BY JOHN J. FARMER*
The seed that grew into St. Patrick Parish was sown 125 years ago in some of the most hostile soil Catholics were ever to encounter in America. Its success, even its survival, could not have been forecast with any certainty in the climate of that time and that place.
So, it is ironic that Jersey City, roughly as it exists today, and St. Patrick Church were born at almost the same moment and were fated to share the same experience of growth, prosperity and decline, and the same aspirations today for renewal and relevance as the 21st Century approaches.
The area that comprises Jersey City today was divided in 1869 among three cities, original Jersey City (largely what is known as Downtown), Hudson City to the north and to the south the mostly rural city of Bergen. Beyond that lay the even more sparely settled and aptly named township of Greenville. For each of the three cities, and to a lesser extent Greenville, it was a time of tumultuous ethnic, economic and political change, a time, in short, not unlike our own.
The great Irish immigrant wave, which began two decades earlier as a trickle, had by the 1860s become a flood, first overspreading the dank tenement neighborhoods near the ferry to New York City in old Jersey City, then seeping steadily like a blot of green ink north and south as its numbers increased.
For the native-born Protestants — English mostly, with some German and Dutch burghers as allies — the newcomers were a mixed blessing, a source of cheap, unskilled labor for the factories, foundries and railroad yards springing up along the Hudson River waterfront, but also a source of fear and loathing. For their illiteracy and occasional intemperance, their teeming tenement culture and, most distressing, their alien religion, made the Irish a threat to the quiet, middle-class shopkeeper, artisan, business owner lifestyle the Protestant elite had fashioned painstakingly since the early days of the 19th century.
Douglas Vincent Shaw, in his doctoral thesis, “The Mankind of An Immigrant City,” recounts the story of their clash and the plight of the immigrant Catholics this way: “By 1860, Jersey City was an immigrant working class city with a sizeable population that knew only black, smoky machine shops, tumble-down houses, foundries, dirty streets, mud, filth and marsh, swarms of unwashed children, crowds of whooping carters.”
Like many American blacks who converged on the urban north from the rural south in the middle of the 20th Century, the equally rural Irish found the adjustment to American urban life in the mid-19th Century equally hard.
The native-born Protestant majority, Shaw writes, reacted to the newcomers with a combination of fright and indifference and a fierce determination to deny them access to political and, in some cases, even to jobs.
They were an indigestible underclass and their collision with their Protestant betters was, as Shaw describes it, “a question of culture.”
“The nativism and anti-Catholicism that dominated middle class thought before the Civil War,” Shaw writes, “remained alive through and after it.” So virulent was this attitude that it prompted one Jersey City clergyman, Rev. Henry M. Scudder, to preach in May 1865 that“”the Hibernian element goes to the wall.”
It was in this less promising climate that Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, a nephew of Elizabeth Ann Seton, deeded land in 1868 for a small wood frame mission church, named St. Joseph’s, on a site that would later house the Tivoli Theatre near Communipaw Avenue in Bergen. By December 23, 1869, however, the explosive growth of the Catholic population prompted Bishop Bayley to raise the mission to full parish status and name it, appropriately, St. Patrick Parish.
Less than three months earlier, on October 5, 1869, the cities of Hudson and Bergen, voted to merge with old Jersey City. The church and the city were launched in tandem, as it were, to share a common future.
The Communipaw Avenue site, while suitable for a mission church, was hardly what the visionary Father Patrick Hennessey, of the Limerick, Ireland Hennesseys, and St. Patrick Parish’s first pastor, had in mind. He saw a magnificent church on a hill, something to life the hard-scrabble lives of his humble parishioners, to serve as a source of pride, grandeur and ancient beauty and as a place of temporal solace and spiritual inspiration. He saw a Cathedral.
A gift of land by one of the few relatively well-off Catholics of the parish, Hugh McKay, allowed Father Hennessey to lay the cornerstone for his magnificent obsession (his folly, some said at the time) not in the swale that was the Communipaw Avenue site but on a commanding spot at Bramhall Avenue and Grand Street dubbed by a chronicle of that day, “the crest of Bergen Hill.”
An architect of renown, Patrick Kiely, was brought in from New York to design the church and supervise construction. Blue flintstone for the gothic structure, still the largest in the city, came from the nearby Pennsylvania railroad cut. With few families of any wealth to support it, St. Patrick Parish began life under the weight of a great mortgage, $300,000, that was to frustrate Father Hennessey’s other ambitions for his parish and darken his last days.
Most families could contribute only pennies. But the men of the parish, most of them day laborers and unskilled workmen, contributed something perhaps more important, their raw labor, acquiring in the process a sweat equity in the great project and a commitment to its success beyond what religious fervor alone might have produced.
The chapel, which adjoins the main church at its northeast corner, opened for Mass in 1872, but five more years were to pass before the church as it exists today, with its 225 foot spire, was completed and dedicated at a Solemn Pontifical Mass on August 19, 1877.
Although its great size made it seem an extravagance at the time, St. Patrick Church filled an even greater need than Fr. Hennessy envisioned. On completion, it was only the third Catholic Church in Jersey City, the others being St. Peter Church in old Jersey City and St. Joseph Church in Hudson City. Sunday Mass, accordingly, put great demands on Catholics as they spread throughout the city.
No buses, trolleys or taxis served the city in those days. And few Catholics families could afford a horse carriage, or even a horse. For most, the trek to church was a long one, ordinarily by foot over dirt roads and rustic lanes or even cow paths.
Some idea of the distances involved can be gleaned from the original boundaries of St. Patrick Parish, a sweep of land that encompassed almost half the present city.
From roughly Montgomery Street on the north, the parish outline ran from Bidwell Avenue in Greenville on the South, to the city’s western boundary at the Hackensack River, and to the Pennsylvania Rail line on the East. So vast was Father Hennessey’s religious realm that in the decades to come, as the Catholic population swelled, eight more parishes were to be carved from it.
Like most successful prelates, Father Hennessey was as mindful of his church’s temporal wants as he was of its spiritual needs. And in a city whose attitude towards its Catholic newcomers ranged from indifference to outright intolerance, he understood their need for social amenity and cultural enrichment and for a climate of community that a hostile city would not provide.
It was not to be, at least for Father Hennessey. The financial burden that hung over him through his pastorate forced the closing of the school in 1877. He died March 1, 1896 without ever seeing his school revived and rests today in a plot of ground at the base of the church bell tower.
Father Hennessey’s beloved school did not die with him, however. His successor, Father Lawrence Carroll, with the help of an Irish Catholic population now on the ascendancy in the city, certainly politically and economically and to a lesser extent socially, nurtured the idea back to life.
On October 13, 1901, Father Carroll laid the foundation for a school building that was to be every bit a match for his predecessor’s magnificent church.
At the same time, he redoubled efforts to make his church the focus of family and cultural life for his growing pastorate. The St. Patrick Club, with headquarters at 810 Grand Street, was formed as a means of drawing the men of the parish into closer social contact with each other and the church. Through its offices, picnics, trolley ride tours, athletic meets and lawn parties were organized in the Spring and Summer and dances and card parties in the Winter months.
Ill health prevented Father Carroll from seeing the school construction to completion, but it was finished by his successor, Msgr. John A. Stafford, and opened in 1910 — not merely as a school but as a true center of parish life and culture. Its theater, one of the finest in the State and a replica of the Broadway stages of this time, became the scene of regular dramatic and musical productions and attracted such icons of the era as Victor Herbert, Edward McDowell and Henry Hadley to direct its productions.
It was during this time, on August 11, 1909, that the Sisters of Charity, those non-commissioned officers of the American Catholic Church who oversaw the basic training of generations of Catholics, made their appearance at St. Patrick School — fifteen of them, led by Sister Rose Patricia Allen, who opened the school the following year.
With the arrival of St. Patrick Parish’s fourth pastor, Father Edward A. Kelly, in 1913 after Msgr. Stafford’s death, St. Patrick Parish, its church, school, parish hall complex, the finest in the City, was ready for its greatest era of growth and influence.
Father Kelly, later raised to Monsignor, saw St. Patrick Parish through one World War in which many parishioners served, two died (Charles McMahon and Joseph Kelleher), and the parish school children knitted socks and made Christmas gifts for soldiers; through the roller coaster ride of rapidly rising wealth and expansion in the 1920s and Depression and, for some in the parish, sudden destitution in the 1930s; and on to the brink of a second World War
Through it all, enrollment in St. Patrick School grew, fleshed out now by new waves of Italian, Polish and German Catholics. It reached a total over 1,350 students in 1933, making it the largest in the diocese.
In the main, Msgr. Kelly’s task was one of consolidating a rich and powerful parish in a city dominated by the once scorned Catholics. As expected, he redeemed much of the debt that so dogged Patrick Hennessey’s last years. But the economic turmoil of the 1930s served also to refocus the attention of a parish and a pastorate, grown rich and even worldly, on its origins and its real mission — the poor.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society, led by John Guilfoyle and Edward Sanborn, and the Parish Council, seem to have been St. Patrick’s chief agents in this work, distributing food and clothing not only within the parish but across the hard-hit city as well.
According to one account, some $10,000 annually, a substantial sum for the time, was raised from collection, donations and poor box contributions and distributed by St. Patrick Church to the poor of the city.
But they were, by now, aging neighborhoods. And the city itself was about to experience an economic and demographic change every bit as dramatic as the one the Irish Catholic immigrant wave imposed on it 80 years earlier. Msgr. Kelly would not live to witness it.
The death of Msgr. Kelly in the Summer of 1941 brought Cornelius Corcoran to St. Patrick Parish as only its fifth pastor, and the first one fated to preside over an inexorable decline in the parish’s numbers and wealth and influence, if not its zeal.
America was catapulted into World War II five weeks after Corcoran took up his duties at St. Patrick Church and, like Msgr. Kelly twenty-five years earlier, he directed many of the parish’s activities toward morale efforts on the homefront, especially for parish families who had suffered war losses. Twenty-two men from the parish died in the war.
Few things troubled Cornelius Corcoran spiritually more than the prospect of his graduates going on to public high schools. And he quickly instituted a program to subsidize Catholic High School tuition for those who could not otherwise afford it.
The years that followed the war began a time of trial and testing for St. Patrick Parish that endures today. Peace brought with it the beginning of an accelerating white flight to the suburbs and the arrival in the homes and neighborhoods around St. Patrick Church of a largely non-Catholic population. The school’s enrollment plummeted.
At the same time, Father Corcoran confronted a church and school complex that had reached the age where repair and modernization were needed. He undertook them — but within limits. The days of growing wealth at St. Patrick were done.
Crisis, it is said, usually produces the kinds of leaders capable of coping. A lean, no-nonsense sort with a crew-cut dating no doubt from his days as an Army chaplain, Cornelius Corcoran was just that. Not nearly so diplomatic nor politically accomplished as his predecessor, he was, sadly for him perhaps but happily for St. Patrick Parish just the right kind of tough man for a tough job.
“At last I have come home.” With these words, Msgr. James A. Hamilton, who entered St. Patrick Grammar School the first day it opened in 1910, took office as pastor in 1953 on the sudden death of Father Corcoran. He was the first and only son of the parish ever to lead it.
The parish Msgr. Hamilton led for the next seventeen years was far different from the one he grew to manhood in. Its numbers continued to decline. More important, its mission changed from serving a white, Catholic laity to finding a way to serve one that was increasingly non-white and largely non-Catholic-or die.
In a climate that has seen the demise of many urban Catholic churches, St. Patrick beginning under James Hamilton, hung on while redefining its mission. The school’s reputation, rather than suffering, grew during the Hamilton years. And the parish facilities were opened to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. Some one hundred mentally retarded children were educated at the school. The bowling alley was made available to a group serving the blind. And the St. Vincent de Paul Society expanded its activities to reach out to the church’s non-Catholic neighbors.
Increasingly, the parish population was not merely non-Catholic but non-white. By 1973 only 16 of 482 pupils in the school were white, while 448 were African-American and 15 Puerto Rican. And of that number, only about 150 were Catholic.
The most innovative — and by far the most controversial — of the changes that came to the parish was Patrick House, launched in 1971. Located at 287 Clerk Street, Patrick House was a drug treatment and family services center, the first such facility anywhere in Hudson County. More than a few question whether drug treatment was a proper function for the church; some openly disapproved. But by the 1970s, the drug culture was a contagion that threatened and challenged every institution in urban life, especially those serving black communities. For St. Patrick Parish to ignore it was to risk irrelevance.
Patrick House was an acknowledgment that the mission of the Catholic Church in a poor, black, urban setting must become as much one of social concern as of religious enlightenment. While other urban churches in Jersey City and elsewhere failed and disappeared, St. Patrick Parish survived. Patrick House is no longer in operation, but it served as a kind of urban pioneer and drew formal recognition and funding from the state for its work. Some of its family services are still provided by the parish today. On March 17, 1980, then-Gov. Brendan Byrne formally added St. Patrick Church and School complex to the New Jersey State Register of Historic Places.
St. Patrick Parish today is a far different place than most of its graduates remember. Where once six Sunday masses were celebrated before crowds that filled the 1,400 seat main church, there are now three Sunday morning masses, one of which is a special mass for the neighborhood’s expanding Haitian Catholic community. Even the nature of its religious supervision has changed. In place of the old single pastorate, Fathers Francis Schiller, Eugene Squeo and Fritz Ligonde provide a team ministry. And the school is staffed by sisters and lay teachers under the administration of Vice Principal, Sister Jane Carroll, a 1937 graduate of St. Patrick School and Co-Principals, Sister Maeve McDermott and Sr. Mary Lou Hayden, two dynamic women who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.
The coming of the Haitian community to St. Patrick Parish was, by itself, a sign of changing times and a new immigrant force in the parish. In 1976, the West Indian-American SocioCultural Association approached the parish about the possibility of a special Sunday mass in French or Creole that would serve as both a religious and cultural magnet for Haitian families.
As Pierre Moreau, a parish member since that time has written, “The Haitian delegation received a warm and enthusiastic welcome by the priests who immediately opened the Church’s doors for celebration of the Haitian mass.” New Jersey still had no Haitian priests at that time, so St. Patrick Parish made due with the limited French of the resident clergy until the arrival in 1982 of Fr. Jean F. Salomon, a Haitian priest who served the parish until his transfer to Elizabeth, N.J. a decade later.
Hundreds of Haitians have been married or baptized at St. Patrick’s Church in the years since. And each year the Haitian community enriches the St. Patrick Parish’s Festival of Music with its own traditional music and dancing, and joins the Parish’s other ethnic groups in field trips and parties where, as Pierre Moreau has written, “We feel like one family.”
St. Patrick Parish has weathered difficult times these last 35 years. It faces more of the same in the years ahead in a climate of economic change that no longer serves an urban populace very well. But, beginning under one of its own, Msgr. Hamilton, and continuing today, St. Patrick Parish has found a new relevance and fashioned a new model for Catholic Christianity in a changing urban America.
These following words, written by an unknown author on the 100th Anniversary of the Church in 1969, perhaps best sum up the story of St. Patrick Parish and its journey from a mission to the poor and unwanted Irish in the 19th Century, through a rise to riches and influence in the first half of the 20th Century, to its return to the service of another generation of the poor and underprivileged.
“Like the primitive church, it was built and supported by the poor; like the medieval church, it grew from and contributed to the cultural life of its people; like the modern church, it achieved a certain numerical expansion and secular prestige. Now, in the Age of Christian Renewal, it returns to the poor and hopefully to the values of the Poor Man who is the reason for it all.”
* At the time this piece was written, John J. Farmer, a graduate of St. Patrick School and a former parishioner, was the National Affairs Columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., and the Newhouse News Service.