Gem of stone Church of the Holy Innocents rose from sorrow of one of Hoboken’s founding family members

You may have purchased your Christmas tree in the churchyard of the Church of the Holy Innocents at Sixth Street and Willow Avenue, or just walked past this enigmatic structure and wondered what it was all about. Perhaps you have worshipped there.

In any case, its tale is a story of immeasurable heartbreak, the ability of the human spirit to expand, the soul to soar in the face of paralyzing tragedy, and for a community to benefit for many generations from the strength, clarity of vision, and resolute character of one woman. It is also a story of Hoboken.

Stevens matron founded church

Scarcely two years after burying her husband – Edwin Stevens, the founder of Stevens Institute of Technology – Martha Bayard Stevens took a trip abroad with her three young children. Social conventions being what they were in 1870, this was probably the earliest acceptable time for such an excursion.

While in Rome, Martha’s oldest child, Julia, then 7 years old, became stricken with typhoid and died the day after Christmas.

Two days later, on Holy Innocents Day, Julia was laid to rest near the site where St. Paul is believed to have been martyred, in a cemetery where poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried.

After 29 years, Julia’s remains were moved to the family plot in North Bergen.

Good architecture can be uplifting and ennobling to the human spirit. The cohesive design of a church of incomparable beauty, and a location in Hoboken to serve this role in the lives of the poor, may have been what Martha Stevens had in mind when she commissioned the drawings and specifications for just such a structure from renowned architect Edward Tuckerman Potter. A parcel of land at Sixth Street between Willow Avenue and Clinton Street in the “Tenement House Section” of Hoboken was chosen for its proximity to Hoboken’s poor, the community Martha most wished to serve.

Edward Tuckerman Potter used as his model the famous Roslyn Chapel near Edinburgh, Scotland – yes, the very same one as in The Da Vinci Code.

Potter’s plans called for a much larger, cruciform church that was never completed. But he is responsible for the largest portion of the church, comprised of the three bays at the altar end, utilizing local and imported stone, tile and mosaics to bring his concept to life.

Construction began on Aug. 11, 1872. Julia’s brother, Richard, placed items in the cornerstone, and Julia’s sister, Caroline, who later became Mrs. H. Otto Wittpenn, laid flowers on the stone while Martha stood by.

Completed in 1874, Holy Innocents was built to last and was constructed to withstand fire. It was one of the only churches so built at that time.

Beneath the wooden floor areas there is a base of brick; behind wood wainscoting, more brick and stone. The roof itself is an antique oak interior ceiling with iron rafters, covered with iron lathing which originally supported slate tiles.

An enlargement of the structure in 1895 was entrusted to Henry Vaughan of Boston, who had designed the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and who, along with Potter, had helped plan the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, the largest gothic structure in the world. William Halsey Wood of New York (whose own plans for St. John the Divine were rejected) designed the Queen Anne and shingle-style rectory (1885) and parish house (1888). Locally, Architect George Mart Pollard of Hoboken executed the plans.

Built to last

Within the church, there is a baptistry (1932), acolyte rooms (1913), and three chapels. The Lady Chapel, with 400-year-old statues flanking its altar, was designed by Vaughan. The St. Joseph’s Chapel was dedicated in 1945 to the veterans of the two World Wars, one of whom, Edwin Roettger, fashioned candlesticks for its altar from artillery shells. This chapel’s altar stone was a piece of pavement from the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. For years in this chapel, a silver vase held a fresh flower placed before a sculpture of St. Elizabeth of Hungary in memory of Elsie, Julia’s niece.

The Chapel of the Holy Angels was furnished with stained glass, the original entry doors to their estate, and other items from the Stevens family’s private oratory at Castle Stevens.

The original main altar was moved to the Church of Transfiguration in Woodcliff when Julia’s sister, Caroline, dedicated the Indiana limestone altar to their brother’s memory.

Congregants added memorials over the years.

Two windows in the Lady Chapel dedicated to Lillian A (Lehmann) Heaney, a native of Hoboken, and her husband, Joseph John Heaney, a sacristan at Holy Innocents, were installed in 1953 and 1969 respectively. Stained glass windows in the baptistry depicting the Four Evangelists were dedicated to the memory of the Speyer family.

Martha lavished her daughter’s shrine with objects procured on her journeys, representing the “best works of ecclesiastical artists” in almost every medium, whose ages spanned four centuries.

These included enameled copper Stations of the Cross from Paris; German tapestries; Belgian altar cloths; a solid ivory crucifix; an oil painting from the Prince of Borghese; a vast collection of European vestments; 200-year-old prayer books; a wrought-iron lectern from Hardman & Co., Birmingham, England; silver commissioned for Holy Innocents; a chalice veil, circa 1490; an organ made by Jardine & Co. of New York; and a stained glass window (among the costliest in America) above the High Altar from the London studio of A. Booker, depicting the infant Christ, angels and Rachel weeping for her children.

The New Jersey State and National Registers of Historic Places nomination form (1977) provides written details of the church complex as well as the interiors of Holy Innocents. The writer states: “…exterior and interior details as herein described from the 1870s are still perfectly intact,” effectively making them part of the intended protected historic resource.

Free church

Through the stewardship of a board of trustees set up by Martha, her vision could continue indefinitely.

Funding this were the original bequest and plots of land, roughly three acres, to be used as needed. Today, this start-up grant would conservatively be in the tens of millions of dollars. Emphasizing concern for the poor, and with prominent visual symbols, the “Oxford Movement,” which had been started in the Church of England some years earlier, began to be felt by Episcopalians in America.

No doubt Martha Stevens was aware of this. At a time when there were few churches without “pew fees,” her trust decreed that the Church of the Holy Innocents must perpetually remain a “free church,” and that “no seats therein shall be … rented” so that “all my fellow men and women shall always be permitted at all times of public worship.”

By utilizing chairs instead of pews, which were typically “rented,” Martha, in this one act, was asking the wealthy and powerful to sit side by side with the poorest citizens of Hoboken.

A ‘miniature cathedral’

Perhaps as a sorrowful metaphor to a life cut short, Holy Innocents was never finished, but triumphs as a harmonious, architectural expression. This “miniature cathedral” and its site, which provides a “cloistered atmosphere” in our busy city, would jump off the page of any guidebook, urging travelers to visit.

We can simply take a stroll to gaze at this quiet, proud little church, thought by some to be amongst the most beautiful in the world.

Holy Innocents is architecture, benevolence and grace, all born of a mother’s grief and enduring love for her daughter and her community, to ensure that one child, through the mission of a church erected to her memory, would never be forgotten.

By adding Holy Innocents to the New Jersey State and National Registers of Historic Places, we, as a culture, have largely attempted to do the same.


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