Commentary: The Catholics on South Avenue

By David Andreatta
Rochester City Newspaper
March 4, 2020

Julie Murante, a volunteer at the St. Joseph's House of Hospitality foot clinic, tends to guest Ronnie Lewis Victrum on a recent Sunday.

On Sunday, a retired Catholic priest unknown to these parts visited a handful of churches around Rochester and spoke to congregants at the end of Mass.

He was the Rev. John Cusick, a straight-shooter from Chicago, where he was known for reviving a parish and preaching to young adults in barrooms. It has been reported that he delivered his homilies off the cuff.

Cusick told parishioners at Church of the Assumption in Fairport that he had been sent — by whom he didn’t say — to “fire up the troops,” and he invited congregants to join him the following evening for some sort of pep talk.

“It’s been a tough time to be a Catholic,” he told the congregation.

No kidding. I say that as a somewhat lapsed Catholic; maybe even a collapsed Catholic in that I don’t believe in central tenets of the church. Like so many others who have fallen away from the church, though, I find myself sitting in a pew periodically because . . . Because.

The now nearly two decades-old sexual abuse scandal and the complicity of church leadership in covering it up has Catholics burning hot and running from the pews. The hierarchy is viewed by countless people raised in the faith as without credibility and morally bankrupt.

Now, the church in a lot of places is financially bankrupt, too. To date, 24 dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection in response to mounting sexual abuse claims, according to, a church watchdog group.

The Diocese of Buffalo became the latest two weeks ago. The Diocese of Rochester filed in September.

Cusick acknowledged that Catholics were angry, and segued into a story about his friend Marty, with whom he is angry. He described Marty as a devout Catholic who went astray when he got involved in Chicago politics. Go figure.

He was talking about Martin Sandoval, a corrupt Illinois state senator who resigned in January after admitting taking $250,000 in bribes, including monthly kickbacks from red-light camera tickets.

Cusick said he intended to reach out to Sandoval, and he encouraged congregants to reach out to other people who have lost their way. Doing so, he said, was to reconnect with humanity and to find common ground and the good in each other.

But anyone looking for the humanitarianism of which Cusick spoke need only spend time at Saint Joseph’s House of Hospitality, a soup kitchen and shelter on South Avenue in Rochester near Comfort Street.

I had spent the previous Sunday there reporting for this week’s cover story in CITY. What I encountered there touched me in a profound way and came to mind as Cusick spoke.

There, in that three-story tenement, is the real Catholic church.

Not the church of opulence. Not the church of backward teachings about sex dictated by hypocritical men. Not the church that’s alienated its faithful who can’t make any sense of what is going on.

There is no mystery to what is going on at St. Joe’s. Its volunteers are taking the biblical teachings to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, and clothe the needy to heart.

The house was inspired by the Catholic Worker movement founded by Dorothy Day, a social activist and journalist whom the Catholic Church is considering for sainthood.

Ironically, though, many of the workers at St. Joe’s aren’t Catholic. They’re people of all faiths living the Golden Rule of treating others as they would want to be treated.

They harbor a righteous anger, not unlike that of a lot of Catholics harbor over their church. They have no time for government bureaucracies and case workers. When someone needs help, they help them as best they can. Some of them live alongside the destitute.

All of that, it seems to me, is what the Catholic Church at its core is really all about.

In addressing parishioners, Cusick said there were many Catholics like me. People who periodically sit in church pews . . . because.

His aim was to help people find meaning in the church. That’s to be appreciated from a man who spent his life in ministry and, by all accounts, did so honorably.

But disenchanted Catholics, and anyone looking for the good in people, would be hard-pressed to find a better example of humanity than what they would find at St. Joe’s.



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