From church to mosque: Syracuse Islamic group cuts crosses, tries to connect to neighborhood
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on August 16, 2015 at 1:00 AM, updated August 16, 2015 at 8:23 AM
SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Two gray church spires grow out of a bumpy plain of city rooftops along Park Street. The skyline is the same as it has been for the better part of a century until you look closer at Holy Trinity Church: There are slim copper crescents where, for 100 years, there had been crosses.
The six crosses were removed and replaced at the end of June. Four of them were massive: 600 pounds of concrete each, and more than 4 feet tall. The step was the last, and most visible, in the building’s change from church to mosque.
The transformation has been a series of careful choices aimed at balancing the forces of two religions in a neighborhood that is shifting. The North Side, once full of Italian and German immigrants, is increasingly home to new Americans who are refugees from countries where Islam is the dominant religion.
Even as the crosses were cut from the church spires on the outside, and 10,000 crosses were painted over on the inside, the new owners of 501 Park St. tried to leave what they could, and reuse what they couldn’t.
The wood from the pews has been repurposed to fix the floor, which is where Muslims sit to pray. Painters worked to make the minbar, the pulpit where the imam stands, blend in with the stonework. The name of the mosque is Masjid Isa Ibn Maryam, which translates to Mosque of Jesus Son of Mary.
The cost to buy and transform the church was great: $300,000 and counting, said Yusuf Soule, the volunteer director of the North Side Learning Center, which bought the property and is overseeing the mosque construction.
But the physical work and fundraising has been the easy part of the transformation. What has proved harder is reaching out into the changing community, turning strangers from very different places into friends. When the mosque sought the required approval of the city’s Landmark Preservation Board in April 2014, the meetings were packed with former members of Holy Trinity Church. They were upset and angry.
At one meeting, the mosque supporters brought food from their many nations to share. But it went mostly untasted by the strangers.
And when Fox News and other national news outlets last year picked up the story of the plans for the mosque, the mosque leaders worried they would become a target of violence. So for the past year, they have worked quietly to blend all of the old that they could into the new, Soule said.
Soule stood inside the mosque, his nearly 7-foot frame diminished by the vastness of the space. The 50-foot ceilings seem higher than they were when there were church pews and an altar inside the building. Painters, paid and volunteer, were up on ladders for weeks, painting over some 10,000 crosses, Soule said.
The crosses were turned into other designs, or, in some cases, covered over by gray paint so they blended into the walls.
Covering those 10,000 crosses was a small feat when compared with what it took to remove the crosses from the church spires. That took months of back and forth with the city’s Landmark Preservation Board, submitting and resubmitting plans for removing the crosses and storing them onsite, which the board required.
And it took much more money than Soule and the others on the North Side Learning Center board initially expected.
Inside the mosque, a hand-colored fundraising thermometer was taped to the wall for the better part of the past year. “Masjid Isa Cross Removal” is written across the top. The goal: $50,000.
Every week at prayers, Soule would make announcements and then beg, politely, for the rest of the money to finish the cross removal.
Finally, during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday marked by fasting and self-reflection, a woman gave Soule a check for the balance, $15,000, and said, “Stop asking.” She wanted to remain anonymous, Soule said.
On June 29, Paul Waelder rode a crane to the top of the church. Along with workers from Giarrosso Sheet Metal, Waelder spent two days 200 feet in the air, working first with concrete saws to remove the crosses. Then his son, David Waelder, an artist and metal worker, hammered the domes and crescents into place. The crescents are smaller, less than a foot, on top of thin metal spires. They cover up the lightning rods that were part of the crosses and had to be left to protect the building.
Paul Waelder said the high-profile job came with two stipulations: no talking to the press and no pictures or video of the cross removal.
Waelder understood. “They had a bull’s eye on their backs,” he said. “They are doing good things over there.”
While it is not uncommon for mosques to spring up in old churches around the country, it is rare for a former Roman Catholic Church to become a mosque. The buildings are old and heavy with religious artwork that has to be removed.
The former Church of St. John, in St. Paul, Minn., followed the same path as Holy Trinity. That Roman Catholic Church, built in 1886, closed in 2013. In 2014, it became the Darul-Uloom Islamic Center. Like at Holy Trinity in Syracuse, a large stone cross was removed.
Watching the crosses come down off of Holy Trinity was hard for the people who found their spiritual home there, week after week, year after year.
Anne Angiolillo raised her 10 children spending every Sunday in the pews of Holy Trinity. She opposed taking down the crosses, and cried inside when it was done, she said.
Angiolillo moved from the neighborhood last year, but when she goes back and looks to the sky now, it seems empty. “They’re missing,” she said. “They really were a landmark.”
But the mosque’s owners let her family keep a piece of the church. Angiolillo’s daughter stopped by the church during construction and saw the electronic bells her father programmed and maintained sitting there, with his note still attached to them. A woman at the mosque suggested she take them for her dad, Angiolillo said.
Now, Holy Trinity’s bells ring from the Angiolillo’s garage in Tipp Hill three times a day: morning, noon and 6 p.m. They change the songs to fit the season.
While Angiolillo is more sad than angry about the crosses these says, there are others who still carry a grudge against the mosque. For Soule, every decision about the mosque comes with the same question: What will the neighbors say?
They reach out in small ways, like inviting the neighbors to Iftar, the communal meal the mosque hosted for 30 nights during Ramadan. A few came, Soule said.
Even now, Soule was reluctant to have pictures taken of the massive crosses. After they were removed from the building, they were carefully wrapped in plastic and cloth. They look a bit like mummies. The two copper crosses, less than 100 pounds each, were easier to remove. They are not wrapped.
The city allowed Soule’s group to take the crosses down, but it also required them to keep the crosses at 501 Park St. Soule said the hope is that the crosses can be kept in a way that lets the public see them. But the final plan hasn’t been worked out.
Soule has felt the pull of religion from both sides. As Catholics who had prayed in the church for decades struggled with the idea of removing the crosses, Muslims who wanted to worship there felt funny coming to pray at a building that still had crosses on top, Soule said. But they did for nearly a year, with the crosses on the top and the sign for Holy Trinity Church still outside.
The need for a mosque in the neighborhood is so great that people came anyway. Khadija Abdul Kadir’s family are refugees who came to Syracuse from Somalia. Before the Park Street mosque opened its doors, they had to walk miles or take a bus to get to another mosque. Now, it’s a few minutes walk for their daily prayers. And the Islamic community growing on the North Side has a center. When there aren’t prayers inside, the staccato of a basketball bouncing on the parking lot court can be heard.
On a recent sunny Friday, more than 200 people came to pray. They kneeled and pressed their foreheads to the prayer carpet. Light forced its way through the drapes that covered the stained glass windows. The stained glass had to be covered because Islam does not allow images of people in mosques.
Weeding the garden
For 83 years, Toni Franklyn could see Holy Trinity and its crosses from her front yard. Franklyn moved to Highland Avenue near the church when she was 6 years old. Her mother went to mass at Holy Trinity every day. Franklyn was married there. At the last mass in 2010, Franklyn wept.
As the plans to turn the church into a mosque went forward, Franklyn watched quietly from her yard — until that day in June, when the crane went to the top of the spire. Franklyn, 89, marched over to the church to see what was going on.
She felt like a stranger, like she was trespassing, she said. But Soule saw her and invited her inside. He explained that she needed to take her shoes off.
Franklyn saw that the spot where the ceiling had leaked was no longer visible. The altar and pews were gone. But a building that had been dying was coming alive, again. The new prayer carpet was plush and soft under her bare feet.
“I started with an attitude,” Franklyn said. “I miss my church … but they were so nice to me. I went in and saw how nice it was being kept. The way I felt disappeared.”
Years ago, Franklyn was part of a group that planted hostas and flowers at the church and maintained the gardens. The landscaping has since been overtaken by weeds. Mark Cass, a non-Muslim board member of the Northside Learning Center, asked Franklyn if she would help teach some young volunteers at the mosque the difference between the flowers and the weeds so they could tend the gardens.
At 89, Franklyn doesn’t do much weeding. But she’d be happy, she said, to help show others how.