Church in jeopardy 1870s structure named to state ‘endangered’ list

When St. John’s Episcopal Church on Summit Avenue was named to the 10 Most Endangered Historic Sites in New Jersey list last month by an organization called Preservation New Jersey, the honor was many years overdue.

The Episcopal Diocese of Newark (the owner of the church) had vacated the church in 1994, after it had served the community in an area known as Bergen Hill for more than 100 years. (The Bergen Hill neighborhood consists of such roads as Summit Avenue, Astor Place, Park Street and Communipaw Avenue.)The 19th-century Victorian structure contains such treasures as patterned ceramic tiles from England and an altar, pulpit and lectern carved out of Italian marble. It used to have windows made of Tiffany glass.

But now the church, which had served an affluent neighborhood of bankers and businessman when it opened in the 1870s and in its later years would minister to a poor and working class congregation, is in a state of disrepair.

The patterned ceramic tiles are buckling; the altar, pulpit and lectern are crusted with dust, and the Tiffany glass was sold by the church’s owner years ago. Local historic preservationists are trying to save the building from further deterioration, as some smaller church groups are currently utilizing the space for services.

But is any action forthcoming, especially in light of its recent designation as an endangered historic landmark?

The Millionaires’ Church

The church was designed by architect J. Remson Onderdonk and was erected in 1870 at the current location of 120 Summit Ave., which was then known as Bergen Hill, an affluent neighborhood where the city’s top politicians, wealthiest bankers, businessmen and real estate owners all resided. The church was constructed of dark brownstone, blue granite square blocks and a slate-tile roof.

No expense was spared on the interior of the church. There were patterned ceramic tiles that were shipped from England; as well as electric brass chandeliers; marble pillars, altar, pulpit and lectern, and windows made of Tiffany Studios glass.

It would enjoy for many years the distinction as the largest and wealthiest Episcopal parish in New Jersey, with its membership estimated by 1910 to be larger than 20 Episcopal dioceses in the United States. Even after a fire damaged a large part of the church in October 1914, it was still one of the most prestigious churches in the state.

But by the late 1960s, St. John’s was serving a different purpose and a different congregation. The wealthy clientele that once frequented the church had now moved away to the suburbs, and in their place were working class people struggling to exist in the urban milieu.

Unfortunately, there would also be criminal elements interspersed with the decaying brownstones, as drug dealers and prostitutes took to hanging around outside.

Civil rights

The church always tailored itself to the needs of the surrounding community. In 1960, Jersey City native and cleric Rev. Robert Castle became the head of St. John’s Episcopal. Until 1968, Castle and the staff of the church worked with the congregants to improve their situation. Whether it was working with the local chapter of the Black Panther Party or protesting police brutality, the church became a haven for the civil rights struggle in Jersey City.

The Jersey City Reporter contacted Castle at his home in Vermont, where he looked back on his experiences at the church.

“The church did a lot of social service for the people around the church. I’m very proud of what took place and I miss it a great deal,” said Castle.

After Castle left to serve other churches in 1968, there would be other staff who would continue to maintain the church. But by 1994, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark closed down the church due a declining congregation and the costs to maintain it.

A prayer of a chance

The church currently lies vacant. There’s a leak in the roof, and the interior structure has deteriorated to the point where it is considered unsafe for most people to visit.

There was an attempt by the Jersey City Episcopal Community Development Corporation (JCECDC), a non-profit organization that has its offices in the parish hall next the church, to look into possibly rehabbing it. Jorge Cruz, the president of the JCECDC, said last week a feasibility study was done in 2002 to evaulate how the church should be utilized.

“It took a year. A physical and structural analysis was done, finding out what would be a feasible scenario for the church. We would have to demolish the site,” said Cruz.

Cruz also said that based on the study, there would have to be at least four to five million dollars that would have to be invested to address the physical condition of the building.

Susan Robinson, spokesperson for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, which owns the building, said last week that the church cannot consider rehabbing the building, as there have to be a steady congregation to justify it.

In May, the historic preservation organization Preservation New Jersey named the church as one of the 10 most endangered historic sites for 2004. Swathy Keshavamurthy, the program’s director for preservation New Jersey, said that the church had been chosen based on public testimony submitted to the organization attesting to why it be declared endangered.

In the case of the St. John’s Episcopal Church, it was John Gomez, the president of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, who believes it should be preserved.

Gomez wrote in a report that the “critical physical perils would be eliminated if current owners took immediate action and stabilized the structure.”

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