St. Stephen’s Church on Niagara Street has a special meaning for a place I haven’t been in much. It’s something I often pass while running, but moreover respect as the last representative of the once mainly Polish neighborhood where I live. But with word coming that it’s on a path toward closing with the consolidation of Catholic churches in Oswego, I feel like our neighborhood — a whole heritage, really — is losing something.
As the last vestige of the ethnicity that settled my neighborhood, it kept some of that alive through a very popular Polish festival where people could order pierogies and golabkis, chat with neighbors and play various games. But the food was the star: Lines would run out the door just for people who preordered — if you wanted to get some fresh, the wait was even longer.
My neighborhood used to feature Polish bakeries and butcher shops long before supermarkets, let alone chain supermarkets, were so prevalent. But all this actually goes back to a bygone era that still plays out, nearly imperceptibly, in our Port City.
Oswego thrived in the mid-19th century, as ships carrying many of the goods heading inland to build the growing United States came into the harbor. Immigrants came to help handle those goods and all the industry that came with being, at the time, the second-fastest-growing city in the state.
The 19th century boomtown saw many Irish, Italian, Polish, German and other immigrants find homes in the Port City. Like in many (especially bigger) cities, they set up their own neighborhoods. The heart of those neighborhoods were often the congregations and the churches, so you eventually had places like St. Mary’s for Irish families, St. Joseph’s for Italian families and St. Stephen’s for Polish families. Neighborhood taverns, eateries and shops sprung up around them. You can still see this pattern in the neighborhood bars so many know in Oswego; the melting pot of the city now means most of them aren’t affiliated with an ethnicity so much as a neighborhood, profession or other taste.
Until now, churches also served as reminders of these neighborhood roots. But now St. Paul’s on the east side will remain as the home of Oswego’s Catholic population. Various demographics and social movements reduced the regular attendees to local Catholic churches, and some had closed previously. The numbers tell the story: In 1910, the Oswego area had 12,772 parishioners; but an October 2018 survey found 1,038 attending masses. It no longer made sense financially or logistically to do anything but consolidate.
But many people will miss their places of worship and social centers. I feel a sense of loss as a social historian, but it’s nothing compared to the people who were married there, baptized on site, had their communions or worshipped there regularly.
But as the church starts looking for some other purpose or purchaser, St. Stephen’s is still a beautiful building that will retain some functions — along with a legacy to the neighborhood. I’ve seen it packed for their festival and, for their recent Easter Mass, cars lined the streets and lots around it. That St. John’s, also in my neighborhood, has become Amnesty Crossfit while its additional buildings are now professional offices, living space and commercial storage, gives hope that the graceful edifice may find new life.