Saint Lucy’s Church: where sinners and saints are one in the same

A Catholic church in Syracuse's Near Westside is challenging conventional religious traditions.

As Father Jim Matthews begins the 9 a.m. service at Saint Lucy’s Church near Syracuse’s Westside, all is far from quiet. Although Matthews speaks into a microphone, he can barely be heard over the sound of church members greeting old friends.

Two men say hello over a special handshake, one that has clearly been repeated over many Sundays. Another woman approaches a member of the church who is in a wheelchair, asking if he’ll need a ride home.

Photo: Katie Shafsky
Church members gather around Father Jim Matthews as he says a prayer over the Eucharist during a Sunday mass.

Some people sit in the handicap-accessible pews, while others sit in the chairs surrounding the altar. It’s an unusual setup for a Catholic church — the altar is level with the congregation, not raised above, and folding chairs surround it, bringing the parish members up close and personal with their priest.

Behind the altar is a large sign that reads “We Are Called To Be Peacemakers,” and a church member wears a pin that says “Ordain Women,” matching the one of Rev. Matthews wears on his robe. The walls are lined with photos not of holy idols, but instead of leaders of social justice movements; Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and of course, Rev. Matthews himself.

“St. Lucy’s continues to attract me because of the passion of the people,” said Rev. Jim Bresnahan, a member of St. Lucy’s Church and former pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. “They’re really committed to working with the poor, not just on behalf of the poor and the needy, but with those building relationships between those from different circumstances in life.”

A congregation like no other

These relationships are important, especially on the Near Westside, where 60 percent of residents live in high poverty, according to a 2015 Century Foundation report.  That’s the highest in the entire country. The city of Syracuse also currently has the highest level of concentrated poverty among blacks and Hispanics, according to the same report; a problem that extends to the neighborhood where members of St. Lucy’s are reaching out to.

Many of the church’s members are from wealthy suburbs like Skaneateles and Baldwinsville, but unlike members of other churches, their charity work goes far beyond placing a check in a basket on Sundays. From their trio of outreach — including a food pantry, free hot meal and an extremely low-priced clothing store — on Wednesdays to their Sunday services that include interpretation for the deaf and disabled members of the L’Arche community actively participating in mass, St. Lucy’s is truly a church unlike any other.

But what draws the people of St. Lucy’s church together is exactly what, in other circumstances, might keep them apart: their differences.

St. Lucy’s church first opened its doors on the Near Westside in 1872, making it one of the oldest churches in the Syracuse area. Carole Horan, who has lived in the neighborhood for 44 years, says part of her decision to move to the area was the community at St. Lucy’s. Horan says the church has always been very involved in social justice movements and community outreach, which is what draws so many members.

“It’s just so loving and accepting that people come from Skaneateles,” Horan sais. “They come here because there’s life and love and acceptance here. Otherwise why would you drive on a Sunday morning to get to a 9 o’clock mass.”

Rev. Matthews came to St. Lucy’s in 1991, and served as the priest at both St. Lucy’s and St. Andrews from 2002 until 2008, when the churches officially merged. While the church has always had a mission of being socially conscious and inclusive, Matthews took this idea even further.

On Labor Day of 1998, a violent storm rattled the bell hung above St. Lucy’s sending it through the roof and down into the basement of the church. The storm destroyed the steeple and bell tower and made the sanctuary completely unusable, and Rev. Matthews was forced to to hold services in the gym of St. Lucy’s Academy.

“I looked out and the whole steeple feel probably 100 feet into the street.” Matthews said. “Fortunately it fell away from the rectory, because if it would have fallen the other way, we would have been dead.”

Matthews said that the church received help from congregations of many different denominations — not just Catholic — and that it was wonderful to see how people from across religions, races and economic backgrounds reached out. But that wasn’t the only way that the storm brought people together. Mary Kay Burkett, who has been a member of the church since 1998, and her husband were drawn to the church when they heard about the St. Lucy’s ordeal.

“We went down and went to the gym and it was just a wonderful service,” Burkett said. “The mass was great, the people were great, and we never turned back.”

It was during those services in the gym that Matthews decided to make the church even more inclusive, and rebuilt the church with the lowered altar that exists now.

“That was kind a beginning of a whole new way of living here,” Matthews said.

Their call to service

While there are many programs working to support the impoverished residents of the Near Westside, St. Lucy’s is a place where action is key. Jane Cate, who works as a volunteer at the Bread of Life, a program that offers meals to anyone who needs or wants it, on Wednesdays, knows about how important giving can be first hand.

A few years ago, Cate found a man and a woman living under a bridge, and after befriending them, brought them to to her home in Skaneateles. Cate says she offered them showers and clean clothes, and then stood the pair in front of a mirror so they could see themselves as more than just homeless.

“I stood them there and said ‘this is who you really are,’” Cate said.

And then there’s Lenora Monkemeyer, who smiles fondly at Cate as she carries two large bags of clothing that she’s hoping to send to protesters of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. Cate says Monkemeyer doesn’t have any heat herself, but is always more concerned about helping others.

Monkemeyer comes to the Bread of Life meal every week, even if she has to wear four layers  and plastic bags on her feet to make it through her walk in the Syracuse winter.

“This is the best place in town to eat for a vegetarian,” Monkemeyer said. “It’s just another way St. Lucy’s tries to make sure that there’s something for everyone.”

Across Gifford Street from the Bread of Life is the Agape Shop, which sells clothing for children, men and women — along with household goods — at exceptionally low prices. Mary Beth Henneberry, who works at the Agape Shop and came to St. Lucy’s from St. Andrew’s, says that the shop serves both residents and students from the Westside Adult Learning Center, which is housed above the shop in St. Lucy’s Academy.

She points to a huge pile of black bags stuffed in a small room with about six women, who sort through the clothes and decide what to sell and what to donate to Goodwill. Henneberry grabs more bags as they come in, and the women move quickly and precisely — they’ve all been here for years. Henneberry says that at first, they weren’t sure whether to charge, and spoke long and hard about what would best benefit the community.

“We decided that we would charge minimal prices because you have more of a sense of ownership with having paid for it,” Henneberry said.

And while St. Lucy’s does some of its most important work outside of their services, the feeling inside the church during its Sunday mass is one that can’t be ignored. The church is filled with people from different denominations, different backgrounds and different abilities. But as you see members greeting each other with hugs and kind words, it is clear that different is the last thing anyone at St. Lucy’s feels.

Reaching out, speaking up

Teresa Gavagan is one of the interpreters for the deaf community that attends St. Lucy’s on Sunday. She says that the weekly interpreted service started in 1973, and that almost instantly people wanted to learn more about sign language.

“In my experience, St. Lucy’s has always been a very open and welcoming place,” Gavagan said. “And has really tried to accommodate the needs of the people who attend services there, and also people in the neighborhood.”

When her son, who is autistic, was born, Gavagan took a break from her role at St. Lucy’s. She moved back to the area about 11 years ago and is now back at her post next to Rev. Matthews, with her son next to her and people of all abilities signing along.

“They’re not a separate group,” Gavagan said. “And I think that’s the way it is at St. Lucy’s across the board.”

But while members of the church have high praise for the way their congregation is run, the unusual nature of St. Lucy’s doesn’t please everyone. Bresnahan, who is a theological scholar now teaches a monthly bible study at the church, says that the welcoming nature of St. Lucy’s during Holy Communion each week is uncommon in the Catholic church.

“In Catholicism, there’s been the long standing tradition of only welcoming Catholics to the eucharistic meal, and that’s not the case at St. Lucy’s,” Bresnahan said. “Of course the bishop might not be very happy with that, but it’s all inclusive. Even people of no faith, but who in being part of that ritual that feel a part of the community and may not understand things in the way others understand it. But everybody’s welcome.”

Rev. Matthews, who was fired from two separate congregations before coming to St. Lucy’s, is adamant about his rejection of the traditional exclusivity found in the Catholic church. He firmly believes in the idea of women’s ordination, and allows parish members to give homilies, or sermons, each week — something that is against the laws of the Catholic church.

But what frustrates Matthews most about the church? The idea that impoverished people, like those living on the Near Westside, cannot live up to the standards that the Catholic church sets.

“The church sits down there in their sterile board rooms and they make rules and regulations,” Matthews said. “They should come and spend three months, six months, living with, listening to, hearing the problems of the people, and it would soften them up. They wouldn’t be so rigid in the way they make all their laws and rules.”

Real human beings

Towards the end of the service, the members of St. Lucy’s all grab hands, with Rev. Matthews in the center of the pews. They sing out in prayer, their voices echoing from the high ceilings of the church. It is a sound that could give even a non-believer chills.

And then, there is the kiss of peace. Traditionally, members of a church turn to the person next to them and say “peace be with you,” a part of mass that usually takes under 30 seconds. But not at St. Lucy’s.

“In our church it takes about 10 minutes, people they’re hugging and kissing, that would drive the bishop nuts,” Matthews said. “They walk all over the place, they talk, it’s noisy, it’s messy, it’s real. It’s human beings relating to human beings. That’s what I like about it, it’s crazy. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

As people wish peace to old friends and new, Rev. Matthews makes his way around the church, smiling. He is the head of St. Lucy’s, but acts as if he is no more important than any other member of his church. It’s not how the Catholic Church would say that it’s “supposed to be,” but for Rev. Matthews, it is right.

“I don’t expect to get a Christmas card from the bishop,” Matthews said.

He laughs.

Visitor to St. Lucy's last Sunday!

My husband and I were staying in Syracuse for the weekend and attended Sunday mass in Saint Lucy's Church. I was moved to tears during the beautiful service by the very warm and loving welcome we received by Rev. Matthews and the parishioners! It was the most moving, spiritual mass I have been to as a practicing catholic. If more parishes could follow this style of worship, regular attendance would explode! This is what is missing in many of our parishes today. The real family community, nonjudgmental and all accepting of all it's members is what we are called to do as Christians. God Bless Rev. Matthews and all of Saint Lucy's family! Thank you for an unforgettable visit! Love and Prayers for your beautiful community.
Kathy Bierker

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