Parishioners say goodbye to city church

ROCHESTER — Beams of bright sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church as Deacon Daniel Hurley urged the community gathered before him to keep its generous and caring spirit alive wherever the road may lead.

"Our memories will always be there," Deacon Hurley remarked during the Jan. 9 liturgy, which marked the church’s closing. "Bricks and mortar are not important. … What we do here is recharge our batteries to do God’s work out there. That’s what we have to continue to do."

About 200 people attended the bilingual Mass — including former parishioners who returned to say farewell to the church in which they or family members were baptized, married and buried.

In its more than 100-year history, Our Lady of Perpetual Help was always a home for immigrants, beginning with the Germans who built it, then later Polish and Italian families, and most recently natives of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba, said Father Laurence Tracy in explaining why the bilingual closing Mass was appropriate.

The choir even performed a German hymn led by Irene Sultzbach, who has been a parishioner for a quarter of a century.

"I’m so positive it was sung at the dedication of the church (in 1904)," she added. "It needed to be sung."

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, at 1089 Joseph Ave., and Light of Christ at St. Andrew, 923 Portland Ave., were the two churches selected for closure as part of a diocesan planning process that intensified last summer for parishes in the northeast part of the city. The worship sites for continuing use in the new parish of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini — St. Michael Church at 869 N. Clinton Ave., Light of Christ at Annunciation at 1754 Norton Ave. and Our Lady of the Americas at 864 E. Main St. — were approved by Bishop Matthew H. Clark at the end of 2010.

Sonia Ramos of Rochester found a home at Our Lady of Perpetual Help more than 10 years ago and attended the church’s Spanish Mass every Saturday. She cried as the Mass came to a close.

"I’m sad," she said, because her daughter was married at the church and so many of her grandchildren were baptized there. "I have so many memories."

Many of those in attendance took pictures throughout the Mass in an effort to capture final memories. Father Tracy said that a church is a physical place where parishioners mark and record these important sacraments and milestones in parish family life; a place where parishioners come to encounter God. But a church also is the people, he noted.

"Church is also a … family where we gather to strengthen the bonds of love and friendship," Father Tracy said.

The legacy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help can be summarized, he said, in the final soliloquy of the Book of Job, when Job expresses pride for the good works he has done to help provide for the poor and prays to rise with honor as the phoenix rises from the ashes.

"This has been a church that has welcomed the visitor and the stranger," Father Tracy said. "How many people have found acceptance and love here at OLPH? … It has been a refuge for the weak and the forsaken and the hungry (who) found supper, healing and love, friendship and food, clothing and furniture."

One example of that hospitality has been the OLPH community’s commitment to the homeless mothers and children who come to Bethany House, said Donna Ecker, who spoke after Communion. Two years ago, she said, the ministry for these women in crisis found a home adjacent to the church at 1111 Joseph Ave.

"Because of your generosity, God lives on in this neighborhood," she said. "God’s plan for us often calls for change and transition. I want you to know the good you have done. … Your hearts and spirits are not limited to this building. God will be with you to guide you through this transition."

Norma Bruni, who was one of three parishioners walking arm in arm to bring the gifts to the altar before Communion, said she does not know what the future holds.

"We were a family who loved each other and did things together," she said. "I can’t wrap my mind around what has happened. … I’m a Catholic. I will die a Catholic. But I have to find myself again."

Father Tracy asked everyone present to not think of the Mass as a goodbye.

"That second experience of church as people is very important," he said. "I want to see you again. … We all want to be together again. We can and we will."

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