An historic Christian landmark now represents the Syracuse-area’s new population.
The former Holy Trinity Catholic Church of the North Side community is becoming “Masjid Isa Ibn Maryam,” which means Mosque of Jesus, Son of Mary.
“A lot of people that are Muslim in the neighborhood, they’re very happy. I mean that is something exciting,” said Younis Mosleh, a resident of the North Side of Syracuse. Once the building opens for prayers, he and his family will attend the mosque since it is within walking distance of his home.
Younis Mosleh is one of many Muslims living in the North Side neighborhoods, which is where many resettled refugees live in Syracuse.
In December of 2013, the North Side Learning Center bought the former Holy Trinity Catholic Church, at 501 Park St., for $150,000. The Roman Catholic Diocese closed the Holy Trinity Church because of too few parishioners. The building remained empty since 2010. The North Side Learning Center will lease the former church to the Muslim faith group.
But before the Muslim faith group can have their worship rituals in the former church, the new worshippers must remove the crosses of the church’s Catholic past and make other renovations.
The Syracuse Landmark Theatre Preservation board has authorized the North Side Learning Center to change the appearance of the historic building by removing the six crosses outside of the building and putting a 6-foot-chain linked fence around the property. The Center still has to give the preservation board details on how the empty holes from the crosses will be filled and where the crosses will be stored.
The new owners and worshippers are renovating the former church for its new life as a mosque. Volunteers from both the Muslim faith group and the North Side Learning Center have removed the old benches to clear floor space for the Muslim practice of kneeling to pray. Some benches went to people who will use them in their homes. Some will be pried apart to use for floor renovation.
The new worshippers are trying to be as sustainable as they can, said Ahmed Souid, a board member of the Muslim faith group. Souid is helping to renovate the mosque. The building has not been heated for many years and much of the renovation is because of water damage.
“I’m pretty sure it was the result of the heat being off for years. So when the heat is not on the water freezes, when the water freezes it expands, and it bursts the gutters,” Souid said. The melted water seeped through walls, ceilings and floors, causing blisters.
But the new worshippers face another dilemma: the stained glass windows of the former church. The perseveration board has not approved their removal. But the Muslim faith forbids images in the mosque.
“As far as Islam goes, you’re not allowed to have icons or figures inside the mosque so they’re going to be covered with thick curtains,” said Souid.
A Syracuse architectural design class run by Dennis Earl, an adjunct professor of Syracuse University, will have his class design curtains to cover the windows.
But Souid said he still hopes the windows can be removed instead of covered. “They’re so beautiful, they have so much detail in them. And I’m sure a lot of people who used to attend this church would just love to put it in their homes or in a museum,” he said. “But until that time, we’re more than happy to take care of them, to make sure that they’re in good condition.”
Mark Cass, board member of the North Side Learning Center, said he hopes to get a bishop of the Catholic Diocese, and all religious leaders, to attend the public ceremony of the building transition to a mosque in June. His reason: “To have people see the commonalities rather than differences.”
For his part, Younis Mosleh is celebrating the mosque in his North Side neighborhood. He resettled in Syracuse from Yemen in 2010. He improved his English-speaking skills by attending the North Side Learning Center programs. This year he opened up his own cleaning business. He also helps the North Side Learning Center and the Muslim faith group renovate the church.
Now he and his family attend the Sunni mosque and Islamic Community center located on Comstock Avenue, about a 15-minute drive away from their home. He is anticipating a new life in the new mosque.
“I hope a lot of people will go there to worship,” Mosleh said. “And I hope it runs forever.”
(Vekonda Luangaphay is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper, and online journalism.)