North Country Glory
Assumption Church Is Oldest Conventual Franciscan Church in U.S.
BY Joseph Albino
August 9-22, 2009 Issue | Posted 7/31/09 at 2:02 PM
Assumption Church, on the north side of Syracuse, N.Y., is the foundation church of the Conventual Franciscan Friars in the United States.
The roots of the parish date to 1843, when 24 German-speaking Catholic families settled in central New York.
A German-speaking rector of a seminary in northern Jefferson County, N.Y., came to Syracuse four times a year to say Mass, administer the sacraments, and preach to the German-speaking Catholics.
In 1844, a Norbertine missionary, Father Adalbert Inama, oversaw the building of a simple frame 400-seat church.
The land on which the church was built initially held vineyards. In fact, the two side streets, which are parallel to that church, and also the present church, are named after grape varieties: Catawba and Isabella.
Because of a large influx of German immigrants between 1848 and 1851, the church had to be enlarged, in the form of a cross, to hold 1,000 people.
The Conventual Franciscans took over in 1859 and have run the parish ever since. Construction of a new church was completed in 1867. Beginning in 1868, two towers were raised and the belfry furnished with four large bells. To this day, one can see the twin towers throughout the city. In the evenings, one can’t help but notice the two illuminated crosses on top.
The design of Assumption is basically Romanesque, with round arches as opposed to the pointed arches of the Gothic style. The interior of the church reflects Baroque elements.
As one stands in front of the sanctuary, in the 2,000-square-foot vault of the ceiling above is a large painting of the glorification of Jesus. In the center is Christ seated. To his left is the Blessed Mother with St. Joseph. On the right are Sts. Peter and Paul. In the upper right of the painting are four lines of figures, including a group of figures from Old Testament history, a group of saints from the early Church, a group of saints from the medieval Church, including St. Francis, and a group of saints from more recent times.
The eight windows in the sanctuary are rather unique, because each one is dedicated to Our Lady, who is the protectress of the Franciscan Order. Each window is also a reproduction of a painting by a famous artist such as Raphael and Van Eyck. However, some of the figures in the original painting have been replaced by figures of Franciscan saints.
For example, the first window focuses on the famous debate concerning the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception between Dominicans and Franciscan theologians at the Sorbonne in Paris during the Middle Ages.
The debate was won by John Duns Scotus, the great Franciscan scholar, who argued that Mary was preserved from sin through the anticipated merits of Christ.
Assumption contains four side chapels dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, St. Anthony, St. Francis of Assisi and the Sacred Heart. Under each altar is a marble tableau.
Up where the ceiling and wall come together, there are figures of the apostles. St. Paul is included because of his immense missionary work. The figures are about four times human size, but they appear to be of ordinary size from down below.
Assumption’s pulpit is an exact copy of the famous pulpit in Santa Croce (Holy Cross) Franciscan Church in Florence. That church is considered the Westminster Abbey of Italy.
Each panel of the pulpit reflects Franciscan history. For instance, the first panel depicts Franciscan friars as missionaries to the Muslims of Morocco, where they became the first martyrs of the order.
The organ loft is above the front entrance to the church. Under the organ loft is a reproduction of a painting of the Immaculate Conception by 16th-century Spanish painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo. The reproduction includes Sts. Francis and Anthony, who are not in the original painting.
Above the Murillo painting in the front of the choir is a relief by Francesco Maria della Rovere, a famous Florentine artist, that depicts the Hebrews, with their musical instruments, greeting the Ark of the Covenant.
The organ itself contains 3,000 pipes and is considered one of the two best in the Diocese of Syracuse. Under the loft, above the front doors is the Franciscan coat of arms. There are four archangels in the windows of the vestibule, and the windows are illuminated at night.
In the lower church is a shrine to another saint we commemorate this time of year, the Polish Conventual Maximilian Kolbe, whose feast day is Aug. 14.
To one’s right is a reproduction of the Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, with one of the stones having been brought from Lourdes.
Though Assumption Church was originally established to meet the spiritual needs of German-speaking people, today the Franciscan friars provide for the spiritual needs of Catholics of many ethnic groups.
Joseph Albino writes from
Syracuse, New York.
812 N. Salina St.
Syracuse, NY 13208
Take Exit 36 off the New York State Thruway. Drive south on Route 81 and take Exit 22 (Bear Street). Take a left on Bear Street and a right on North Salina Street.
Planning Your Visit:
Daily Mass is held at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday. On Saturday there is a Mass of anticipation at 4 p.m. Sunday Mass is at 9:30 a.m. Confessions are heard from 3 to 3:45 p.m. on Saturdays in the upper church.
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