After the last hymn was sung, nearly half of the hundred or so people who came to Mass on Sunday, Dec. 7, made their way to the basement to discuss what will happen next month when the Diocese of Syracuse apparently plans to close the 57-year-old church. In a letter received on Nov. 18, Bishop James Moynihan told the Rev. Jim Mathews that his eight years of commuting between St. Andrew’s and St. Lucy’s on the Near West Side were numbered. The two parishes have been linked since 2002, sharing a priest and joint ministries as part of the Diocesan plan to deal with a shrinking number of penitents and priests. The two congregations, according to the letter from Moynihan, will be merged, effective Jan. 18, 2009.
While the letter did not specify which church would close, there has been nearly universal agreement among members of both parishes that St. Lucy’s, which serves one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, should remain open. Another activist congregation, St. Lucy’s is home to the Native American and Deaf Ministries as well as a growing number of Hispanic Catholics. In his 2007 letter announcing the merger of the parishes, Moynihan said it would be done in a way to “assure the future of the ministries at St. Lucy’s.”
St. Andrew’s: Parish known for its activist congregation is being merged with St. Lucy’s early next year MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Mathews, who shuttles between the two parishes on Sunday mornings, said nothing from St. Andrew’s altar about the changes, but afterward said, “The people are mad, they’re angry. The linkage was working perfectly, and this worship space is beautiful.”
St. Andrew the Apostle was founded in 1951 as a mission church of St. Anthony of Padua, on the corner of West Colvin Street and Midland Avenue. The South Side was thriving, the Syracuse University area was expanding, and the new parish was led by the Rev. Frank Harrison, who later became bishop. Following changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and the arrival of a young priest named Frank Woolever, St. Andrew’s came to develop a reputation for social action. At the height of the Vietnam War, the parish made waves by taking up a collection to assist the wounded in both North and South Vietnam. It moved to its current, 124 Alden St., location in 1954.
That activism continued through the 1980s, when the Rev. Joseph Kane was pastor. In the 1990s they hosted a group of war resisters known as the ANZUS Plowshares, who were later arrested for civil disobedience at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome. Kane suggested, and parishioners agreed, that 10 percent of parish revenues be donated to mission projects and charities. The congregation today consists of 250 families, largely middle-aged professionals, who rely on Mathews for sacramental assistance and Bergan for pastoral care, while a cadre of lay people provides much of the leadership and direction.
St. Andrew’s is also home for the Syracuse Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgendered Catholics and Friends. “We’ve been here 14 years,” said Rich Mackin, who has been with the LGBT group since its founding in 1990. “When Joe Kane was pastor here he offered us the opportunity to worship, and we’ve been holding Mass here every first and third Sunday. Now we’re like everybody else here. We’re exploring other options. We still don’t know where we’ll be.”
They are not alone. Even as the deadline neared, many parishioners were conflicted, and some families were divided about where they want to worship. While many will move to St. Lucy’s, others are eager to remain united with their St. Andrew’s church family. Some even plan to resist, and there has been talk of an occupation of the church building if the Diocese should try to lock them out. Meanwhile, parishioners voiced concern for the missions they have supported over the years, including helping settle a refugee family in Syracuse and a village in Nicaragua where they have supplied medicines and medical and educational materials.
Parishioners formed the Alden Street Foundation to keep their donations out of the hands of the Diocese and to ensure that the work they have begun will continue. “We will keep alive,” stressed Bob Haley, “the things that we value.”
Kip Hargrave works resettling refugees with Catholic Charities, and has been active in St. Andrew’s since the mid-1980s. He believes that the people who have been going to the parish will now form their own community, which will remain tied to the Catholic church in some manner still to be defined. They would prefer not to have the type of confrontation or schism that has resulted from church closings elsewhere. “The only concrete decision we’ve made is that we will stick together. A lot of us will go to St. Lucy’s, or the new All Saints Parish, or Holy Cross for Eucharist, but then we will meet on our own as a community.”
As far as financial support, Hargrave and his family have stopped donating to St. Andrew’s and instead put their tithe into the Alden Street Foundation. The church bulletin offered evidence that they are not the only ones. On this Sunday last year, the collection plate netted $2,606. This year, the total dropped to $855.
The parish will hold a general meeting on Sunday, Dec. 14, in the church basement to decide their next steps.
Diocesan spokeswoman Danielle Cummings, contacted by telephone, said the Diocese would have no further information regarding St. Andrew’s this week.