Whatever their political leanings on the war in Iraq, it’s clear that Catholics in the Southern Tier care deeply about the conflict.
The second anniversary of the United States invasion of Iraq was observed March 19. During these past two years, parishes have organized numerous war-related prayer services in the Tier, many of which have evolved into regular events. A leading example is the ecumenical service for U.S. troops that takes place the first or second Wednesday of every month in churches and outdoor settings throughout Chemung County. A service on March 9 at St. Patrick’s Church in Elmira drew more than 200 people, according to Michael J. Lehmann, coordinator.
“We had a great crowd,” said Lehmann, a parishioner of Ss. Peter and Paul in Elmira, noting that the next service will be May 4 at 7 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 2943 Westinghouse Road, Horseheads. Lehmann stated that the prayer services, which began in early 2003, are “totally nonpolitical.” He remarked that support of today’s troops is a necessary step forward from how he feels Vietnam War veterans were treated — “ostracized, spit on and everything else.”
At St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira, a rosary for peace is held every Monday through Friday at 11:45 a.m. in the hospital chapel. This observance began after the war in Afghanistan broke out in late 2001. In addition, a tree in the hospital lobby continues to display yellow ribbons with the names of all military men and women connected to St. Joseph’s. Deacon George Welch, hospital chaplain, noted that the Elmira area’s Third Order Dominicans are also conducting a peace ribbon campaign.
“We’re there to pray for peace and protection — peace in the world and to protect our troops; we appreciate what they do for us. Everybody who’s in that room has a different kind of politic, but we don’t talk about that,” Deacon Welch said of the rosary services. “We’re praying for peace — just bring (the troops) home. That might sound political, but it’s not.”
On the other hand, several activists in Ithaca staunchly oppose the war while promoting a message of peace. This point was accentuated during a march and peace vigil held March 19, on the war’s second anniversary. It took place on the east end of Ithaca Commons and was cosponsored by the peace-and-justice committee of St. Catherine of Siena Parish and The Catholic Worker. Linda Finlay, a St. Catherine’s parishioner, said the march drew 300 to 400 people, with more than 100 participating in all or part of the seven-hour vigil.
“Many people were calling out from their cars ‘thank you.’ Of course there were a few who didn’t feel that way,” she remarked.
Finlay added that she also takes part in Wednesday-morning peace vigils in Ithaca, and that area Quakers stage their own peace vigil on Thursday afternoons. Although these efforts emphasize peace over war, Finlay said that they are “not anti-soldier at all. We have consistently had those signs out there. We feel terrible that the soldiers are out there. I think they went into it with very false pretenses and am not sure how many of them really want to be there.”
Many parish-based initiatives have acknowledged the war, such as letter- and card-writing campaigns by the youth groups at Our Lady of Lourdes, Elmira, and St. Margaret Mary, Apalachin, as well as the Catholic Daughters of America Court Lourdes No. 628 from Schuyler Catholic Community.
Some special projects have been highlighted in recent Courier features. For instance, the April 10, 2004, Southern Tier edition profiled Rob Philpott, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, who helped deliver gifts and drawings to orphaned, disabled children while he was stationed in Baghdad. The items came from religious-education students at his home parish of St. Casimir/St. Charles Borromeo in Elmira.
More recently, the Dec. 4, 2004, Southern Tier Courier detailed a drive at St. Patrick’s Parish in Owego to secure gifts for the children of Al-Romadi, Iraq. The effort was begun by Colin Williams, a U.S. Army captain stationed in Iraq, and has been coordinated in Owego through his parents, Gary and Linda.