Sunday, November 1, 2015

The St. Peter's/ Queen of Angels Church

The history of this church dates back to 1861, when the German immigrant population in Newark needed a new house of worship. Architect Otto Gsanther was chosen to design the new church, then called St. Peter's, in gothic fashion.


As the city scape of Newark changed, the German immigrants would continue to use the church for their services for over a century.  One day in 1958, after hearing of a fire at the original "Queen of Angels" church on Academy street, the German congregation invited the group to worship at their building on what was then called Belmont avenue.


The Queen of Angels parish was the first black Roman Catholic congregation in the city, after being officially recognized in 1930. The congregation grew at a steady pace, and eventually became an integral part of the city's history. In the 1960's, the Queen of Angels group was holding twice as many masses as the German group who built and also still occupied the building. By 1962, the German congregation moved to a parish in Irvington, leaving the towering house of worship solely to the Queen of Angels group.


As racial tensions were rising across the country, the Queen of Angels parish became a staple of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the church a few times, and even used it as a meeting place for his Poor People's campaign.


In 1967 riots tore through Newark, leaving most of Newark a charred, shuttered husk of what it once was. The neighborhood in which the Queen of Angels church sits shows signs of this. Surrounded by low income housing and blighted structures, the church still served as a landmark and a place for the black residents of the city to congregate and pray. In 1977, Belmont avenue was renamed Irvine Turner Boulevard; another action that would soon contribute to sealing the fate of the church.


The archdiocese decided to close the church building in 2012. For two years it sat waiting for another chance to be utilized in a way that would improve the neighborhood. However, in June of 2014, it was announced that the incredibly historic church which has stood for over 150 years would be demolished. The stained glass windows were promptly stripped out. The pews, altar, and anything else of value were taken from the structure. A demolition crane arrived and was parked in the lot for the parish school. It seemed that the buildings days were about to come to an end. That all changed when someone called the city office that issued the demolition permit. A critical oversight was brought to their attention; the church was registered on both the state and national registers of historic places. The reason nobody at the permit office caught in is because the church was registered under the old name of the street it sits alongside. When people heard that a church on Irvine Turner boulevard was coming down, nobody put two and two together that it was the same historic St. Peter's building registered as being on Belmont ave. This means that the demolition permit was a mistake, and a grave one at that. The archdiocese never brought this up when requesting the permits for demolition. Their efforts to quickly erase a piece of history has caused irreparable damage to the structure, and while it waits in limbo now we all know what's coming. I decided I had to take a trip to see this beautiful structure myself before it was forever stricken from the fabric of the city.


When I first visited the church, there were many people on the street around the building. School children walking to class, homeless folks resting in the shade and a number of other people who were just going about their business. I made sure to not stay too long, as I had to get to work nearby anyway. I returned on another day, this time a little bit earlier, to properly photograph the structure.


I didn't spend very long inside the church. It was in bad shape, littered with trash, and I was alone. After stepping on a rusted nail, which went right through the rubber soles of my boots. I decided to call it quits. As I exited the structure, I stepped on a piece of trash which made a loud popping noise. I looked up to see one of the folks on the street that was walking by staring at me. As I looked back at him, I could tell he wasn't happy that I was trespassing in the old church. I got right back into my car and hit the road. A few days later, I saw a headline on the Star Ledger's website about three people getting shot on Irvine Turner Boulevard. Curious where it happened in relation to the church, I typed in the address they had in the article into google maps. I was greatly saddened when I saw that the pin landed right at the steps of the church. This church, which had done so much for the community and the civil rights movement was now just a n overgrown lot where people get killed. It brought a great deal of grief to me, wondering how Dr. King would feel knowing that people continue to kill each other in the same streets he used to walk. While some things have gotten better, many more continue to get worse.



The Queen of Angels church is one of the oldest and most influential in the history of Newark. It will soon be just a memory, as so many other historic buildings before it are now. While this can never be undone, you can certainly bet that this example will be used in future discussion to hopefully bring a better system for historic preservation to the states. Until then, keep your eyes out for demolition photos.

1 comment:

  1. i was able to photograph this years ago. what a shame.

    ReplyDelete