Celebrating History and Treasures of the Church
Msgr. Robert Wister
These trips brought us into contact with the glorious patrimony of the Catholic Church throughout the world, a patrimony that extends back two millennia.
Unsurprisingly, we are impressed with the architecture, the stained glass, the statuary and the sacred vessels of these venerable churches.
Everyday, here in New Jersey, driving to and from work or out on various errands and family outings, we pass the many Catholic churches of our community and neighboring towns and cities. More often than not, we do not even give them a second glance. We take them for granted.
Why should we even bother to notice them? They are not nearly as old as those of Europe and Latin America. They cannot possibly be of any architectural or esthetic interest.
However, the truth is that we miss so much when we ignore our own ecclesiastical patrimony and Catholic heritage.
St. Columba's Parish, 25 Thomas St., Newark, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Dedicated in 1899, the church exterior is a near-copy of the Chapelle Royale of Versailles, France. The interior features Tiffany-style stained glass windows and a dramatic curved ceiling.
The churches of the Archdiocese of Newark, in fact, are a treasure trove of art, architecture and spiritual heritage. They provide us with a living history and range from the humble church of St. John-the oldest church in the archdiocese, completed in 1828-to the church at St. James in Springfield, which opened in June 2002.
Each structure is distinctive; some are unique and many are architecturally significant. Each one tells the story of the faithful Catholics who sacrificed to build their parish church and those who sustain it today. If we do not pause and look, we lose a great opportunity to immerse ourselves in our rich heritage.
For example, St. Columba's in Newark is an almost exact copy of the Royal Chapel at Versailles. St. Aedan's in Jersey City is modeled on the Romanesque cathedrals of Italy and influenced by the Eastern Catholic churches of Constantinople. Sacred Heart in the Vailsburg section of Newark is one of the largest parish churches in the United States and recognized as possessing some of our country's finest Art Deco mosaics. St. John's in Orange is decorated with magnificent Belgian woodcarvings that rival anything you can see in Europe. Only five churches in the United States have more mosaics than St. John's in Jersey City.
The churches of the archdiocese also reflect the ever-changing ethnic heritage of our area. If you walk into St. Aloysius in Jersey City, you will see stained glass windows depicting St. Patrick and St. Bridget, and you immediately draw the conclusion that it was built by Irish immigrants. In Mount Carmel in Montclair, you find St. Francis of Assisi and St. Sebastian; the first the patron of Italy, the second the patron of the Sicilian village from which many original parishioners emigrated. Whenever you find the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa, you know it is a church originally built by immigrants from Poland.
These are living churches. Next to these original statues today you may find Our Lady of Providence, patroness of Puerto Rico, or Our Lady of Quinche, patroness of Ecuador. You also might find a statue of the Santo Nino of the Philippines or of St. Andrew Kim of Korea. These are only a few of many possible discoveries. In our newer churches, you do not find such an ethnic flavor, but you may find a very American flavor, such as in Queen of Peace in North Arlington, where the stained glass windows depict scenes from American history.
Our church buildings are our patrimony, our heritage. But they do not constitute the entirety of our patrimony. The most fragile part of our patrimony is paper-documents and records that preserve the story of our ancestors in the faith. In every parish, there are records and documents that the parish conserves. Some records are of the sacraments administered, such as baptisms, confirmations and marriages. Some are contracts with the artisans who designed, constructed and decorated the church. Others are records of the charitable works of the parish.
As time passes, the human memory fails. Without these records, we would lose our story and our identity. We would not know that Franz Meyer of Munich made the stained glass windows in more than three dozen of our churches. Meyer is regarded as the finest stained glass artisan of the late 19th and early 20th century. Meyer was chosen by the Vatican to create the window of the Holy Spirit in the apse of St. Peter's Basilica.
We would not know that several of our churches, including St. John's in Orange and Sacred Heart in Bloomfield were designed by Jeremiah O'Rourke, New Jersey's greatest architect, and for many years, by presidential appointment, the supervising architect of the United States. We would not know that Our Lady of Sorrows in South Orange and Sacred Heart in Jersey City were designed by Ralph Adams Cram, who also designed buildings for Princeton and Cornell Universities and the United States Military Academy.
We would lose the story of the day-to-day life of a parish in the collections of weekly bulletins that recount the events of the week and the activities of the parish organizations. We would not be able to look into the life of a parish over many decades without the programs and brochures of parish organizations.
These examples are only a small part of the ecclesiastical patrimony of the Church of Newark. Archbishop John J. Myers has established the Commission for the Ecclesiastical Patrimony to assist pastors and parishioners in the conservation of the rich spiritual, artistic, historical and esthetic heritage of their parishes, their buildings and their records.
The commission seeks to encourage the appreciation, care and enhancement of the patrimony of the Church in its sacredness and beauty and to see this as a revelation of God's love, as an expression of faith and worship and as a resource for the vitality and continuation of the Church's mission.
(Msgr. Robert Wister is a professor of Church History at Immaculate Conception Seminary on the campus of Seton Hall University, South Orange. He serves as the co-chairman of the archdiocesan Commission for the Ecclesiastical Patrimony and is a member of The Catholic Advocate's editorial advisory board.)