Alison Ritacco, Prof. Brent Plate, Prof. Robert Knight and Hannah Grace O'Connell at the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, N.Y.
Alison Ritacco, Prof. Brent Plate, Prof. Robert Knight and Hannah Grace O'Connell at the Hill Cumorah Pageant in Palmyra, N.Y.

Through our contemporary media, readers frequently hear about the decline of religion in America.  Alison Ritacco ’14 and Hannah Grace O’Connell ’14 are working with two advisors, Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies Brent Plate and Assistant Professor of Art Robert Knight, to examine the realities of religious life in the Utica and Clinton areas, which may complicate that common conception. In their Levitt Group Summer Research project, “Religious Spaces in Transition,” they are focusing on how local religious institutions adapt to change.

Ritacco and O’Connell believe that looking at the space where religious practice takes place is an effective way to understand religious communities and look at the ways past and present mix as changes occur. O’Connell commented, “Everyday religion isn’t about the theology but the lived aspect: the people they see, the place they go, the feeling that it’s a second home.” A sociology and religious studies double major, she is particularly interested in that question of what makes a space a home. She’s also intrigued by the memories that space can hold and instances in which different communities share the same space.

Ritacco, who is double majoring in comparative literature and studio art, is working on a visual component of the project. She and Professor Knight are recording video interviews and taking photographs of both the outside and inside of religious spaces. By comparing their footage to what she finds in the archives, Ritacco is examining how religious institutions, particularly social areas within them, have changed. In her analysis, she wants to look at “what makes the spaces important to the people.” Both students feel that they’ve benefited from the multiple angles of the project, particularly from Plate and Knight’s different areas of expertise.

So far Ritacco and O’Connell have visited six different religious institutions, focusing on ones that are undergoing transitions. O’Connell observed, “Central New York has always been a hotbed of religious change.” Currently, an influx of refugees is altering the composition of religious communities in Utica. The Tabernacle Baptist Church, for example, has recently welcomed a large population of Karen refugees from Burma. The church is actively adapting to the change, offering services in English and Karen. O’Connell cited the Baptist Church as one example of a community that is clearly not in decline. Because of their outreach efforts, their population is flourishing.

Other communities they are researching include a Bosnian mosque within a converted Methodist church, a synagogue in which reform and conservative congregations have joined together, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, and the Stone Presbyterian Church in Clinton. The more research they complete, however, the more they realize how much more there is. Ritacco admitted, “I didn’t know how vast the religious landscape is.” Both hope to remain involved in the project in the upcoming year. O’Connell stated, “We realized that this is not a summer project. It could become a long-lasting documentation of the area.”

Ritacco and O’Connell have found that the representatives they speak with are enthusiastic to share their stories and that they remain optimistic. O’Connell noted, “The sense we’ve gotten is that these churches want to serve a function as long as there’s a community to serve.” A number of institutions in the Utica area have even formed an Interfaith Council. Ritacco observed, “It’s great to see conversations between different religions in a neutral zone.” The students see plenty of evidence that, although there is some doubt about the future of religion, religious institutions in the area are still making progress and bringing communities together.

Ritacco is a graduate of Canterbury School in New Milford, Conn.
O’Connell is a graduate of Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, Vt.

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