History of St. Mary of Mount Carmel
(Prepared by the history committee for the 1996 centennial celebration)
In the beginning: 1896
On Sunday, Dec. 20, 1896, parishioners of St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church – Santa Maria di Monte Carmelo – celebrated Mass for the first time in a church building they could call their own.
But the history of St. Mary of Mount Carmel really began in 1865, the year the Civil War ended, when Michael Kernan returned to his native Utica with his bride, Cecelia Rapetti Kernan, the daughter of a prominent Italian broker in New York City.
Before long, she was helping the few Italian families arriving in Utica in the late 1860s and early 1870s. She assisted them to assimilate quickly into St. John’s Parish in downtown Utica, find employment and learn to read and speak English.
Then, along came the year 1883. The West Shore Railroad which was being built through the Upper Mohawk Valley employed many Italian laborers. Those not employed at the West Shore Railroad found work in the brickyards, for which Utica was then famous.
These immigrants liked what they saw in Utica and decided to make it their home.
The textile industry also was attracting Italians to the city and, overnight, the Italian colony in Utica grew from a dozen or so families to hundreds of men, women and children. It did not take long for them to become convinced that they could support a Catholic church of their own.
By 1887, the Italian immigrants were no longer alone because they had their own Italian priest, Father Antonio Castelli, who served as an assistant to Monsignor Lynch at St. John’s Church and later became the first pastor of Mount Carmel. Father Castelli began to work immediately and called upon every man and woman and inspired them to one mission, to have a church of their own.
During these visits, he invited them to attend Mass at St. John’s Church where Monsignor James M. Lynch, a good friend of Father Castelli and the Italian colony, was pastor.
The first baptisms and marriages of the Italian colony were performed at St. John’s Church by Father Castelli. Monsignor Lynch’s zealous and gentleness went one step further when he donated the old school building on Catherine Street, which Father Castelli transformed into a temporary church and meeting place.
The old schoolhouse building was the inception of what was later to be known as St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church. The prayers and meetings that took place in this old school sealed the determination for the immigrants to construct their own church. Committees were formed for this purpose and appeals went out, loud and clear, stating their intentions; the responses were extraordinarily in favor of this idea.
The new church was to be devoted to the Madonna because all had remembered the beautiful Madonna to whom they knelt and prayed to, asking for guidance before leaving their native land.
The new church, they decided, would be dedicated to our Lady of Mount Carmel. With the help of such clergymen as Syracuse Bishop Patrick Ludden, Monsignor James Lynch, and devout people such as Cecelia Rapetti Kernan, the Italian church of Santa Maria di Monte Carmela was organized and incorporated into the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse in July 1895.
Father Castelli and the committee began campaigning immediately for funds for the new church. Donations, large and small, came from Utica and vicinity. While some pledged monetary gifts, others gratuitously gave the strength of their hands, but all poured forth love from their hearts for the construction of the new church to be dedicated to Our Lady.
A parcel of land was purchased, extending from Catherine Street to Jay Street, and excavation began on April 23, 1896.
All new undertakings have their problems, and Mount Carmel was no exception. Money ran short and work on the new church had to be stopped. The bishop approved a loan from the bank and work was resumed.
First Mass: Dec. 20, 1896
The first Mass was celebrated on Sunday, Dec. 20, 1896, by Father Castelli in the new church that, in reality, was only the basement of the building.
In 1898, the good parishioners undertook a new project – building a rectory for their pastor, thereby enabling him to be close to the church to minister to his congregation. In a short time, the dedicated men and women organized and founded the Society of St. Mary of Mount Carmel. Their main goal was to raise money in order to clear the debt the church had incurred, and in 1901, the church and rectory were free of debt.
The parish was growing, and activities were becoming more and more numerous. Father Castelli and the Mount Carmel Society began planning to construct a church of modest dimensions sufficiently spacious for the needs of the moment and for the future growth of the parish. On Sept. 15, 1901, Bishop Scalabrini blessed the cornerstone of the new church.
With the cornerstone in place, it was now necessary that the work that had begun be continued rapidly. The extreme cold and stormy weather at times prevented the celebration of Sunday Mass due to the poor accommodations of the church basement.
June 29, 1902: Church opens
After many struggles to complete the entire structure, the church was finally opened on Sunday, June 29, 1902, the feast of St. Peter.
Many times, advancing age forbids us to enjoy the fruits of our labor, and so it was with Father Castelli. He requested an assistant to help care for the growing needs of the parish and who would be able to succeed him upon his death. The bishop approved his request and early in 1902 the Scalabrini Superior of Italy appointed Father Joseph Formia as assistant to Father Castelli.
This was providential for, within a few months, Father Castelli became ill and it became necessary to hospitalize him. He did recover, and during the summer of 1903 he yielded to the insistence of his friends to seek a little rest in Clayville.
Apparently renewed in health, the 74-year-old pastor returned to his parish, but, on Oct. 22, 1903, he suffered a heart attack and died. The funeral rites were took place at his beloved Mount Carmel Church with a Solemn High Mass celebrated by Bishop Ludden on Oct. 28. Father Castelli was laid to rest in St. Agnes Cemetery.
School opens: September 1904
Father Formia, as the second pastor of Mount Carmel, followed in his predecessor’s footsteps. His first undertaking was the organization of a parochial school. Funds, as usual, were low and there was already an enormous church debt, but this did not discourage the young pastor.
Early in September 1904, however, the unfinished school building was surrounded with eagerly waiting children. The doors still unhung, windows gaping with empty frames, daunted neither children nor teachers. Three Sisters of St. Francis organized and conducted classes alongside the resounding blows of the workmen’s hammers.
Since no house was available as a convent, the sisters went to and from St. Elizabeth Hospital until Father Formia found it possible to rent a small house on Albany Street, some six blocks away from the school.
After much search, an appeal was made to Joseph Tomaino, a prominent and active member of the church, to purchase the little two-story frame house on Catherine Street adjacent to the church, which was in turn rented by the parish for the sisters’ dwelling.
After organizing the school and seeing that the sisters and the children of the parish were adequately accommodated, Father Formia, pastor for 18 years returned to his native city in Italy in 1921. Father Formia died on July 16, 1942, the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Father John Marchegiani arrives: 1921
Father John Marchegiani came to Mount Carmel as Father Formia’s successor. Born in 1880, he was ordained a priest in 1903. His first 11 years as a priest were dedicated to various parishes, preaching at missions and novenas.
In 1920, he joined the Scalabrini Congregation, expressing his desire to work with the immigrants in America. On June 21, 1921, Father Marchegiani was appointed Pastor of St. Mary of Mount Carmel Church. With his appointment, new hope came to the parish. He not only led his people from the pulpit, but also in manual labor. He and his assistants made many repairs and constructed the corridor that connected the rectory with the sacristy of the church. Father Marchegiani organized social church bazaars and the famous Mount Carmel Minstrel Shows in order to raise funds to help offset the church expenses. These activities not only brought the necessary funds needed in the parish, but also brought forth a spirit of camaraderie that has carried through the years.
In 1922, Bishop Grimes, who came to Mount Carmel to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation, noticed the tremendous crowd in church. He suggested to Father Marchegiani and his assistant, Father Nazareno Gambini, the idea of enlarging the church to accommodate the growing congregation.
The bishop’s idea, which first seemed a challenge, soon became a realization. The church basement was lowered and a stage for dramatic presentations was constructed. The convent was enlarged to accommodate the growing number of Sisters who were teaching at the school. Two naves were added to the main church, thus accommodating the growing number of parishioners.
However, this was only part of the plan. By 1928, the school had been completely renovated and a new gymnasium was opened and, by 1931, the sanctuary was enriched with beautiful altar railings and marble floors.
During Father Marchegiani’ s pastorate, Mount Carmel made tremendous progress. Societies were organized, religious vocations flourished and many buildings were enlarged or remodeled.
In October of 1933, after 13 years of serving as Pastor of Mount Carmel, Father Marchegiani was nominated Provincial Superior of the Eastern Province of the Scalabrini Fathers and assumed his new position in New York City. He left the United States in 1938 to serve as Rector of the Shrine Piedigrotta in Naples, Italy. Father Marchegiani died in his home town of Gubbio, Perugia, on Oct. 1, 1966.
Father Pizzoglio takes over: June 1934
In June of 1934, a young, handsome and energetic priest, Father William Pizzoglio, arrived at St. Mary of Mount Carmel to assume his pastorate. Under his guidance, the good works so well initiated by Father Marchegiani continued to flourish.
His first endeavor was to conduct a parish census that reflected that the congregation consisted of 2,035 families and 12,700 parishioners. Father Pizzoglio’s primary goal, as shepherd to his congregation, was to nurture the spiritual needs of both young and old, and so it was that catechism classes were expanded and religious instruction classes intensified for public school children.
Another noteworthy task undertaken by him was the decoration and painting of the church in preparation for the 40th anniversary in 1936. Professor Antonio D’ Ambrosio of New York City was commissioned to decorate and paint the church. Three new marble altars were designed and installed by the DaPrato Firm of New York.
On Nov. 8, 1936, Bishop John Duffy consecrated the new altars and inaugurated the decoration. In the evening, he presided over the banquet at Hamilton Hotel. The bishop spoke words of admiration for the Italians of Mount Carmel and their 33-year-old pastor who gave such fine promise at the very inception of his pastorate.
In 1939, Father Pizzoglio, who was a great lover of music and a composer, installed a new organ in the choir loft of the church.
Another serious problem had been clamoring for a solution. For years, the Sisters had been crowded in a small dilapidated convent. With only the perimeter walls remaining, new rooms and a chapel were constructed, giving the Sisters a home with all modern conveniences.
Perhaps the greatness of this man was displayed during World War II. Five thousand boys of Italian descent, 3,000 parishioners of Mount Carmel, left Utica for the war fronts. In spite of his many tasks as pastor, Father Pizzoglio kept in touch with all his boys, regardless of the huge amount of correspondence. Armed with Christ’s faith in humanity, he brought spiritual words of consolation to all.
Always ready to extend charitable works, Father Pizzoglio opened a clinic for children on Elizabeth Street operated by the Utica Visiting Nurses Association, with the church incurring all costs. This beneficial service continued until after the outbreak of the war.
Many wives and mothers, responding to the nation’s appeal, went to work in factories to make war materials. Father Pizzoglio understood the situation and saw the need for a day nursery. On Jan. 4, 1944, the day nursery became a reality and Bishop Walter A. Foery solemnly blessed the Mount Carmel Day Nursery which continued to operate until 1970.
The year 1946 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of Mount Carmel Church. Encouraged by the bishop, Father Pizzoglio undertook the project to renew and transform the church, both the interior and exterior.
He personally chaired many committees and surprised the parishioners with an original composition and Mass to be played at the Golden Jubilee celebration. The beautiful repertoire of music and the fine arts that enrich our church are truly an inspiration by this pastor.
After 17 years of faithful service at Mount Carmel, Father Pizzoglio was transferred to St. Joseph’s Parish in New York City. Father Pizzoglio died on June 19, 1973. He was returned to his beloved Mount Carmel where he lied in state on June 22, 1973. The funeral service was presided over by Bishop Frank Harrison, assisted by the Rev. Joseph Berton and Rev. Peter Bortolazzo. His body was interred in St. Agnes Cemetery, next to Father Castelli.
Father Berton in charge: December 1950
It was certainly a difficult task for the Provincial to choose another pastor to succeed Father Pizzoglio. A reasonable assumption would be a young, experienced assistant who had served under Father Pizzoglio for 10 years, who was well known and loved by the congregation. The choice –the Rev. Joseph Berton.
During his pastorate from December 1950 to October 1964, the parishioners of Mount Carmel enjoyed the fruition of their labors. Many parcels of property were acquired around the church to provide adequate parking but, perhaps, the most outstanding of his accomplishments can be noted at 648 Jay Street, the site of the parish rectory. Without exaggeration, it is one of the most beautiful and practical rectories of the Syracuse diocese.
Father Berton spent 26 years of his priesthood at Mount Carmel and, because of his dedication to his people and deep understanding, he will be affectionately remembered in the hearts of many.
Father Berton died in 1984 and is buried in Syracuse.
Father Peter new pastor: 1964
On Oct. 10, 1964, Father Berton was succeeded by another former assistant, the Rev. Peter Bortolazzo.
Father Peter arrived at Mount Carmel during its transitional period. Within a few months, many of the homes that surrounded the church were razed by the City of Utica Urban Renewal Program. Many parishioners moved away from the area but still remained faithful to their beloved parish.
During this time, the parish experienced much financial growth. It was through his guidance that the parish undertook the challenges of Pope John XXIII and the Vatican II Council. Believing that the parish would remain as strong as ever, Father Bortolazzo commenced planning for the 75th anniversary of the church.
The plans called for major renovations, including a new terrazzo floor, installation of new pews, a new marble altar of sacrifice, a complete restoration of the paintings and new granite steps.
After many years of priestly service, Father Bortolazzo was transferred back and was welcomed graciously and whole heartedly at Mount Carmel as an assistant. His great love and devotion to Our Lady of Mount Carmel still bears witness to this community of faith.
Father Corraro and Father Negro: 1973-1983
The year 1973 found Mount Carmel under the pastorate of Father John Corraro. Father John continued the work that begun his predecessors, emphasizing the development of the area surrounding the church.
During his pastorship, many additional physical aspects came to fruition within the parish, including the Shrine to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, renovations to the school, the Senior Citizen Center and the construction of Scalabrini Park, a monument to the founder of the Society of St. Charles Borromeo.
His pastoral was filled with much love, faith and devotion. He sponsored the Ashes to Easter program, the inception of a Liturgical Committee, the development of Penitential Services and the installation of Lay Ministers.
Father John’s reverence in celebrating liturgy and his paternal homilies brought peace and solace to many. Before leaving Mount Carmel, Father Corraro recommended to the provincial as his successor a soft spoken caring priest, Father Carmelo Negro.
Father Negro assumed pastorship in May of 1979. He immediately became involved with his parish duties. Dedicated to maintaining a beautiful church, he undertook the task of replacing the old organ. The new organ was dedicated at a special Mass marking the 85th anniversary.
During the years of 1979 and 1983, Father Negro continued to show a strong concern for furtherance of the liturgical programs initiated by Father John, emphasizing the Lay Ministry Program and improvements to the school.
On May 3, 1980, Father Negro presided at the first Mass celebrated by Mount Carmel’s native son, the Rev. Joseph Salerno.
One of Mr. Carmel’s active groups owes its formation to Father Carmen, the “Busy Bodies.”
In 1983 Father Negro was reassigned to St. Anthony’s parish in Connecticut. His many deeds of kindness will be remembered by many.
Father Henry returns: 1983
Father Henry Benin succeeded Father Negro in the fall of 1983. Having previously served as assistant to Father Bartolozzo from 1967 to 1974, he was well remembered and loved for work with the youth of the parish.
However, the parish which he now was to serve was again in a period of transition. Father Henry was faced with two major problems. First, the Sisters of St. Francis, who served Mount Carmel for 80 years, were withdrawing due to a lack of vocation and, secondly, the school was closing because of the Diocesan School Consolidation Plan because of declining enrollment.
Both situations became a reality despite a vigorous attempt by the new pastor and the parish to reverse these decisions.
Father Henry immediately negotiated to lease the convent to be utilized as an Italian Cultural Center, and the school was rededicated as a Catechetical Center.
Father Henry had special devotion to the reorganization of the catechetical and liturgical ministries, and his spirituality and awareness of scripture study led to the development of several new ministries.
Father Henry Benin, a soft spoken, deeply religious and caring individual, was the last Scalabrini priest to serve Mount Carmel.
On the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the church, Father Henry, always the visionary, advised his parishioners “to look to the future and pause in wonderment because we no longer find ourselves in the same contest as a generation ago. The Italian immigrants are no longer coming. God is calling us to be witnesses of his love for those around us.”
Father Henry Benin left Mount Carmel in June 1991, awaiting assignment to a Hispanic community.
Father Joseph Salerno, the native son
And so it came to pass that the grandson of an immigrant family and a novice who had studied with the Scalabrinians for 13 years, returned to his home parish as the 10th pastor of Mount Carmel – the Rev. Joseph Salerno.
As a youngster, Father Joe was a communicant of Mount Carmel, active in its youth societies and in later years with the Parish Education Program.
He was Mount Carmel’s first pastor to be assigned, with no assistants, to serve the congregation of Mount Carmel. From the inception of his pastorate, Father Joe’s charismatic personality and youth was instrumental in the growth of the parish.
He set forth a vision of collaborative ministry among other neighboring parishes, and did much to bring about a spirit of ecumenism throughout the parish.
Father Joe was deeply devoted to renewal in the celebration of the sacraments and promoted the growth and revitalization of many new ministries at Mount Carmel. His special regard for the liturgy formed a framework within which parishioners, as Christians, celebrated and experienced the faith more deeply.
Another challenge faced Father Salerno’s new assignment. The parish would soon be celebrating its 100th anniversary, and such an event would require much work and planning.
From the diocese came the assignment of Deacon Bob Riggalls to assist with the spiritual care of the flock. Immediately, Father Salerno sought a long-range plan for much needed renovations that would include a remodeled choir loft, a more suitable worship space in the sanctuary, air conditioning, new electrical wiring and new front steps.
In the interim, he also was actively seeking construction of apartments for the elderly on church property on Catherine Street. His efforts were soon rewarded and, on May 15, 1995, the Mount Carmel Apartment Complex was blessed and dedicated by Bishop Joseph O’Keefe.
In December 1995, Father Joe announced that Mount Carmel’s 100th anniversary year would be celebrated beginning with the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, July 16, 1996, and would culminate again on Our Lady’s feast day in 1997. During this period, many activities would be scheduled, with a special Reunion of Mount Carmel alumni and solemn Mass celebrated during the weekend of October 11, 1996, together with other events following.
On Nov. 7, 1994, Mount Carmel was fortunate to have Deacon Bob Riggalls assigned to the parish as a pastoral associate. Deacon Bob was ordained on Oct. 19, 1992, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse. He formerly served as senior counselor at Chenango County Catholic Charities, director of the Utica Faith Centers and was active in prison ministry.
Deacon Bob is married to the former Mary Lou Soldano. They have two children, Cynthia and Christian. Parish life was enriched by Deacon Bob’s compassion, warmth and good humor.
Life after the 100th anniversary
In September 2002, Father Joe accepted the pastorship of the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Utica. His shoes were tough to fill as the diocese took nearly 10 months to fill the post.
In the interim, Msgr. Ronald Bill, a kind, soft-spoken priest who loved to sing, filled in.
In July 2003, Father John Rose arrived at become Mount Carmel’s 11th pastor. He presided during a turbulent time of consolidation in the diocese as Blessed Sacrament Church merged with Mount Carmel in July 2006, forming a new parish named St. Mary of Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament Parish.
Father John remained pastor for a little more than five years before moving away and taking on the task of helping troubled priests.
Father James Cesta succeeded Father Rose in July 2009. The Syracuse-area priest is noted for his sense of humor and instructional homilies.
Father Cesta attended Our Lady of Pompei in Syracuse, and in ninth grade decided he wanted to be a priest. He loves music, art, reading, boating, hiking, swimming, minor carpentry and building.
He enjoys his winter home in Jensen, Fla., his family home in Syracuse and his camp in Skaneateles.
But Father Cesta’s true love is preaching the word of God.
“For me, the most important work of the parish priest is to preach the Good News of the Gospel and make it clear, understandable and helpful for daily living, to make weekend Mass a Catholic experience that leaves people feeling better when they leave church than when they entered.”