As thousands of proud family members and friends stood and applauded the more than 6,400 Syracuse University students who had their degrees conferred inside the JMA Wireless Dome for this year’s Commencement ceremony, their thoughts were on celebrating this momentous…
Podcast and Q&A on Faith and Service With Father Gerry Waterman, Catholic Center Chaplain
Father Gerry Waterman is a man of devout faith.
Serving as Syracuse University’s Catholic chaplain since 2016, Father Gerry, as he is affectionately known on campus, has been making a difference in the lives of students, bringing people together for sermons, service and community.
An outgoing people person, Father Gerry is proud to share his faith and his love of service with the campus community. But Father Gerry has a secret: before even setting foot on the University campus, he wanted nothing to do with relocating to Central New York.
That was until Father Gerry embarked on a fateful morning jog through downtown Syracuse. It was on this three-mile run that Father Gerry, a deeply religious man, received a sign from God that persuaded him that he was meant to come to Syracuse University.
Father Gerry sat down with us to discuss how the Catholic Center provided a sense of community during the COVID-19 pandemic, how he’s inspired by the Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) students, why he was beyond humbled to receive the Chancellor’s Forever Orange Award and relives his days as a commercial winemaker.
Here is the full conversation with Father Gerry on the ’Cuse Conversations podcast. A transcript [PDF] is also available.
01What brought you to Syracuse University?
“I was literally reticent to come here and was praying about it. And I was going to refuse, and my spiritual director back in North Carolina said, ‘How do you refuse something you really haven’t seen?’ Our friars have been here at Syracuse University since 1999, so I went and visited, and the first day that I was here, I had two students who I didn’t choose as my tour guides. Both of them were from my parish in Connecticut, go figure. That to me was the first sign from God to me.
“Then, I met the dean of Hendricks Chapel, and I still didn’t want to move up here. But on my last day was my interview with Chancellor Kent Syverud. I asked the friars if there was a running route that I could take and not get lost, because I really didn’t know the City of Syracuse. They said, ‘Yeah, just go down Spencer Street and you’ll hit the Creekwalk. Take a right and you’ll run to Onondaga lake, turn around and come back and that’s three miles. Or go left to Armory Square, turn around and come back and it’s three miles.’ So I chose to go left toward Armory Square, and I’m praying to God the whole time, saying ‘If this is really where you want me to be, you need to give me a sign.’
“I was on a little bridge adjacent to Onondaga Creek, and I looked to my left and there was an open storm drain, and I looked at the iron plate covering the storm drain. There, stamped in the iron were the initials, WATERMAN. It was my name stamped there. If that wasn’t enough, right underneath is a number 84, which is the year I was ordained. And under that is the year 55, which is the year of my birth. I had tears coming down my eyes because when you ask God for a sign and you get that sign, it is very humbling and very emotional. I took a picture of the sign and framed it on my wall as a reminder that God chose me to be here. I didn’t choose.”
02What is it about the Syracuse University and SUNY ESF students and the community that has been so rewarding to work with?
“I’ve never been welcomed more than I have been in this place. I felt so welcomed by faculty, staff, students and administration—everybody is very welcoming, that’s number one. Number two, I find the caliber of student here, there’s a biblical word for them that I’ll use: guileless. What you see is what you get. There’s no hidden agenda to the students I meet here. None. I just find them transparent. I find them grounded by the earth. I find them so Franciscan-like because Francis was a very down-to-earth human being. And that’s what I find in our students.”
03How did the pandemic impact how you operated the Catholic Center and how you and your staff went about instilling a sense of community and camaraderie?
“What this pandemic tried to do was the antithesis of what we try to do on campus. We try, as a campus ministry and a house of welcome, to bring people together. And the pandemic tried to keep people apart. So I had to work very hard with my team to try and bring people together safely. We had the Zoom platform, which was like ‘Hollywood Squares.’ There were Bible studies done on Zoom, masses held on Zoom. We also used Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, every possible social media platform that we could to get people together. Being a people person, it was so hard just to look at a blank screen as I was celebrating mass. So I printed up photos of our students and taped them all around the wall of the chapel so as I was celebrating mass, I could see their smiling faces. It made all the difference because looking at a blank phone screen is not the way I want to celebrate a sacrament. So even though the students weren’t physically there, I have great memories of them being in the spaces where they were photographed.”
04What makes you proud of how our students handled all the issues and challenges thrown their way during the last four years?
“They were able to work through all of that in their own lives, and here’s where the pride comes in: I’m looking at some of them going out into their world, and this world is scary sometimes, but they’re entering as leaders in the faith. They’re stepping up in their own respective parish communities, or Catholic communities wherever they are. That gives me great joy to see that they are blooming where they’re planted, because we gave them wings, we gave them wind and we gave them time. They left the nest and some of them are flying high and far because of what they’ve gained from their experiences here, a well-rounded experience, not only academically, but also spiritually. We have a very spiritual campus.”
05You recently were honored by Chancellor Syverud and the Syracuse University community with the Chancellor's Forever Orange Award. Were you surprised by that?
“Surprised, shocked and utterly humbled. I said this to the Chancellor as he handed me this award. I said, ‘Every Sunday I celebrate mass. I preside on this stage. I make Jesus present for the students here, and I speak about the gospel here on this stage. My knees never, ever shake. Today, receiving this, my knees were wobbling.’ … It was very humbling.”
06You once were a commercial winemaker. How did you get involved with making wine?
“I grew up in an Italian household, four families including my maternal grandparents, and my grandfather made wine every year. Of all the grandchildren, he asked me at five years old to help him in the basement where he made the wine. I learned to appreciate wine at a young age. I was teaching at a college seminary outside of Springfield, Massachusetts, and I went out picking grapes one early fall day and picked some red chancellor wine grapes. I made about 10 gallons of wine. Every year we have what is called the garden party, our annual fundraiser. And the guy in charge asked if I would be willing to do a wine tasting booth. I had a whole year and it was a lot of work, but I made 190 bottles of nine varieties of wines, including fruit wines like loganberry, apple and grape. I made my own labels and glued them on and corked them myself with a hand corking device. It was really a labor of love, and in a matter of an hour and a half, I was completely sold out. … Eventually we created a wine business for five years, and it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. Talk about being a people person in a tasting room, seeing a Franciscan in a habit, pouring wine and talking about wine like it’s your best friend.”