Diocese responds to concerns over St. Mary's

Over 150 local parishioners, pictured above last week gathered at the local Hibernians lodge, submitted petitions to the Syracuse Diocese to preserve the St. Mary of the Assumption parish, or at least preserve the church structure as an oratory chapel. 

Consolidation drawing near, tensions grow over fate of nearly 100-year-old church 

OSWEGO — Monday marks the day when the Port City’s four Catholic parishes are legally united as a single entity of Christ the Good Shepherd as tension runs high between parishioners and the Diocese of Syracuse over the fate of St. Mary of the Assumption Church.

Following an 18-month review of the Port City’s Roman Catholic Church campuses, Bishop Robert Cunningham of the Diocese of Syracuse in May announced St. Paul’s Church would be the site of the city’s consolidated parish, Christ the Good Shepherd. Bishop Cunningham cited financial stress and declining church and clergy membership — on the heels of three other Oswego Catholic churches closing in recent years — as reasons for the merge.

“The choice of location involved four parish campuses, each of which has the challenges of aging structures and equipment, city parking issues, ADA standards and the challenge of finances,” Cunningham wrote in his letter to parishioners in May. “Each parish served Oswego well, even when each parish served a much larger community.”

Starting July 1, there will be no such things in Oswego as St. Paul’s, St. Mary of the Assumption, St. Stephen the King or St. Joseph’s parishes, at least not as far as the Syracuse Diocese and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are concerned. Church officials are planning a commemoration ceremony for July 6 and 7.

However, for many local Roman Catholics whose families have been part of the same church community for generations, these four parishes, especially St. Mary’s, are very much alive and in need of protection.

An ad hoc “St. Mary’s Preservation Group,” started by parishioners, gathered 160 petitions in a single night last week, urging the diocese leadership not to merge St. Mary’s parish or close the church structure.

“Our ultimate hope is to retain the parish of St. Mary’s,” Kristie Pauldine, one of the parishioners leading the charge in negotiations with the diocese, told a full room of concerned Catholics last week at the Dean Michael Barry Division 1 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. “However, if that is not possible we hope to retain the St. Mary of the Assumption Church as an oratory chapel or shrine. But we above all oppose any sale of any church building.”

In an email to The Palladium-Times, the diocese responded by referencing canon law that grants the bishop complete authority in uniting any four parishes under the diocese’s jurisdiction. For Bishop Cunningham, this covers 114 parishes across central New York.

Another 977 people, not necessarily parishioners, signed a petition on Change.org to preserve the parish or at least maintain the 94-year-old church building for its historical and cultural significance.

Diocese officials say there’s no telling what the future holds for the three church buildings that weren’t selected as the site for the Christ the Good Shepherd parish, leaving the door open to commercial sale, historic preservation or neglect. Until the structures’ new uses are determined, they operate as arms of Christ the Good Shepherd, according to Danielle Cummings, Syracuse Diocese chancellor and director of communications. 

“The church buildings will be available for funerals, weddings, special events and programs authorized by the pastor,” Cummings told The Palladium-Times in a recent email. “Other parish buildings may be used for educational meetings, and administrative purposes as designated. They will each function as if an oratory, which are churches that have significance to the history and tradition of the Oswego community.”

Cummings added the use of the buildings may “evolve based on the needs of the Catholic community.”

“It has not yet been determined how these buildings will be used in the future,” she said. “At the moment, it bears repeating that no church building will close on July 1.”

During the 18 month review, the Syracuse Diocese solicited real estate and architecture studies by Stropp Appraisals and Teitsche-Kent-Fay Architects PC to determine the cost and maintenance feasibility of operating each of the four church properties and reportedly determined St. Paul’s to be the most cost effective, Cummings said.

The study showed that 20 years’ maintenance of the St. Mary’s exterior could cost an average of $100,000 a year, according to the diocese. This excludes the costs of heat, lights and ministerial programs.

St. Mary’s activists turned to canon law to rebut the potential closure or sale of the church campus, arguing that the bishop is not allowed to close, relegate or sell a church unless it is demonstrated to be in “grave” need of closure from disrepair, natural disaster or lack of funding.

“If the church has not been destroyed and if there are sufficient funds available to pay the routine and capital expenses associated with the church’s continued existence from a source other than parish funds, it is unlikely that any attempt...to permanently close it would be sustained on appeal,” canon law expert Brody Hale, a licensed attorney advising the preservation group pro bono, told the parishioners in a recent Facebook post. 

Since the parish maintains a robust donor pool, the preservation group is trying to build the case that there is no evidence of “grave” status that would warrant its closure.

“While one can appreciate the idea that there is a robust donor pool, the current reality does not demonstrate it to be a fact,” Cummings said. Cummings noted total mass attendance in the city was over 11,000 parishioners per weekend at its height, which dropped to 1,100 parishioners according to the diocese’s latest count.

If the diocese eventually decides to close the church building to Roman Catholic use in spite of parish petitions, parishioners could take the case to the Vatican and enter into a grueling appeals process, Hale said in an interview with The Palladium-Times.

“It could take multiple years to settle a case then,” Hale said. “We hope it doesn’t get to that point.”

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