A House Divided: St. Joseph Parishioners
By Marybeth Hagan
A look at the original church building.
An ad from June 10, 1939 announcing the
completion of the church
A sacred relic whose humble namesake watches over Landis Avenue faces an iffy future.
To save or not to save the original St. Joseph Catholic Church – one seamlessly attached architecturally to a younger and much larger St. Joseph Church – that is the question.
St. Joseph Church was founded with the laying of its cornerstone in 1884, just four years after Charles K. Landis purchased Ludlam’s Island and renamed it Sea Isle City. Congregants held services in their homes until St. Joseph’s became a parish in 1889.
In December 2011, Rev. Joseph Perrault, parishioners and guests celebrated the opening of the new St. Joseph Church during its dedication Mass. This $7 million house of worship that seats 1,300 has been serving as the main church since then. The new church is connected to its barely used, historic sibling by a passageway that includes stairs and an elevator. A few services were held in the original St. Joseph Church, which seats at least 200, on the past two Memorial Day and July 4th weekends to accommodate large crowds of Mass-goers.
That party celebrating the massive, modern St. Joseph’s appears to be over now that a church family feud has erupted over the questionable fate of the elder St. Joseph Church.
Prospects of possible demolition of the original St. Joseph Church surfaced in 2018 with introduction of the Diocese of Camden’s “Catholic Strong” parish revitalization fundraising campaign. Among St. Joseph’s Catholic Strong Committee’s proposed parish needs was a “new building,” a spiritual life center to be constructed on the site of the old church.
St. Joseph Parish’s Catholic Strong fundraising goal is $1.16 million, $812,000 of which would be returned to the parish. Parishes receive 70 percent of funds raised within the parish to be applied to improvements, with the rest going to the Diocese of Camden. As of Feb. 20, congregants’ contributions totaled $364,089.
The signs that have been posted throughout Sea Isle City in support of saving the church.
This plan “to repurpose the site” of the old church, as the proposal noted, came as surprise to a number of parishioners who were under the impression that maintenance and use of old St. Joseph’s were part of the deal when they supported construction of the new church.
Among the stunned were former Sea Isle City mayor Mike McHale and Tom Henry, who then served as trustees for St. Joseph Church and were involved in fundraising to build the new church. When Henry and McHale met with diocese officials, they gave the parish permission to “keep the old church and sister the new one to it,” says McHale. “Father Perrault promised parishioners that the old church would stay.” Yet, “nothing has been done to maintain the old church since 2011,” McHale asserts. “It needs a new heater and air conditioning. There’s some mold, water seeping in, and the sump pump is not working.”
That’s why McHale is a main force behind the “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church” movement notable on bright blue lawn signs posted around town and online.
Perrault acknowledges that “the plan was to utilize the old church” during fundraising for the new one before mentioning a “different recollection … that the [old] church would be there forever.” He also notes challenges met and investments made in original St. Joseph Church – including installation of a new tabernacle and lighting, improvement in sound and alarm systems and a commercial cleaning – during his early days as pastor in 2010 and 2011.
St. Joseph Church’s Catholic Strong Committee members first responded to the concerns in a letter to parishioners last September. Committee members came to Perrault’s defense, noting that the pastor and Faith Committee, Parish Council, Finance Council and the Catholic Strong Committee members are all involved in making decisions. “There are no immediate plans to demolish the old church,” CSC members wrote, adding that engineering studies would be done to assess costs of “rehabilitating and converting the existing building versus building new.”
In a letter to parishioners last month, CSC members revealed that the Parish and Finance Councils “chose not to undertake significant repairs to the old church” in 2015 due to little demand for its use. “St. Joseph’s can allocate available funds to a building that is rarely used or we can allocate available funds to enhanced services for seniors, improved opportunities for fellowship, new technology and easily accessible space,” they concluded. “The members of the Parish Council, Finance Council and Catholic Strong Committee choose services.”
Since last September, the pastor and church committees have presented two proposals to the “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s” group for their consideration. Financially, “paying off the new church is our No. 1 priority,” Perrault says. With that in mind, the pastor and committees proposed setting up a restricted account, one in which donors could specify that their donations must be used only for the preservation and use of the original church building.
A drawing by architect Peter F. Getz shows the new entrance to the church.
In late February, the church preservation advocates presented St. Joseph’s Parish with an in-depth analysis of the parish’s proposals and an alternative solution for use of old St. Joseph’s.
Andrew Bednarek, who worked as Avalon Borough’s administrator for three decades before retiring, penned the analysis. Bednarek proposes renovating and retrofitting St. Joseph’s Church Hall on the first floor to serve as a spiritual center and to repair and improve St. Joseph Church so that it might be used for overflow crowds in the summertime and daily Masses off-season.
Other parishes in the Diocese of Camden plan to spend their Catholic Strong dollars “to improve or update older churches,” Bednarek says, before offering documentation that Sacred Heart Church in Avalon and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Berlin Township are among them.
“Just let the Catholic Strong money be used for historic St. Joseph’s,” McHale says.
“Let’s agree to find an acceptable option for a Spiritual Life Center within the structure of historic St. Joseph’s, instead of proposing to do physical destruction to the Church … ” and causing divisiveness within the parish community, concluded Bednarek in his alternative solution recommendations. “Proposing to destroy historic St. Joseph’s Church is opening an irreparable wound in our faith community that may never heal.”
In late February, Perrault brought in environment experts to ascertain potential safety problems that mostly mold and some asbestos in historic St. Joseph Church might present. Other experts have determined that structurally, the church is “deemed to be in fair condition,” the pastor says. These determinations and more will be gathered to estimate actual costs of restoring the original place of worship. St. Joseph’s Parish Council, its Finance Committee, its Catholic Strong Committee and the Diocese of Camden will all weigh in with their views.
“Local contractors and others have offered their time and talent to make those repairs [like HVAC, electrical or plumbing] and/or do housekeeping chores that would be required within their skill set,” as a cost-cutting measure, Bednarek notes in his possible solutions.
When it comes to repairs, specialties like mold remediation are both major and costly, Perrault says. If saving the old church is feasible, “environmental safety” repairs must be on the “front end,” the pastor adds. “Maybe donated work could come later.”
In their Parish Mission Statement, St. Joseph parishioners proclaim:
“We the people of St Joseph Parish, Sea Isle City, NJ, connected in faith as brothers and sisters in Christ, pledge to use our gifts and resources to live our faith by truth and love, to preach the Word, and to serve the needs of others, as we instill a spirit of hospitality throughout our faith community. We will create welcoming opportunities to bring parishioners and friends of St. Joseph together in worship, religious formation, spiritual growth, mutual support, and parish social activities.”
God willing, may they meet their mission, especially the part about togetherness.
For more information:
Spring 2019 Articles: