On August 5, 2012, Chris and I wrote a post about the Shrine and Museum of Saint Marianne Cope (you can find it here). I won’t re-tell the story about what she did that is so famous (you will have to go back to the original post and read about it!) but I will tell you that she was officially canonized, making her a saint on October 21, 2012 and yes, we got a little ahead of ourselves by calling her a saint in August. But anyways, when we were at the Shrine of Saint Marianne Cope in Syracuse, New York, we met a member of the laity to the existing Franciscan convent named Jean Anne. Jean Anne explained to us then that the church of the Franciscans, known as the Franciscan Church of the Assumption, was just around the corner and that we should definitely check it out. After we left the Shrine, Chris and I actually did go drive by the Franciscan Church but due to it being late in the day and simply being tired, Chris and I took a rain check.
Almost a year later, Chris and I made plans to return to the Syracuse area during the New York Landmarks Conservancy Sacred Sites program in order to see what Chris wrote about last week (found here). We originally did not even plan on going to see the Franciscan Church of the Assumption because we felt like we may not be able to do it justice since we felt like we had a busy day. Plus, we also learned that the Franciscan Church was not even participating in the Sacred Sites program. However, not to be put off by Chris feeling “too busy” or by the lack of participation in the Sacred Sites program, I called ahead and after several phone calls back and forth, I was able to schedule us an exclusive tour of the place when it is not usually open.
For those of you not familiar with the neighborhoods in Syracuse, the Franciscan Church is in North Syracuse. We were a bit naïve about what this meant, until when I called and was informed that the church was always locked because it is in “North Syracuse,” and we would need to meet our contact via the back entrance. So, Chris and I drove down Salina Street to the Franciscan Church, turned down a side street and into the parking lot behind the church and then still walked in through an unlocked door into the church rectory. Once inside, we were quickly met by the guy we were scheduled to meet, Friar Nick. Friar Nicholas Spano is one of ten brothers who continues to live at the monastery located on the grounds of the Franciscan Church of the Assumption, which in its heyday was one of several buildings that made up the Franciscan compound on the entire city block. Friar Nick also informed us he was easily the youngest Friar as well at the age of 32, and all of the other brothers had at least 20 years on him. Chris and I quickly learned that despite being an active Friar in a monastery, Friar Nick was even more sarcastic than we were…so needless to say we got along great!
As we walked in to the monastery, one of the very first portraits hanging on the wall was of Saint Marianne Cope. We explained to Friar Nick that we were familiar with the legacy of Saint Marianne Cope and how we went to visit her Shrine the year before. Friar Nick then proceeded to share some of the Franciscan Church history with us as he proceeded to walk us into the literal church itself through a secret entrance (not really, it was just a side door that only the Friars use). As we walked in, it was actually a bit eerie at first being in such a massive space with only minimal lighting on and all that could be heard was water falling from a little man-made water feature. Friar Nick eventually turned the lights on, causing Chris and I to realize the true size and grandeur of the sanctuary we were standing in. What immediately caught my attention was not the Main Altar, but instead was the statues of certain prophets on the side walls of the central nave in between the arches, and above them the even bigger busts of the Apostles. I really could not stop looking at these statues for quite a while since they are all different and very finely detailed.
Friar Nick then shared with us that right here in Syracuse, New York was the very first mission of the Franciscans outside of Europe. Permission was granted by the Bishop in 1843 to build a ‘German church’ and construction of this original church was built outside of the city of Syracuse on the site of a local vineyard. The first mass was eventually said in 1845 and it was not until 1859 that the Conventual Franciscan Friars took possession of the parish and have remained ever since. It was in 1862 that Saint Marianne Cope began her journey here in the Franciscan Order. Like many churches of old, the original church quickly became too small for the growing German population of immigrants in Syracuse. Construction for the new and existing church was begun in 1865, and by 1867 the church was officially completed and dedicated (however, the two bell towers seen today were not added yet). The two enormous bell towers did not come until 1872, and when they were completed, they measured 175 feet high and were originally topped with copper. According to the web site, the heaviest of the five bells (each of which are dedicated to a particular Catholic saint) in the two towers weighs 6,567 pounds! Chris and I did not go all the way up into the top of the bell towers, but we did climb up them enough to get into the balcony where the organ is located. As we were walking up, we quickly noticed that there was a giant whole in the ceiling and Friar Nick informed us that there is currently work being done to the bells and the only way to service them is to remove the pre-existing cut-outs in the floor/ceilings straight up the 175 feet to the bells. After thinking about it, this makes sense, because how the heck in 1872 did they even get a 6500 pound bell up there in the first place? Friar Nick shared with us that in order to get the bell up there, there was quite a long and complicated pulley system, with a team of horses out on the street that needed to be used to hoist the bells to the top of each tower. Just hearing this story almost makes me wish I could see this sight today.
We actually had to walk up quite a far ways just to get to the balcony where the organ is located and it felt very Hogwarts-esque (Harry Potter reference) climbing the stairs. I later learned from the web site that the loft is one of the highest in the area and is 48 steps from the vestibule. Once in front of the organ, Chris and I quickly began to poke around to see if we could climb inside and sure enough, we did just that. Once inside though, Friar Nick thought it would be funny to start actually playing the organ and let me tell you, it is freakin’ loud in there! If you’d like to know how loud, here’s a video from Chris’ iPhone. According to the Franciscan’s web site, “The organ is composed of nearly 3,000 pipes ranging in size from over 16 feet to the size of a pencil. It is estimated that full replacement costs today would exceed $1,000,000.” While still upstairs, we walked to the side lofts where back in the day parishioners would sit, even though you literally could not see anything. However, Friar Nick reminded us that back then it was pre-Vatican II, meaning that the ceremony was not performed with the parishioners in mind nor did anybody care if they could see, and that seeing the ceremony has only come about within the last 30 years or so. Also while we were up there, we were able to get a much closer look at the size of the statues on the walls I was describing earlier.
On our way back down, all three of us passed through the front vestibule or narthex, Friar Nick pointed out to us the engraving over one of the front doors to be the Franciscan coat of arms. I took a picture of it because I thought it was cool and something that is not in every church. I later learned from the web site that the “coat of arms has its origin around the middle of the fifteenth century pictures two arms crossed against the background of a simple cross. The right unclothed arm of Christ passes over the left arm of Francis, which is clothed in a sleeve. Both hands bear the wound mark of a nail.” Across the narthex on the exterior of the building over the very front door is a stained glass window of the Archangels Michael, Uriel, Gabriel and Raphael.
Off of the narthex and completely separate from the actual church still is the Baptistry. This was easily one of the more ornate Baptistry rooms we have ever seen and Friar Nick explained to us the tradition of having a Baptistry separate from the church, since traditionally one is only allowed in a church if they have been baptized. However, this tradition has been relaxed over the years and even they, like most churches these days, has a smaller less ornate Baptistry located closer to the Main Altar. This particular Baptistry was installed in the church around 1912 and requires one to enter through a pair of bronze gates. Once inside, there is built in marble seating around the circular room, with the bronze font sitting atop a marble pedestal. The domed cover includes a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist baptizing Christ.
Eventually we returned to the main floor of the church itself and Friar Nick allowed us to wander around a bit and see things for ourselves. Like many churches, there are very beautiful stained glass windows flanking each wall of the church, with the Stations of the Cross being represented in-between each window. Looking towards the organ and the main entrance to the church, there is an enormous mural of the Assumption and above it are several panels of what seem to be finely carved reliefs. Plus, there are statues or pictures of angels everywhere and Friar Nick shard with me there are 537 angels to be exact! The three of us met back up at the Main Altar and Chris asked his usual question of if the Main Altar houses any relics in it. Friar Nick assured us that there are indeed relics, but he just didn’t remember of who. I looked up later that they are the relics of St. James the Less and St. Anthony of Padua.
Back at the Main Altar, which is the way we entered the church, we asked any remaining questions we had and Friar Nick shared with us he was going on vacation to the Caribbean somewhere. I asked Friar Nick if he was going to take off his habit when he was on the beach, which he laughed out loud in response to. I can think of several other faith systems that keep on their traditional garb, so I did not think this was a stupid question but apparently it was…because, unbeknownst to me (but I guess Chris knew), it is okay for a Friar to remove their outfit when they go on the beach! Who would have thought? Friar Nick also mentioned any interesting tidbit of information about how the Franciscan Church of the Assumption was one of two churches in Syracuse, NY that was eligible for Basilica status, with the other being what is now the Sacred Heart Basilica (which we visited a year ago as well, found here). Friar Nick shared with us the “behind-the-scenes” story of this contentious procedure and that some felt a bit slighted that the Franciscan Church was not chosen. (For more of this story, you will have to email us personally). Friar Nick was quite enjoyable to talk to, but we also got the impression that our tour was nearing its end so we walked back out through the rectory which we had entered and said our goodbyes.
However! As some of you may know, Chris is an avid user of Foursquare. Foursquare is an app for the phone that allows users to check-in where they are and to also see where other people who use Foursquare have checked-in in the area as well. As we were leaving, Chris looked at Foursquare and learned that nearby there was something called the “grotto church” and asked Friar Nick about it. Friar Nick did not seem to be aware what this was, and I simply assumed it was the little garden altar outside near the parking lot. Unfortunately, Chris will tell you that I talked him out of pursuing the matter any further and we then left the Franciscan Church. Later during that same day, Chris made some random post to Facebook about our adventure that day and one of the comments on his post asked Chris if while at the Franciscan Church, he had gone to the ‘Grotto Church.’ This caused quite a stir between Chris and I because we are both very perfectionistic and do not like to leave a place with something left unseen. After scouring the Franciscan Church web site, we learned that we did indeed miss seeing the Grotto Church… So, if any of you have been to the Grotto Church at the Franciscan Church of the Assumption, please share your experience here with us!