FLEMING — “Bittersweet” was the word of the day in Fleming on June 13, as Bishop Matthew H. Clark presided over the final Mass at St. Isaac Jogues Chapel.
Cars lined both sides of the road outside the small country church as their occupants crowded into the building, filling every seat. They had gathered there not only for a somber event — the 58-year-old parish’s final Mass — but also for a joyful one, as they witnessed seven of the parish’s youngsters make their first Communion.
St. Isaac Jogues Chapel opened in 1946 as a mission church of St. Bernard’s in Scipio Center. Since the mid-1980s, the parish had been led by retired priest and Catholic Courier columnist Father Albert Shamon, who passed away on Nov. 21, 2003. The last regular Sunday Mass was held at the parish in late February 2004, although the church remained open for weddings and funerals. Father Donald Curtiss oversaw the parish for several months after Father Shamon’s death, but a replacement for Father Shamon could not be found due to the priest shortage, he said.
The June 13 Mass was held in Father Shamon’s memory, and Bishop Clark praised the priest during his homily. Father Shamon gave his life to passing on the gifts he’d received, and “he stopped only when he could not go one step more. God rest his beautiful spirit,” Bishop Clark said.
Also during his homily, Bishop Clark thanked those assembled for their faith and spirit, and for going on to share their gifts at other area parishes. He also saved a few words especially for the first Communion candidates, promising to pray for them and asking for their prayers in return.
At the end of the Mass, Father Curtiss led the parish in prayers of thanksgiving at the altar, Stations of the Cross, confessional, statue of Mary, baptismal font and lectern. After the Mass, those who had just made their first Communion gathered with the bishop and their families for photographs, and many also had their picture taken with a large photo of Father Shamon that stood on an easel near the altar.
Cynthia Manning, 14, was at the Mass to see her cousin, Matthew Faiola, 7, make his first Communion. Although they both enjoyed the special day, Cynthia said “it’s kind of sad because we all miss Father Shamon.”
Father Shamon was spoken fondly of by many at the Mass and afterwards during the chicken barbecue on the parish grounds. Father Shamon was a brilliant intellectual who was fluent in church history and could relate anything happening in today’s world to the times of Christ, according to Diane Furnia, who had belonged to the parish since Father Shamon became its administrator almost 20 years ago.
Vitality and an abundance of young families — many of which were attracted to the parish by Father Shamon — were two characteristics of the parish, according to Father Curtiss, who is pastor of Good Shepherd Catholic Community. Those sentiments were echoed by Cynthia’s mother, Debra Manning, who had been bringing her family to Mass at the chapel for 10 years.
“Father (Shamon) just made you feel so welcome and so did everyone in his parish. It’s just a wonderful place to bring your kids. He always used to joke that he was the oldest priest with the youngest parish,” said Manning.
“We always drove out here from Skaneateles because of Father Shamon,” said Pat Fallon. “His homilies were so spiritually powerful that we needed that to get through the week.” Fallon and her husband, Paul, joined the parish after they learned Father Shamon was becoming its administrator. Father Shamon was there for his parishioners every day, not only on Sundays, Paul noted.
The closing of St. Isaac Jogues Chapel is “heartbreaking,” said Jerry Crowley, who was at the final Mass with his wife, Sharon. In 1962, Crowley’s father donated the land the chapel currently sits on, as the old chapel had to be demolished when Route 34 was widened. Crowley and his wife live next door to the chapel and plan on buying the land back, according to Father Curtiss.
The chapel’s furnishings will go to churches in need and the missions, and some items — such as the altar servers’ cassocks — will go to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Auburn, where the majority of the former St. Isaac Jogues parishioners have registered, Father Curtiss said. These parishioners are bringing their strong sense of community to the other parishes where they’ve recently found homes, he added.
At the barbecue after the Mass, Bishop Clark acknowledged the day did hold sadness and loss, but in his conversations with parishioners, he noted that many seemed to be well-settled in their new parishes. Their faith and joyful spirit carry and sustain them, he said.
“I was greatly impressed by that spirit,” the bishop said. “They’re good people.”