am trying to go and explore the West,” he shares, “and I’m in the process of building myself sort of a truck camper.” Yes, Shaughn may not be the planter in the family, but he is something of an engineer. His four-wheel-drive “truck camper” is a converted dump truck equipped with solar panels to fuel the creature comforts of life on the road.

In the meantime, John reminds his son that “the door’s always open, but you have to take to the adventure while you can.” And the community gets a little journey as well, to enjoy the handiwork of the family partnership. It’s a work of love and work of faith, transforming a downtown street into a beautiful garden-like promenade and inviting all people to share in the beauty of God’s creation. That is a true act of evangelization.

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