June 11, 2010


Parishioners restore St. Mary’s chapel

Church celebrates Mass in former convent Thursday for first time in 14 years

ChurchPhotos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
The Rev. Mark Kaminski reads in the recently renovated Parish Center Chapel as Franciscan sisters who were involved with St. Mary’s School listen.

Staff Reporter

An 82-year-old chapel gained a new life Thursday.
Voices raised in song as about 70 people celebrated Mass, bringing the Eucharist for the first time in 14 years to the chapel at 59 N. Main St., the former home to the Franciscan Sisters who taught next door at St. Mary’s School.
The Mass and a lunch afterward marked the renovation of the St. Mary’s Convent Chapel into the new Parish Center Chapel for the combined St. Anthony’s and St. Mary’s Parish in Cortland.
The parish’s offices moved to the building during the past year, following a fire that damaged the former rectory beyond repair in March 2009 and the two parishes coming under the leadership of one priest.
Among the guests were not just St. Mary’s School graduates but six of the Franciscan nuns who taught at the school, four of whom drove from their retirement home near Allegany in Cattaraugus County. Another came down from Auburn and the sixth, Sister Harriet Hamilton, lives in Cortland and retired as St. Mary’s School principal in 2008 but still works for the parish.
Nuns lived in the building from the time it was built in 1928 until 1992, when the last one, Hamilton, decided she did not like living alone in a 43-room building and moved into an apartment.
“This brought tears to my eyes,” said parishioner Ellen Lanigan Tucker, who graduated from the school in 1959, when its grades went through 12th grade. “I’m glad they brought it back. I was very disappointed when they closed it.”
The nuns who lived in the building prayed in the chapel twice a day, before Mass across the street at St. Mary’s Church: 6 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. They taught religious education classes there as well.
The building has continued to be used for classes and for office space for some agencies, such as Caring Hearts Helping Hands.
But the chapel was not used for 14 years.
The fire in the rectory forced St. Mary’s to relocate its rectory offices. The St. Anthony’s office moved to the building in December.
“The whole purpose of the building changed,” said the Rev. Mark Kaminski, parish pastor. “And this beautiful chapel was here, not used in 14 years. Someone suggested we renovate it.”
The building’s first floor underwent a face lift; everything was cleaned and painted.
The hardwood floors were resurfaced. Portraits of the four evangelicals — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were moved from the church to the first-floor hallway, next to the chapel.
A mix of professionals and parishioners working for free did the renovation.
“Now this is truly a parish center,” Kaminski said, “the heart of this parish along with the church.”
Sister Gerarda Cook, who taught science and health at the school from 1983 until 1990, when she retired, said it felt like being among family when she lived with other nuns in Cortland, “very friendly, very convenient.”
She was one of the retired nuns who came from the Mother House in Allegany.
“I was very excited about this day, to see the chapel again,” she said. “It looks brighter.”
The most nuns who ever lived in the building numbered 20.
Someone rang a bell, which Cook said was used to awaken the nuns in the morning.
“We didn’t have it in my time,” she said. “It was in the basement. We had alarm clocks.”
Cook, who taught grades four through six, said she joined the Franciscan Sisters in 1955. She grew up in Olean, near Allegany.
Tucker said girls from the school had to clean the building once a week or so.
“We washed the windows,” she said. “I remember washing the squares of window (with wood between them). As a kid, you don’t want to do that.”
Tucker recalled coming to the building on prom night when she was in high school, walking in front of the nuns in their sitting room, as they looked to make sure she and her date were dressed appropriately.
“We girls wore a net across our chests,” she said, indicating an area where skin could not show, “and then we removed them as we left the building.”
Tucker and 1965 graduate Mike Dexter recalled that high school basketball games were played in a gymnasium on the school’s third floor, before a new gym was built in 1958-59.
The school stopped graduating high school students after 1970, Dexter said. His class in 1965 numbered 40 students.
The school had seventh and eighth grades through 1987.

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