Utica began as a military outpost in the midst of Oneida Indian country. The Oneida are part of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) league, and their present-day cultural center, Shako:wi, is on the Oneida reservation, 20 miles west of Utica. Among the first non-indigenous religious spaces created by Euro-Americans were Welsh and English speaking Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Congregational, and Methodist churches. Protestant mainline and Catholic churches flourished from the mid-nineteenth through the mid twentieth century.
The Erie Canal began to operate between Utica and Rome in 1817, turning Utica into a major economic center. When Irish immigrants came to help build the Canal, they established St. John’s, the first Roman Catholic Church west of Albany. The Canal, and later the railroad, brought new industries which, in turn, brought more immigrants, and more religious diversity: German Catholics, German Lutherans, Italian Catholics, Polish Catholics, and by the 1880s a strong Jewish community settled after fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.
The Underground Railroad operated along the Erie Canal, and free blacks found sanctuary in Utica homes and church basements. As the number of African Americans in Utica increased, Hope Chapel AME church was organized in 1848 by the Reverend Jermain Loguen and is in operation still today. The African American population of Utica remained relatively small until the Great Migration of the 1920s through 1960s, when blacks from the South came to work the agricultural fields and machine industries in the area. By the 1940s, black churches were established throughout the city, including the denominations of Church of God in Christ, Baptist, and AME.
The 1960s began an economic downturn for Utica, not unusual among rust belt cities. The mid-twentieth century population peaked at 100,000, and by the year 2000 it was down to 60,000. Since then, however, the population has remained fairly steady, due almost entirely to the influx of immigrants and refugees. The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees (affiliated with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugees Service) was established in 1981 in response to the influx and remains a key resource.
The first wave of refugees in the 1980s came chiefly from Southeast Asia, especially Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Buddhist temples from each group are seen throughout Utica today. Through the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and resulting economic and military upheavals, Eastern Europeans began to find new homes in Utica. Key among these refugees have been Russian Pentecostals who fled repression from the Russian Orthodox Church, and Muslim Bosnians who fled the wars occurring in the former Yugoslavia. The Bosnian population is estimated to be as high as 10,000 people, and in 2008 the community purchased the former Central Methodist Church building from the city for $1. After pouring a few years of solid labor into it, the Islamic Bosnian Association mosque stands on the same block as City Hall; the adhan (call to prayer) can be heard on Friday afternoons, broadcast from the minaret across downtown Utica. The mosque has become something of a “mother mosque,” as Somalis, Iraqis, and Burmese now also pray there, and they have helped seed newer gatherings around town, including a recently opened Burmese mosque. As of 2015, there are at least four mosques operating in Utica.
While immigration has been part of Utica life for two centuries, the last quarter century has seen unprecedented growth in diversity; in 2015 approximately 17 percent of the city’s population was foreign-born. According to the U.S. Census, the white population was 98.4 percent in 1950. In 2010 it was 69 percent. Today, one-fourth of the city’s residents speak languages other than English at home. Equally significant, recent polls indicate that more than two-thirds of the population agrees that immigration is a good thing for the city.
Racism and xenophobia are not absent, but in account after account from pollsters, journalists, filmmakers, and others, Utica has been noted as an exceptional place in its welcoming of others in the midst of economic hard times. Articles in the New York Times, Christianity Today, and the United Nations magazine Refugees, have published positive stories of the city, calling it “The City that Loves Refugees.” A 2014 documentary In God’s House: the Religious Landscape of Utica, NY observed: “Immigration and Utica are inseparable.” Responding to the needs of new populations, various groups beyond local congregations have begun to work with refugees and their religious commitments, supplementing the ongoing work of the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. The Midtown Utica Community Center meets in a former Episcopal church and is open to a number of cultural events for newly settled people. The Jewish Community Center, the Salvation Army, and Utica Rescue Mission all have resources for the area, and in 2014, several constituencies gathered to form the Interfaith Coalition of Greater Utica.
Since 1999, large numbers of people from Burma/Myanmar, especially ethnic Karen, have arrived and begun to reinvigorate older established Protestant churches such as Tabernacle Baptist (ABS) and Grace Episcopal. Other Burmese refugees are Buddhist and Muslim and have established new centers for their religious ceremonies. And since 2009 refugees from Bhutan, especially ethnic Nepalese, have come to Utica, establishing a Hindu center and a number of Christian gathering places. Significant numbers of Iraqis, Somali Bantu, Sudanese, and Ukrainians, as well as people from several Latin American nations have also settled in the area.
The United States has been described as a nation of immigrants, but refugee and diaspora communities have come under close scrutiny in recent months. The World Faiths Development Dialogue, with support from the GHR Foundation, has undertaken a pilot project in partnership with Harvard University’s Pluralism Project in early 2015. Its goal was to explore the religious lives of refugees who settle in the US to better understand how religious communities, traditions, networks, or personal faith affect their adaptation and community-building in... Read more about Religion and Resettlement: The role of religion in diaspora communities in the US