A tale of two churches One celebrates 150th anniversary; other closes after 81 years

It was Oct. 26, 1856 when Father James Coyle held a mass for the Irish railroad workers who helped build the Erie Railroad.

That mass was the beginning of St. Joseph’s Parish on Baldwin Avenue, which plans to celebrate 150 years this year with a series of events.

At the same time, however, a different church in a rougher part of the city is closing its doors after 81 years. The Jersey City Landmarks Conservatory ran a stained glass tour last week for Sacred Heart Church on Bayview Avenue before it closed.Maybe another 150

In 1856, the Erie Railroad ran through an area now known as Bergen Hill, where Astor Place, Belmont Avenue and Summit Avenue intersect. A structure was erected on Hopkins Avenue called St. Bridget’s Chapel, and the beginnings of St. Joseph’s Parish formed.

The parish purchased more land on Baldwin Avenue, and by 1873, a church building was finished. That building was named St. Joseph’s Church. Over the years, an elementary school and parking lot were built adjoining the church. One hundred and fifty years later, the parish plans to celebrate its 1856 beginnings.

New Year’s Day saw a noon mass at the church, where St. Joseph’s head pastor James Pagnotta addressed the crowd. Pagnotta was joined by Thomas Donato, Regional Bishop for Hudson County. After the mass, Pagnotta shared why the church where he has served since 1972 has continued to survive at a time when many churches are closing and parishes are consolidating.

“You can fall into a rut and never grow,” Pagnotta said. “But over the years, the mosaic of the parish changes with the different immigration. So there’s a constant tide of new people, and that’s what makes things so nice and different.”

Pagnotta added, “There’s always new people here, and then you have lifers like this one here.” He was referring Kathleen O’ Carroll Biondo, a lifelong St. Joseph’s parishioner.

Biondo spoke about the presence of St. Joseph’s in her life.

“I was born in St. Joseph’s, I went to school here, was married here, my sons went to school here, and my grandchildren went to school,” she said. “What else can I say?” Last mass for Scared Heart

Sacred Heart Church on Bayview Avenue opened its doors in 1924, but a church building had been on the site since 1905, 100 years ago.

Its entrance sits on Martin Luther King Drive, with the entire structure located between Bayview and Bidwell Avenues. Its presence stands out in an area where there have been two shooting deaths in the past year.

In the past two years, the Archdiocese of Newark made the decision to close the church due to a shrinking congregation and growing expense of maintaining a grand structure.

The last mass, led by Father Peter Batts, was witnessed by over 500 congregants and was considered the largest gathering at the church in many years.

Batts, Sacred Heart’s pastor for 4.5 years, exhorted the audience to always keep the memory of Sacred Heart alive. “Sacred Heart is not dead, it’s not dying; it lives in us,” said Batts. “It is our task to take all the lessons of Sacred Heart out to all the places that are a daily part of our lives – to our homes, to our other parishes, to our schools.”

Thirty-eight-year-old Marie Brown had been involved in the church since she was in fourth grade and served in the choir.

“I don’t even live here in Jersey City, but I would come here every Sunday. Now I have to find a new church,” said Brown, now a Roselle Park resident.

Many loyal worshippers also came to bid farewell to the place, once their home on Sundays, a tradition passed down several generations. Several siblings of the McHugh family made the trip from across New Jersey to join their father John, still a Jersey City resident and a trustee of the church. Stained glass

Before the mass, there was a tour of the church led by John Gomez of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, who pointed out the many stained glass windows that have adorned the church since they were first installed in the 1950s.

Gomez had only become acquainted with Sacred Heart in recent years, but he grew fond of the place that he referred to in recent e-mails to the public as “a colossal loss to the Greenville community and a tragedy in the worlds of architecture and stained glass.”

“A space like this, words can not do justice,” said Gomez. “If you notice, the windows turned off when the sun went down. The windows shut off, the lights shut off, the colors shut off just as the mass ended. So you have 100 years shutting down on many levels.” Condos?

As for Sacred Heart’s future, there had been rumors that the church building would be sold by the Archdiocese to a developer who would demolish it to build condos or new houses.

Jim Goodness, spokesperson for the Archdiocese, said last week the church building has not been sold and that no one has approached the archdiocese about purchasing it.

Goodness said it would be some time before there is any talk of sale.

“A property that size requires an entire process, which includes a cataloguing of the items in the building and also careful study by group of priests known as a ‘college of consulters,’ ” said Goodness. When asked about the current status of the building, Goodness said that there are efforts to secure the building from vandals.

If there is any consolation, archives of the church will be kept up at Seton Hall University in East Orange. Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at rkaulessar@hudsonreporter.com. Sidebar 150th events

Other events celebrating St. Joseph’s 150th anniversary year (also known as the sesquicentennial) will include: – March 19, 2006 – School Alumni Luncheon at the Casino-In-The-Park in Lincoln Park, Jersey City
– April 8, 2006 – Multicultural celebration at the Loews Theatre, 54 Journal Square, Jersey City
– May 2006 – Parish Mission, to be announced
– Sept. 2006 – Parish Carnival/Festival
– Oct. 29, 2006 – Mass at the church at 11:15 a.m. celebrated by Archbishop John J. Myers. Following the mass, there will be a dinner/dance at the Valley Regency in Clifton.


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