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Original Text and Graphics Copyright 2015 by David Griffin,

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

St. John's Church and UCA

You won't find me calling the church Old St. John's.  It was old the day I was baptized there in 1943.  It didn't need to be called old then and it doesn't now.

Since the 1800's this imposing structure presented itself to anyone walking east on Bleecker Street from the Busy Corner. It's the back of St. John's Church and the front door of its Rectory.  The Rectory is the attached mansard-roofed building in the foreground.  The addition on the right used to attach to the old St. John's School.  The school became Utica Catholic Academy in the 1900's and was later torn down, around 1961.  As UCA students, we had heard the UFD complained for many years about the school's lack of fire safety.

Rather than take us off track regarding UCA, you're welcome to visit the MoreStories and Utica History site where I've put together memories of the school.  Click on the following url and then click on "Utica Catholic Academy."

The photo above was taken after extensive sand blasting of the brick exterior.  When I went to school there from 1957 to 1960, the brick face was painted red.

Here are a few photos of St. John's Church through the years.

Today.  On the left in this photo is where UCA stood for 125 years until torn down after 1960.  Oh-Mary-We-Crown-Thee-With-Flowers-Today  still stands guard on the grass, no doubt warding off the devil as he tried to bring his bag of wares to her school. 

In the photo you can see the Utica Observer Dispatch building in the background on the right.  It's fairly close to St. Johns, which is the reason we could feel and hear the presses roll up to speed in the old school building, as I point out in the story, Pride.  "The next day I sat in math class up the street in an old brick high school building with roots down to the sub strata of rock.  My soles could just feel the vibration of the presses start up for the Valley Edition at 10:30 in the morning.  I felt exactly like the person Al told me I wasn’t, a bum."


 Stereoscopy card showing St. John's without steeples.  The church burned down ... I forget the year, I think around 1875 ... and during the reconstruction there was a period of time the steeples were unfinished.  They might have run out of money. 

   Although a downtown church with many wealthy members at one time, St. John's was always a neighborhood church, too.  Over the years many of the nearby residents were anything but well to do.  

In the above photo, you can see the baptistry on the south side of the church.  It looks like a small silo.  When I was baptized in 1943 and through my years in high school the baptismal font resided there, but was later moved to the main altar. It looks so much less regal sitting there at the top of the steps, compared to when it all but filled the baptistry.  I imagine it got a little crowded  around the baptistry when baptisms went from one family affairs to events with multiple families and their relatives.  It's always a shame, however, when any part of any liturgy suffers the loss of symbols ... what my Uncle Harry called "smoke and bang."  In fact, it's tone deafness (and rather Jesuit) to not recognize the need for smoke and bang in liturgy.  We are human, after all. Something inside us responds to incense and color and light and music.  The heart is what God is after, not the mind.  At one time Catholics had a lock on smoke and bang and enjoyed probably the highest percentage of Sunday attendance of any denomination. Now they're selling their churches.



You can see the third floor of UCA in the top left corner of this photo.   The shot might have been taken ten or so years before I arrived at UCA in 1957.  By that time John Street was all in color.   :)   

Note the peaked roofed building in the upper right corner of the photo.  I think this is the old court house, as I discuss in the MoreStories and Utica History forum, mentioned above.  Below is another photo of the John St. Garage, but the court house was obscured by construction in front of it. The shot below looks to have been taken in the mid  1960's.  The roof of the old courthouse could still be seen in 1960 when up on the third floor of the old UCA.

By the way, here is the area we're referring to, from the Utica 1883 map with my notes.

 I'll never forget days like these.  Loved them.  Who could complain?  I didn't worry about driving at that age.  Took the bus, and I remember them stopping their runs due to snow only once during my childhood in Utica.  The joy in one's heart  knows no bounds at the prospect of the rest of the day off from school with the History test cancelled, probably no school the following day ....   Ah, the good life.

Above, almost my Alma Mater.  In 1959 the diocese decided boys and girls should be separated and the old UCA should close with the Class of 1960.  Other considerations ... probably money ... caused them to think the opposite by the 1970's when the bishop reversed course and took a giant leap back to the 20th century.  In 1960 there had never been any reputable research to show co-educated students didn't do as well as those separated by sex. There still isn't.

  After 1960 the girls were sent to the old St. John's orphanage on the hill above Genesee Street in South Utica while the boys joined other young men from St. Francis High School in the new Notre Dame High School.  During it's first year of operation classes were held in the old Country Day School in New Hartford next door to what was then Utica Mutual Insurance.  The new school building on Burrstone Road was completed in June of 1961, just in time for Notre Dame's first graduating class ... of which I am a member ... to use the new auditorium for the ceremony.  There was no way the administration would countenance  graduation activities from the old Country Day School.  If parents had seen (and smelled) the fly infested, falling down structure they would have asked for their tuition money back.

Above,  Sister Helen's sense of humor was legendary.  As long as you were behaving.  I believe these young women were from the Class of 1962.  So they were sophomores at the time of this photo.

Above, another scan from the 1960 UCA yearbook. Photos top and bottom look like students from the last class of 1960.  I recognize many of them. The young men in the middle photo with Father Fensky at the desk appear to be boys from different years, probably grabbed from the hallway for the shot. In that same shot in the middle of the page there is an invocation spelled out above the black board.  I don't think you can read it here, but on the original scan I can see that it speaks to the times, the late 1950's:  Our Lady of Space, Pray For Us.

My dad as a young man may well be somewhere in this photo. He attended St. John's all his life and was buried from there in 1989. Even when we lived in other parishes in the city, he managed a kind of dual citizenship. St. John's has been my family's church down through the years.  My great great grandfather Michael was married there sometime after 1824 when he arrived from Ireland.  His son Patrick's family and one generation or another since has either been a formal member of the parish or supported the church as my father did.  Many of us have been buried from there, including my older brother last year.  As for me, I don't think I'll be buried. I want  most of my ashes tossed over the water from the ocean's sandy shore early some morning when the sun is coming up.  But perhaps my son will save a bit of me to drop somewhere in Utica.  Who knows, maybe he'll happen to throw the tiny bit of ash somewhere in St. John's.

I said a lot of prayers in this church.  All of them were answered in one way or another.  You could call me a satisfied customer.

Outside the church, a gusty squall  churned up snow in the slushy street.  The wind  nudged me in through the huge brass plated doors, past Holy Water bowls the size of bird baths and down  the long nave into the old building.  Walking  among the pews,  I sensed  the immensity of the structure as small sounds echoed about me to accent the silence.  
 Looking around the huge and ornate house of worship, it was apparent that in the 19th century God and Mammon had run neck and neck in a  race that God must have lost.  Gold filigree wound around carved columns that arched up and over  a 25 foot high altar.  The white Italian marble floors shined as bright and clean as my soul on the day of my christening, when Uncle Jim carried me to the gold baptismal font.  One more Griffin reporting for duty in a line that extended back to my ancestor  Patrick’s baptism here in 1830.   Afterward, my Aunt Margaret would have carried me from the baptistry past the darkened Stations of The Cross hanging on the grey stone walls.  If the morning had been  sunlit,  the high stained glass windows would have provided  wonderfully colored splashes of reds and greens and gold to wash down the steps and out onto the expanse of white floor.
I looked up to the yellowing chandeliers and imagined the great empty space rising above me to the vaulted ceiling held the souls of countless men and women who had vowed their obligation to God and their love  to each other in this place held sacred.  Many were my ancestors and contemporaries, husbands and wives,  sons and daughters,  mothers and fathers.  One life after another consecrated to something that could only be felt in such surroundings.  Hands holding the oil and water in baptism.  Hands holding each other tightly at the altar in marriage. And hands letting go as the one left behind  touched the casket for the last time in that awful moment of goodbye.
My thoughts turned to Elizabaeth, who so often reminded me of Ruth in the Bible.  She had stayed by me  through all of the ups and downs of our journey, standing when I couldn’t, loving when I wouldn’t,  when I made her happy and when I made her cry.  She had given me a little card once that promised, “… as long as I have the breath to speak your name, I will love you.”  And one night when we were very young, she had spoken to me with her eyes, as Ruth said to her husband,  “Come, spread the corner of your cloak over me and set me free. ”   And when I did, I was unchained.  I had found a heart like mine."

                  - from the story “Lovely Friend” in the book, “Heaven,” copyright 2009 by David Griffin