Monday, January 11, 2016

St. John's Episcopal Church

Built in 1870, this church was at one time one of the most beautiful in all of Jersey City. One of the greatest standing examples of ecclesiastical architecture, St. John's church was a magnet for
some of the richest people in all of the city.

John Remson Onderdonk designed the building, in ecclesiastical style with a heavy Gothic influence. The main entrance boasted three large arches, with a decorative point on top of each arch. The entire building was built out of hand tooled stone. The inside, which was fairly simple for the most part, was quite a contrast to the exterior of the building.

The church quickly became home to the largest episcopal congregation in the city. In 1908, the death of a wealthy benefactor saw a new Lectern, Pulpit, and Altar donated to the building in his honor. However, in 1914, a large fire tore through and all but destroyed the relatively small structure. Instead of demolishing the building, which was little more than a shell of it's former self, the Episcopal diocese instead decided to completely rebuild the building. It wasn't long before the building was began holding services once again.

As decades passed, the Bergen Hill neighborhood began to change. And with it, so did the congregation. Instead of being historically one of the most wealthy congregations in New Jersey, the makeup of the group was largely middle class. In 1960, a new reverend was chosen to head up the congregation. Reverend Robert W. Castle was the man chosen for the role.

Reverend Castle not only spoke the word of god, he also became a key fixture of the civil rights movement, as well as being an outspoken opposer of the military conflict in Vietnam. His leadership wound up earning him widespread recognition, as he was chosen for a role in the critically acclaimed hit movie  "Philadelphia" as well as several other films. For the next few decades the church would struggle to stay open. In 1986, the building was registered  as a contributing structure in the Bergen Hill Historic District. Unfortunately, attendance continued to decline until the building was eventually emptied in 1994. Three years later, the stained glass windows, altar, and other religious ephemera were removed from the building, a common practice when a church is vacated.

When Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012, the St. John's Church was immeasurably vulnerable due to the state of disrepair it was in prior to the storm. The storm caused much of the roof over the right side of the building to come crashing down, a bad sign for the future of the building.

As the building continued to fall into disrepair, residents of the neighborhood saw the uncertain future of the church as dangerous. Vandals and looters had been forcing entry to the structure, and the basement was a shelter for many local homeless people, much like the nearby Jersey City Medical Center which had also fallen into disrepair. They knew what would happen if the building continued to rot away. In 2004, the building was listed on Preservation New Jersey's list of 10 most endangered historical sites in the state. Several attempts to get the building listed individually on the National Register of  Historic Places, but each time resistance from the city dashed hopes of inclusion on the register. Finally in 2013, the cities leaders realized it would be foolish to let the building continue to be demolished by the elements. Additional pressure was put on by the Episcopal diocese, who wanted to demolish the crumbling building. St. John's was named a municipal landmark of the city, further hindering future attempts to knock down the one of a kind church.

Two years passed before any sort of plans came forward for the building. Thankfully, in  2015, a company came forward with hopes to incorporate the decaying structure into a 47 unit condominium complex. The group stated that they wanted to preserve the entire exterior of the building,  in addition to any areas on the inside that were in good enough shape to work with. While I can't say for certain how much of the inside can be saved, I would hope that the building doesn't have to be gutted. Still, in any event, justwatching   the gorgeous building see new life is a miracle in and of itself.


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