Syracuse’s Landmark Preservation Board gave the North Side Learning Center permission Thursday, April 3, to remove six crosses from the outside of the former Holy Trinity Church at 501 Park St. The crosses “are not in line with the worshipping practices,” said the petition to the preservation board.
The board also approved a request to put a fence around the property. The group will return to the board with specific plans on how it will remove and preserve the crosses and details about a fence.
The North Side Learning Center, a volunteer-run group started in 2009 to serve the refugee community, bought the former Roman Catholic Church, rectory and school building for $150,000. The building was constructed in 1891 to serve the neighborhood’s growing German Catholic population.
The North Side Learning Center plans to rent the former church to a group that is turning it into a mosque to serve the growing Muslim community on the city’s North Side. The mosque will be called Masjit Isa Ibn Maryam, which means Mosque of Jesus the Son of Mary.
The church has been vacant since 2010, when the Syracuse Diocese closed it as part of its restructuring. The former Holy Trinity merged with St. John the Baptist, a few blocks away.
The Syracuse Common Council in July 2010 voted unanimously to add Holy Trinity to its protected site list. The Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board and Syracuse Planning board also approved the request, which the Syracuse Diocese opposed. Locally protected status gives the preservation board authority over exterior changes.
Volunteers, many of them immigrants, have been working for weeks in the building’s cavernous sanctuary. After the church closed in 2010, the heat was turned off, causing water damage inside. Volunteers are repairing the wood floor, repurposing pieces of wood from former pews. They plan to repaint the inside. They will create curtains that can cover the windows during worship services but open at other times to allow sun to flow through and allow neighbors to continue to enjoy them.
Yusuf Soule is the volunteer executive director of North Side Learning Center. He also works as coordinator of OnCampus, Syracuse City School District program for students with disabilities who attend classes on the Syracuse University campus.
He describes himself as “raised Protestant in an Irish Catholic neighborhood” and converted to Islam. His wife, Fitria, is from Indonesia and teaches English. The two have a 3-year-old son and a 1-1/2 year old daughter. They are expecting their third child in a few weeks.
How did the plan to buy this property come about?
More than 150 people contributed to finance this. A lot of business owners, refugees and business people, people from Utica helped. Some people literally gave us a dollar. Some people gave us $15,000. Some people gave us interest-free loans.
Why open a mosque here?
Location, location, location. The North Side is the magnet for refugees. The two agencies that work with refugees (InterFaith Works and Catholic Charities) are here. I wish people could see beyond CNN and see Muslims as individual people.
What do you want people to know about your mosque?
It’s a place of worship. Many good people came to America for religious freedom. That’s still the case. Most of our refugees have pretty heart-breaking stories. If they came here for refuge, we should give them refuge.
What do you think is underneath the opposition?
Change is difficult for everyone and this is certainly a major shift. This is the perfect place for the North Side Learning Center. This is mainly for the people of the North Side. We are not competing with anyone. The Islamic Society of Central New York serves the university area well. This would serve the North Side well. We have no place in this community to serve 5,000 people for our major holidays. How many people are really upset about it and how many will be served? Anyone who says la illaha il Allah muhammadir rasul Allah (no God except God, Muhammad is his messenger) is welcome.
What will happen to Bob School (the city school district’s Refugee Assistance Center)?
The school district is leasing it through June. We hope we can work something out so it can stay.
Why do you want a fence around the property? Some people might interpret that as trying to keep people away.
That is based on our prior location (808 N. McBride St., above the Family Dollar store), where there has been some trespassing and minor vandalism. We have to keep our volunteers safe. Every time we put up lights, people break them. There is a tavern across the street and perhaps unsavory things are going on there. We are wide open. We are not being secretive or insular. We want people to come and see what we’re doing.
Tell me about the name of the mosque.
We are calling it Masjit Isa Ibn Maryam, which means Mosque of Jesus the Son of Mary, to honor this neighborhood and its past.
Why do you want to remove the crosses?
When I drive home, I see thousands of crosses. I understand the sentiment. If you are a good Christian, I respect you. We are Muslim. We don’t use crosses. We are going to paint inside the church because we don’t honor icons. We can’t pray in a place that has images of animals or humans. They are beautiful, but when we are praying there should be no images. We focus on praying to God and not being distracted. The only decorations inside a mosque are Arabic words.
Do you think people are more upset that the building won’t be used as a church or that it will be used as a mosque?
I don’t know if there’s underlying racism. I just don’t know. People say, “They’re going to convert people. And kill them.” Are you kidding me? We’re not evangelical. We’re not knocking on doors. We just want to do good things in the neighborhood.