Popular priest leaving Lewiston, Youngstown churches in May
LiPuma leaves lasting mark on St. Peter’s
By Joshua Maloni
“Daunting” is the word the Rev. Monsignor David LiPuma used when recalling his appointment to pastor St. Peter’s six years ago. It’s the same word he chose when describing the challenge of raising millions of dollars to transform both the Lewiston church and its elementary school.
Though each experience was intimidating, LiPuma overcame, and found success as a parish priest, counselor, school administrator and pseudo construction supervisor. He was the first and only choice to officiate weddings or ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and parents sent children to St. Peter’s in droves. Today’s attendance is almost three times higher than before LiPuma began.
LiPuma’s ability to fundraise, unite people and inspire his community was not only recognized locally, but in the Diocese of Buffalo. As LiPuma was preparing to take on a second six-year term at St. Peter’s – and continue overseeing St. Bernard’s in Youngstown – the Most Rev. Richard Malone presented him with a new “daunting” challenge: shepherding Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the Lackawanna site founded by the Venerable Nelson Baker.
“With Father David’s vast experience and background, we are exceedingly blessed to have him lead the ‘City of Charity,’ ” Malone said. “He has a wealth of knowledge about the organization, having served as a member of the Homes of Charity’s board of directors.”
“Monsignor LiPuma has served the Lewiston/Youngstown community well; it is hoped that his successor will carry on all the good efforts taking place there,” said Kathy Spangler, diocesan director of communications. “Bishop Malone is very confident of Monsignor LiPuma’s ability to lead the OLV parish in the same fashion.”
LiPuma agreed to the assignment. He will officially leave Lewiston on May 31 to begin at OLV on June 1.
In addition to pastoring Our Lady of Victory Basilica, LiPuma will serve as president of Our Lady of Victory Institutions, which includes Homes of Charity, Baker Victory Services and Our Lady of Victory Elementary School.
LiPuma announced his departure at Masses last weekend.
“I fully intended to stay here. I love this community. I absolutely love this community,” he told The Sentinel on Monday. “The people of Lewiston, six years ago, embraced me with such warmth and love and support, and not just here in the parish, but really the whole community. It’s just an amazing place.
“And then three years ago, I was blessed to be able to work with Monsignor (J. Thomas) Moran, who, God bless him, at 84, finally was able to retire. And we worked out a plan where we would merge the two churches together: one parish, two worship sites. And I cannot thank the people of St. Bernard’s and St. Peter’s enough, because they were so open and so collaborative in making that happen. And I believe it’s been a very successful kind of process. The people at Youngstown have a special place in my heart, as well.
“It’s very hard to leave. … I’m torn. I’m just grateful for what I’ve had here, but I know that I rely heavily, every day, on God’s grace. And I always said that I would never say no to any assignment – even though I find it daunting. I just trust, if this is God’s will for me, then this is where I need to go.”
The Rev. Monsignor David LiPuma at St. Peter’s this past week.
In the Beginning …
LiPuma, 58, is from Depew. He graduated from Wadhams Hall Seminary College in Ogdensburg and went on to study at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. After receiving his theology degree from the Gregorian University in Italy, he eventually made his way back to Western New York. LiPuma was ordained to the priesthood in 1987 by the late Most Rev. Edward Head and served as a parochial vicar at St. Leo the Great in Amherst and St. Philip the Apostle in Cheektowaga.
In 1993, LiPuma was named acting director of the diocese’s office of worship. From there, he served as priest secretary for two bishops: the Most Rev. Henry J. Mansell and the Most Rev. Edward Kmiec.
Fully entrenched in an administrative position, LiPuma said he was somewhat unnerved when Bishop Malone asked him to take over at St. Peter’s.
“When it was time for me to come back to a parish, I found it daunting, as well, because I’d never been a pastor,” LiPuma said. “But that’s what we’re called to be. I mean, when we’re ordained, we’re not ordained to be administrators; we’re ordained to be pastors – priests who serve people in parishes.
“I remember coming here, the night before I started, Aug. 23, and I prayed to the intercession of St. Peter. And I said, ‘You know what? I know that you’re going to help me.’ And you know, I’ve felt this connection to St. Peter ever since. And so, basically, my approach from the very beginning was just to listen to people, and to welcome people, and to pray. It’s not about me. It’s really about God’s work. And so, it’s being open to, every day, just beginning the day, and saying, ‘OK, dear God, you’ve placed me here; now you show me the way.’ And it’s been amazing.”
And On This Rock, I Will Build My Church
LiPuma arrived at St. Peter’s following a period that wasn’t so amazing. The elementary school’s enrollment, in particular, was shrinking at an alarming rate.
Fortunately, LiPuma was able to find a partner up to the challenge of turning things around.
“The school (principal), Maureen Ingham, I can’t say enough about her,” he said. “And that’s the success of a school – and when you talk to people across the diocese or anybody that has a school – it’s the relationship between the pastor and the principal; that they work hand-in-hand and support each other. And then to have a great faculty and great families and great children, and generous and supportive parishioners – if you have all of that, that’s the success of the school.
“Maureen has been just an outstanding coworker. And I know the school will continue to grow.
“When she came, a couple of years before I did, she turned the school around. It was 72 kids. Then two years before I got here, it was 154. And then when I got here, and we just got to know each other, and I just fell in love with the school. We’re now at the 200 mark. I’m so grateful to her.”
He further explained, “Today, I had to gather all the school children and the faculty together, because I couldn’t tell them on Friday, because we were trying to keep this till 4 o’clock mass. And it was like somebody took the heart out of my chest, and they had to push it back in, because they were just (precious). Trying to explain to them how this all works and why I need to go; saying sometimes you have to make hard choices, difficult choices, because you know it’s not your will, it’s God’s will. And if God’s asking you to do something, you have to say ‘Yes,’ and you’ve got to go forward.
“And I think, in their own little way, a lot of them understood. But I will miss the children. The faculty is just phenomenal.”
Under Ingham and LiPuma’s leadership, St. Peter’s School gained two new classrooms; its cafeteria was renovated, with a portion cut out to become a multimedia room; handicapped-accessible bathrooms were refurbished; and, in 2018, a 60-feet-by-90-feet playground opened outside the gymnasium.
“Father David came to St. Peter’s and immediately we connected,” Ingham said. “We shared the same vision for Catholic education and for meeting the needs of each and every child and family. We worked together to make sure we were doing all we could to meet those needs and to find new and different ways to bring our school and parish community together.”
“He taught me about support, and caring and compromise … about patience, and listening and always having time to do the right thing,” she added. “He taught me because he modeled all of those things. That is who he is and who he wanted us all to be – more like Jesus – kinder, more thoughtful, less judgmental, always aware and deeply sensitive to others. I will miss seeing those characteristics every day. …
“Father loved our staff and made them feel special every time he was in their presence. He loved his parishioners and was there for each one – no matter their need or the time or the place – he was there. But he mostly loved the children … and the love that our SPS kids have for Father David is unmatchable. Just come to Mass at 9 a.m. any Friday and you will witness the greatest outpouring of love and respect and the deepest devotion as they listen for every word. Ask any child: Friday Mass with Father David is their favorite part of the week!”
The renovated St. Peter’s R.C. Church and a brand-new playground.
On the church side, LiPuma said St. Peter’s was in need of an elevator, which would provide handicapped patrons and older parishioners easier entry into the building.
“You know, shortly after I got here, the diocese embarked on the diocesan capital campaign. And that was one of the most daunting tasks, because what we realized here is there’s a lot of stuff we wanted to do to shore up the buildings,” LiPuma said. “An elevator was always a wish. And so, I met with key people in the community. People were interviewed, and we decided that we could do a combined campaign. So, it was $2 million. We raised $2.4 million over a three-year period, and people are still paying their commitments. But that was a true testament, to me, of the generosity of these people.”
“That is a testament to them, is that whole side addition, what we’ve done to the school, and the computer room, and the library, and refiguring it so we could have more space. That was a daunting task, (but) very successful,” he added.
LiPuma said a process to find his successor will begin soon, and will include meetings with church leadership and parishioners, as well as visits from other diocesan priests.
There was a one-month gap between when LiPuma was appointed to St. Peter’s and when he began. He said it’s possible the bishop will send over temporary priests – perhaps even an administrator – before a permanent replacement is selected.
"Whoever comes – and that’s what I’m praying for now, and I asked everybody to pray over the weekend to the Holy Spirit – that it be someone that will continue to build and go forward,” LiPuma said. “This is a very loving community; very supportive community, with time, talent and treasure. We have a strong school, a strong school board, and we’ve done a lot to improve the properties in both places. So, it’s got to be someone who is really willing to work with the people. And if they do, they’re going to be blessed in so many ways, because people just are so generous and so kind and they’re willing to do that.
“I feel that we have a very welcoming parish and I’m grateful for that. And that’s why I say everybody’s welcome here, and I just want that same spirit to continue, that whoever comes continues to make that the message; and just do their very best. That’s what I’m hoping and praying for.”
I Am Not Ashamed of the Gospel …
LiPuma already has ties to Our Lady of Victory.
“I have known both the former pastors – the two most recent pastors – Monsignor (Robert C.) Wurtz, who was there – who baptized me when I was a child out in Lancaster. He actually died as the pastor of Our Lady of Victory. And I was there the day that he passed away, and was able to anoint him. That was quite a moving moment for me,” LiPuma said. “And then Monsignor (Paul J.E.) Burkard, who is now retiring; he spent the last 12 years; he followed Monsignor Wurtz after he passed away. He taught me in college seminary. He was my spiritual director. And he’s now celebrating his 50th anniversary and 75th birthday. So, as of June 1, he’ll retire.”
At Our Lady of Victory, LiPuma will have daily responsibilities both as pastor and president. Beyond that, he will continue the work of his predecessors in presenting the case for Father Baker’s canonization.
“What happens there is they look for a miracle,” LiPuma said of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and the acting pope. “They thought they had one, and it goes to Rome, and there’s all kinds of documentation, and it takes a few years to go through everything. That miracle didn’t quite work, but there are others that they know of, so they’re going to continue to keep pushing that.
“That’s another big part of this, is that we really want Father Baker to be canonized a saint. I mean, when you go there and you kneel at his tomb, and you look around at that basilica, and you look around at all the institutions, and what he’s done – and that it’s continuing today. He died in 1936, and that this continues to flourish, it’s a sign. And there’s so many people that go there for prayers, quietly throughout the day.
“I found out here, after announcing it, a number of people said, ‘Oh, I go there all the time, because I find that place to be very powerful.’ ”
Though Baker continues to serve as a source of inspiration, LiPuma said sainthood would serve as an undeniable example of what a Catholic priest can accomplish.
“With what’s going on in the Catholic Church today, and the priesthood, to have a parish priest like him canonized, I think, will encourage vocations to the priesthood. We’ve been praying for that all along.”
Such impact couldn’t come at a better time. The Buffalo Diocese continues to find itself under the microscope for illegal sexual acts some of its priests committed with children.
“Right now, what we’re working together with the bishop on, the priests, everybody in the diocese, is this healing process, and of restoring trust,” LiPuma said. “So many bad things have happened, and we’ve gotten such (bad publicity) – and rightfully so. I mean, nobody should be able to get away with hurting a child or doing anything wrong like that.
“But we also have to remind people that it’s a human church, and we make mistakes and sin. But also, there’s so much good that the Catholic Church does, that we don’t talk about ourselves that way. But when you think about Catholic education, health care, Catholic Charities, social services, parish life, you know, where would we be? Where would people go, if we couldn’t support this church? And they wanted to come for the Eucharist, and they wanted to come for Jesus?
“That’s what I said to the people at the end of when I made the announcement. I said, ‘You have to remember that bishops and priests come and go, but Jesus Christ is here forever; and the Eucharist is here; and that’s why you come; and that’s what you need to continue to come for; and to continue to realize that this is your church; your parish. And continue to love it. Continue to pray here, and continue to support it.”
Monsignor LiPuma at St. Bernard’s in Youngstown.
Leading by Example
LiPuma said parishioners at St. Peter’s and St. Bernard’s serve as models of true faith.
“I’m edified by how they’ve been able to keep the faith and keep coming to Mass in the midst of some very turbulent times. They didn’t walk away,” he said. “You know, you hear about other parts of the diocese, other parishes where people just have walked away and given up. But I found here that people have been continuing to come, and I just think that says a lot about their faith, and that means it’s pretty strong.”
It’s these people, LiPuma said, that he’ll miss the most when he leaves the River Region.
“I’m extremely grateful God sent me here, and I will always carry this community in my heart. I said that today, and I’ll keep saying it every day when I offer my prayers. I’m going to pray for the people here.
“And I’m not going to be that far away. So, I hope people always know they’re welcome to take that ride right down the 190, come up to Lackawanna, get off at Ridge Road, and there’s a place there where they can come and I would welcome them with open arms.”
Ingham said, “I am proud of this opportunity for Father David, and know, from having worked with him here at St. Peter’s for the past six years, that this is a new and important step for him at a parish that needs his leadership, his creativity and his masterful way to move a community forward. The challenges that await him are great, but because he has taught me, and so many others, that we can do whatever we need to do if we place our trust in the Lord, the community of Our Lady of Victory – the school, the foundation, the parish, the basilica and all of the people that it encompasses – will flourish as they, too, learn that they need only to trust in the Lord, and follow the path that he has laid for them. I have absolutely no doubt that Monsignor David LiPuma is the man for this job and that God, who has had this plan for him, will guide him in this newest endeavor, just as he has always done.
“I know that Father David is leaving Lewiston to continue to do God’s good work among the people of Lackawanna and the larger Diocese of Buffalo. And I also know that, under father’s unstoppable efforts and deep commitment, Father Nelson Baker will be canonized in his time!”
•For those who wish to visit, Our Lady of Victory Basilica is located at 767 Ridge Road, Lackawanna.
Father David with Principal Maureen Ingham.