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The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: Sacred Space: The Smith as a Church

by Chris Woodworth

In 1965 St. Francis De Sales Church was set on fire, so Gerald Fowler invited the parish to use the Smith for their Sunday services (McNally 69). They are advertised here in this picture of the marquee. Courtesy of Charles McNally’s The Revels in Hand.

In 1965 St. Francis De Sales Church was set on fire, so Gerald Fowler invited the parish to use the Smith for their Sunday services (McNally 69). They are advertised here in this picture of the marquee. Courtesy of Charles McNally’s The Revels in Hand.

In the pre-dawn hours of April 10, 1965, the sanctuary of St. Francis De Sales Church on Exchange St. in Geneva was engulfed in flames. The fire had been intentionally set by an area youth who was quickly apprehended for the act of arson, which caused an estimated $200,000 worth of damage (“Geneva Church Wrecked” 2B). Reacting quickly to the news of the blaze, Gerald Fowler quickly extended an invitation to the parishioners to hold their mass services inside The Smith (which was then called Schine’s Geneva Theatre).

In a scrapbook documenting his 39 years as the manager of Schine’s Geneva Theatre (and later just the Geneva Theatre once the Schines sold their company in 1965), a few clippings recount this period of time when the church held mass each Sunday at The Smith. One clipping indicates that the theatre was host to mass for 52 weeks while their sanctuary was restored (“Geneva Theatre Temporary Church”).

Photograph of firefighters on the scene at St. Francis De Sales Church, which was set on fire April 10, 1965. Image courtesy of the Geneva Public Library and the New York Heritage Digital Collection. https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/JSY/id/27.

Photograph of firefighters on the scene at St. Francis De Sales Church, which was set on fire April 10, 1965. Image courtesy of the Geneva Public Library and the New York Heritage Digital Collection. https://cdm16694.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/JSY/id/27.

Richard Irwin, who would many years later go on to lead The Smith as Executive Director, recollects his early visits to the opera house while he was stationed across the lake at the Seneca Army Depot in 1965. In Charles McNally’s book The Revels in Hand: The First Century of the Smith Opera House, October 1894-October 1994, Irwin relates, “I have this picture in my mind of the priest holding up the Eucharist on the stage—I mean the altar. We were in the back of the house, as it were, in back of the church, and I recall that the stage was lit in a white wash. I didn’t know that lighting terminology at the time. The white light came down, the vestments were green, so it was dramatic to me, even more so than in church” (70). McNally notes that every Saturday night Gerald Fowler himself, along with members of the church, made sure the theatre was clean for the following morning’s mass (69). For those 52 weeks, The Smith was truly a sacred space to the members of that congregation.

Works Cited

“Geneva Church Wrecked.” Democrat and Chronicle, 11 April 1965, p. 2B.

“Geneva Theatre Temporary Church for 52 Weeks.” Special to The Daily. Clipping dated 11 April 1966 appears in Gerald Fowler’s Scrapbook, housed in the Geneva Historical Society Archives.

McNally, Charles. The Revels in Hand: The First Century of the Smith Opera House, October 1894-October 1994. Finger Lakes Regional Arts Council, 1994.