OSWEGO — New Bishop Douglas Lucia of the Syracuse Roman Catholic Diocese has not had a calm, easy transition to his new job.
He now is dealing with the backlash of the May 15 decision by former Bishop Robert Cunningham to consolidate the four Roman Catholic parishes in Oswego into one in the St. Paul’s Church building on East Mohawk Street. The new church is called Christ the Good Shepherd parish and serves people who used to attend St. Mary of the Assumption, St. Stephen the King, St. Joseph and St. Paul.
Since Cunningham’s decision and the actual cessation of regular Masses at the three churches July 1, various efforts have begun to change the ruling.
A petition has been sent to a Vatican committee called the Congregation of Clergy to get the decision changed. Many Catholics in the city — most parishioners of St. Mary’s — want St. Mary’s to be the one church site in Oswego. A letter also was sent to Lucia right after he was named the new bishop.
“Our steering committee decided to send a letter to Bishop Lucia,” Oswego resident and former mayor John T. Sullivan said previously about the letter sent June 20. “We are concerned about the way in which the process (to merge parishes) was handled. We have a lot of whys. We want to try to get the new bishop to understand how significant this building and church is. It appears transparency (in the process) was not there along the way.”
Lucia was installed as bishop Aug. 8.
On Oct. 7, Lucia came to Oswego to address the closure and reconfiguration of the city’s churches. More than 200 Catholic faithful filled the sanctuary of St. Joseph’s Church to hear him talk and ask him questions in an event that lasted nearly two hours.
“Because I am the pastor — the shepherd — I know when I have to step in,” Lucia told the group. “I need to stop, take a look back, see where it all is coming from.”
He told the Oswego residents he is not a micromanager who will just swoop in and decide what should happen to the Oswego parishes. “I don’t ignore what people are saying. I will find out ‘is this what we want?’”
Lucia said in order to do that, he is suspending the July 1 decision for now and reopening St. Mary’s, St. Stephen’s and St. Joseph’s for Mass and other activities. This statement came with a rousing round of applause from those at the event.
Lucia also said since there is only one priest in the city, namely the Rev. John Canorro who serves at Christ the Good Shepherd in the former St. Paul Church, he would not be able to have the full Mass schedule from the past at all the churches. Canorro can only be so many places and celebrate so many Masses in a week.
Lucia explained numerous times during his talk that he is not simply going to look at church buildings — which one is more majestic or which contains the most beautiful artifacts. He said his primary responsibility is to foster one cohesive Catholic community, although “I have to respect the churches that make that.”
“There is one thing to be cautious about,” he said. “We have a good thing at Christ the Good Shepherd parish. We have to step back, look at what happened. People will see ‘is this what we want? Is it too much too fast?’ I don’t want us to be pessimists. Give me an opportunity to look at everything.”
After his presentation, Lucia took questions from attendees. Most of the people didn’t actually ask questions, instead giving comments on what they think should happen with the church consolidation.
A few people from St. Mary’s stated why they believe St. Mary’s should be the primary church building. Others spoke for St. Joseph’s. Lucia himself said he fell in love with St. Stephen’s the first time he saw the edifice.
Jon Shaver, Oswego, said he wasn’t at all concerned with which church was the more beautiful or carried the most history. He believes people should stop trying to keep this church or that church open and instead should try to bring young people (he is 35) back to the church.
“I go to church because I like to be with people,” he said, noting having beautiful church buildings is nice and having artifacts is nice. “We need to put the effort into bringing people of my generation back to church. The most important thing is being with Jesus.”
“We must transition from maintenance to mission,” he said.
Byron Smith, Oswego, said St. Mary’s has its own relevance and is “financially and structurally viable and should not be closed.” He also told Lucia he thinks there should be one church open on the west side of the river and one open on the east side.
Choosing which church building would be the new site for the city’s Catholic parish was nerve-wracking for all concerned, especially those in the facilities committee. Members looked at all aspects of each church building, such as space needs, appraisals, parking etc., to figure out which one to use.
The Syracuse Roman Catholic Diocese made the consolidation announcement in July 2018 and said Oswegonians would form committees and work on a consolidation plan by July 2019. The two problems facing Oswego are the reduced number of priests to serve parishes and the reduced number of people attending church.
The Hewitt history published in 1909 on the 25th anniversary of the founding of the diocese reports that the then worshipping Catholic population in Oswego was 3,050 at St. John; 1,300 at St. Louis; 3,396 at St. Mary; 3,908 at St. Paul; and 1,118 at St. Peter. The registered parishioners in the entire Oswego Catholic community in 1910 was 12,772.
Today, only about 1,200 Catholics are worshipping in Oswego.