TRUMANSBURG — One humid summer afternoon in 2010, the vacation Bible school program at St. James the Apostle Church was interrupted by a big lightning bolt — strong enough that Father John Tokaz, OFM Cap, soon realized it had left a reminder of its power.
"I went into the church and there was this terrible smell," recalled Father Tokaz, pastor of St. James.
No visible damage was detected inside the church, but its exterior was not so lucky. On the cross perched atop the structure over the entranceway, the wood had been burned and split.
The wounded cross remained in place until a new church roof was installed two summers ago. At that point it was removed amid concerns it had become unstable and might topple off the roof. Father Tokaz then contacted Bill Hogan, a St. James parishioner for the past 45 years. Hogan, who operates a wood shop at his nearby home, was asked if he’d be interested in designing a replacement and he readily agreed.
"It’s not really complicated. I thought it was something I could do," Hogan said.
He recalls assembling the cross last fall over a period of "four or five days," using compressed vinyl that could better withstand the elements over the long term. The finished product measures five feet high and three-and-a-half feet across. It had been scheduled to go up shortly after Hogan completed it, but consistently poor weather held up the process nearly all winter. Finally it was erected on March 6, attached to the roof’s highest point.
"God gets it up there when he wants it up there," remarked St. James parishioner Rita Demarest.
"It was a nice, beautiful sunny day. Everything was dried off, which is what we were waiting for so it wouldn’t be slippery," explained Ethan Miller, a well-known area carpenter who mounted the cross during the afternoon with an assistant’s aid.
Since weather conditions had to mesh with Miller’s availability, there was no time to notify any potential onlookers that the cross was finally being erected.
"Things happen quietly in ‘T-burg,’" Hogan quipped.
Hogan was nonchalant about his craftsmanship, joking that with the cross being so far off the ground "nobody will see my mistakes" — to which Miller replied, "I was a lot closer and I didn’t see any."
"He did a beautiful job," Demarest agreed.
Demarest noted that Hogan also will be building a piece of furniture to be raffled off at the St. James’ bazaar this November, and that his wife, Joan, annually bakes some 40 pies for the bazaar that is run by the parish’s Women’s Guild. The Hogans typify what Father Tokaz — who has served St. James since 2006 — calls a very tight-knit parish community of 350 or so worshipers.
St. James Church is located on Whig Street, one block west of Route 96 and 10 miles north of Ithaca in northern Tompkins County. Capuchin Franciscan priests have staffed the parish since 1994; the Trumansburg church is one of only three in the Rochester Diocese to be served by Franciscans. The others are St. James’ neighbors to the immediate north, Holy Cross in Ovid and St. Francis Solanus in Interlaken, where Father Bart Minson, OFM Cap, is pastor of both churches.
The parish is looking forward to the arrival of first-year Rochester Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, who will make his initial visit to Trumansburg April 22, two days after Easter, to perform the confirmation of 13 youths and four adults. Whereas the new outdoor cross is now on proud display for Bishop Matano and all else who visit or pass by the church, the old one has not been discarded but instead moved to the church’s meditation garden.
Father Tokaz said the damaged cross deserves to be treated with special honor because it served as a shield for the rest of the church during the 2010 storm. He added that several years earlier the cross had similarly intercepted a bolt of lightning, thwarting what could have been the start of a crippling church fire.
"Lightning strikes twice and nothing’s happened. God is really with us," the pastor said.