Sacred or profane: Church relics ignite bitter dispute

A disagreement over the placement of a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, pictured above, is at the center of a dispute over the fate of St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Oswego, after it was not chosen as the site of the newly formed Christ the Good Shepherd parish.

OSWEGO — Parishioners of St. Mary of the Assumption are crying foul on the relocation of a cherished statue to the former St. Paul’s church site, as local Catholic leadership attempts to unify reluctant parishioners under the newly formed Christ the Good Shepherd parish.

For many Oswego parishioners, the statue of St. Francis of Assisi at St. Mary’s Church is not only a relic of their faith but a standing ode to the beloved pastor to whom it was dedicated, the late Rev. Robert Hall. When maintenance workers were spotted Aug. 12 moving the statue, parishioners say they took it a sign of their heritage being erased after St. Mary’s was not selected as the physical location for the combined parish.

Rev. John Canorro, pastor of Christ the Good Shepherd parish, told members of the church community the new parish would borrow the St. Francis statue, according to multiple parishioners who agreed to speak to The Palladium-Times under the condition of anonymity. But Syracuse Diocese officials now say the statue is at Christ the Good Shepherd to stay.

“It’s not a matter of ownership. It’s a matter of making [Christ the Good Shepherd] everybody’s church,” said Rev. Jim Lang, the diocese’s vicar of parishes. “We decided we would put in theme centers, so that everybody would have something that was special at the new parish.”

As far as New York state laws governing religious nonprofit corporations are concerned, St. Mary’s parish and its property have yet to be merged with Christ the Good Shepherd, and the church remains a separate entity with its own assets, according to documents obtained by The Palladium-Times.

Consolidation of St. Mary’s parish community and its assets — including statues and relics — as a nonprofit religious organization into Christ the Good Shepherd requires the approval of the church’s lay trustees, Thomas Roman and Mary Beth Docos, who were last month appointed to one more year in their post.

Documents obtained by The Palladium-Times show that neither trustee signed the resolution, indicating St. Mary of the Assumption Church and its property remain a separate entity from Christ the Good Shepherd.

While the St. Mary’s remains in a state of limbo, concerned parishioners are attempting to maintain it as a co-equal counterpart to Christ the Good Shepherd on the city’s west side. Former Oswego mayor and preservation activist John Sullivan told a crowded library of angry parishioners the question for their group to solve is “how do we as a group of Catholic parishioners and Oswegonians and members of an iconic church best work to preserve its integrity, its identity and its structure?”

“Those of us who are looking to preserve St. Mary’s are open to compromise for a two-church solution,” Sullivan told The Palladium-Times. “We’re not opposing one overarching organization; we’re asking for some stability in that process and a stability that would ensure St. Mary’s is preserved.”

Meanwhile, diocese officials are still seeking trustee approval to merge its assets with the newly formed parish. Lang said the diocese would engage in an “ongoing dialogue” with the local parish leadership until they comply with the merge.

“As soon as we start recognizing there is one parish — as soon as we can start to build a common identity with each other — we can start resolving what to do with the other church,” Lang said. Danielle Cummings, spokesperson for the Syracuse Diocese, said she does not want the ongoing dialogue to be combative but one in which both parties mutually recognize their common efforts to preserve a beloved church.

“This isn’t us versus them,” she said in a recent interview with The Palladium-Times. “We recognize that this is a group of people that love their church. All of this is seen as a reflection of the fact that they are instilled in their faith and they want to make sure their church is preserved.”

Diocese officials maintain that St. Mary’s is too costly as an independent church to maintain into the future. Lang said there aren’t enough funds to sustain a west side campus moving forward.

“We certainly agree with them that St. Mary’s is a beautiful church,” he said. “No matter how beautiful the church is, we are a people with a mission and not a museum.”

The quantity of Oswego Catholic churchgoers has dropped precipitously in the last three decades, according to officials diocese spreadsheets obtained by The Palladium-Times, a trend that follows suit with a nationwide shift in Catholic demographics.

In 1987, 175 baptisms took place at a total of six parishes in Oswego. In 2017, that number dropped to 62. Also telling is the decline in faith formation students in grades 1-8 which decreased from 225 in 1987 to 72 in 2017.

Lang said immigrant populations have made up declines in church attendance in regions of the country that see greater influxes of immigrant populations than central New York communities.

“The essential factor is that Oswego has changed in the last 30 years,” Lang said. “The situation of declining parishioners is a northeast phenomenon. In the south and southwest, the (Catholic) population is booming.”

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