ROCHESTER — More than a century and a half ago, John Curran’s great-great-great-grandfather mortgaged his home to help raise money to build a wooden church in Rochester. During a closing Mass on Sunday, Oct. 1, Curran said goodbye to the descendant of that church, Ss. Peter and Paul Parish at 720 W. Main St.
Ss. Peter and Paul, along with St. Augustine, Our Lady of Good Counsel and St. Monica churches, have merged into a new community at St. Monica with Father Raymond Fleming as its pastor. St. Augustine and Good Counsel held their closing Masses in May.
Ss. Peter and Paul’s closing Mass featured a ceremonial stripping of the altar, which included extinguishing all the candles, removing the altar cloth and turning off lights. Three items from the church will be taken to St. Monica — the chalice, the monstrance and the ambo. Even as parishioners wept at the closing of their church, Father Fleming pointed out the positive events that had come from the church: marriages, baptisms, educations and vocations.
Even though the church has closed its doors, the parish’s soup kitchen, St. Peter’s Kitchen, will continue as a separate nonprofit organization, Curran said. The former school also will remain as apartments for the women and children of Fairchild Place, which is affiliated with Sojourner House, a Rochester shelter for women in crisis and their children.
As Father Fleming turned the key to lock Ss. Peter and Paul’s door for the final time as a Catholic church, a knock came from inside. A member had been locked in. The crowd’s laughter broke the solemn hush, which resumed after the person had been let out. Father Fleming bound the door handles with a black cloth and slipped a white rose — signifying hope for the future — into a fold of the cloth.
The 720 W. Main St. church was the third building in the parish’s history. When it opened in 1843, Ss. Peter and Paul was originally known as St. Peter the Apostle and was located at King and East Maple streets in Rochester.
The boom in the city’s German population that spawned the church caused it to outgrow its original site and name. It moved in 1859 to a different spot on its campus and was renamed Ss. Peter and Paul. In 1911, the church moved to West Main Street.
Over its 163-year history, church members weathered two major fires in the school buildings, the Depression, the 1972 closing of the parish school and the collapse of the neighborhood around the parish.
Ultimately, parishioners said, the church’s demise was hastened by a shortage of priests, a decline in the number of Roman Catholic families on the southwest side of Rochester, and steep repair and operation costs.
Father Fleming compared the closing Mass to a funeral and challenged parishioners to continue being faithful even after the church closed.
“I challenge you to go beyond the bitterness, the anger and all of that stuff that gets in the way of serving and loving God,” he said.
“The building is beautiful; we love the character,” said Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Flass, the parish’s former pastoral administrator. “But it’s not the building. For people who have been here, it’s the community they are losing, and that’s the grief we are feeling.”
Choir member Beth Iman, whose father became the organist at Ss. Peter and Paul about two years ago, said the church quickly became a home.
“One door is closed, but God is with us always,” Iman said, wiping away tears.
Father Fleming said although it would have been easier for Bishop Matthew H. Clark and diocesan officials to tell the church it would have to close, it was ultimately better for parishioners to come to that decision themselves through the pastoral-planning process.
“We’re heartbroken, but the bottom line is we believe we are doing the right thing,” Father Fleming said.
The church’s closing was an opportunity for old friends to reunite. Margot Vinci of Irondequoit told friend Brenda Briggs Carey of North Tonawanda, Erie County, about the final Mass. Carey’s husband, John, proposed to her at midnight Mass at Ss. Peter and Paul, and they were married in the church in February 1963.
“When thinking about getting married, naturally I began to think about the church and God and all that is involved in the process,” John Carey said. “Plus, what could she say? No? In a church?”
Brenda Carey said she was grateful to get the chance to say goodbye to the church, which she attended from 1959 to 1964 and in which her first-born son was baptized.
“This holds a very special place in our heart,” Brenda Carey said.
Charlene Lepel, who was a members of St. Augustine until it closed, attended the Mass as part of St. Monica’s welcoming committee. She said a majority of St. Augustine’s former members moved to St. Monica.
“Have faith and trust in God’s plan for us and the community,” Lepel said. “Although it’s hard, I recognize. It’s difficult.”
Father Fleming acknowledged that there are hard feelings regarding the decision to close the church, and asked parishioners to grieve and forgive.
“Before we can approach God’s table, we must be forgiven, and before we can be forgiven, we must forgive,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Transportation is available for people in the neighborhood around Ss. Peter and Paul Church who would like to attend St. Monica Church. Call 585/235-3340 for details.