The Grace Church Van Vorst, at the corner of Erie and Second Streets, traces its beginnings back to 1847. It was organized as the "Grace Church, in Van Vorst," the township from which it took its name. The congregation first held services at a local Baptist church and then at a church on Grove Street, near Newark Avenue. The church sits on six lots from an original bequest of three lots, on Erie Street, from Sarah Van Vorst, the wife of Cornelius Van Vorst (1794-1852) and her daughters. The Van Vorst family continued as benefactors of the church throughout its development, becoming Jersey City's second Episcopal church in 1870.
The English Gothic-style Revival Episcopalian church was designed by Danish architect Detlef Lienau (1818-1887). He was a founder of the American Institute of Architects and had an office at 111 Broadway in New York City. Lienau built homes on Fifth Avenue for wealthy clients like August Belmont and the Astors. One project, completed in 1871, was for Mary Mason Jones, the daughter of New York and Harlem Railroad founder John Mason and the great aunt of Edith Wharton, on the east side of Fifth Avenue from 55th to 56th Street, The 1881 guidebook New York Illustrated called the row of eight olive-colored stone houses "the happy union of lightness with the idea of mass and dignity" that gave the buildings "a genial, homelike aspect" (Quoted in Gray).
Lienau's first house in Jersey City was for his brother Michael (today at Lienau Place in Jersey City Heights) in 1849. Michael, a member of the Grace Church Van Vorst congregation, was the brother-in-law of Henry A. Booraem, the founder of the parish in 1847. Detlef Lienau, who lived in Jersey City, married Catherine Van Geissen on May 11, 1853, in the church he designed, a week before its official opening. He also built the Mechanics and Traders Bank Building (1859), the original First National Bank building at One Exchange Place (1864), and the future American Sugar Refinery at 174 Washington Street (1863).
The one-story building of coursed Belleville brown sandstone ashlar with bluestone trim, buttresses, and ornamental work (McLean 279), began in 1850 and was consecrated by the Rt. Rev. George D. Doane on May 6, 1853. It features a pointed slate roof with gables, surmounted by stone crosses, and a clerestory of fourteen round windows.
The church purchased three additional lots to expand. In 1864, the church expanded by adding two bays to the west and extending the nave and aisles for seating. A Baptistry added midway on the south facade reveals a groined ceiling and circular staircase of cut stone (McLean 279). Known as Saint Margaret's Room, it stores the church archives. Lienau designed the brownstone rectory, adjacent to the church on Second Street, in a style similar to the church and was erected in 1867. The Sunday school was added to the church on Erie Street in 1879.
An iron fence donated by Joseph McCoy was installed around the property in 1872. The 57-foot high, three-story, square tower with embattlement sides features finials surmounted by quatrefoil crosses at each corner and was added in 1912-13. A parish hall was attached to the northern facade in 1964, but it is not of the same architectural style as the main church.
The interior of the church has an open roof with arches resting on fourteen solid stone columns. Wainscoting, 173 pews, and other woodwork of black walnut accent the church, as do stained glass windows made in England, France, and the United States. The original frescoes, donated by Benjamin Illingworth and John Van Vorst, were painted over in oil by J & R Lamb of New York City at the time of renovation in 1913. Jersey City preservationist John Gomez claims the "the main stained glass windows . . . to be the oldest of any sacred sanctuary in Jersey City" and "the forward right nave window. . . a memorial to Sarah Van Vorst . . ." (Gomez, John. "The Muted Angels of Grace Church Van Vorst," in Jersey City Stained Glass Masterworks, 2010 Calendar. Jersey City, NJ: Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy).
Gomez continues: "The early windows depict sleepy-eyed saints and angels reflecting the style of English Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1855) while surrounding geometric patterns recall designs from Victorian pattern books. It is unknown what studio or studios created these unsigned windows but evidence suggests that Lienau himself may have supervised their creation, incorporating Gothic and motifs into the lower borders using the same elongated curves as in the actual structural supports throughout the church. The main windows, front and back, are thought to date to the time of the church's construction while memorial side windows were added over subsequent years by patrons who sponsored their fabrication in memory of departed loved ones."
In History of Jersey City, NJ, Alexander McLean credits the leadership of the Rev. George S. Bennitt, an early Grace Church pastor, with what may have established the church's mission: "With the beginning of his rectorship , Grace Church became a free church for all people, and under him has gone steadily onward, reaching out to every class in need of christian [sic] ministrations" (279). Bennitt was also instrumental in the founding of Christ Hospital, affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, on Palisade Avenue.
Over the years, the Grace Church has continued its mission with youth programs and community-oriented outreach efforts like the Interfaith Community Organization, a coalition of churches in Hudson County.
Gomez, John. "The Muted Angels of Grace Church Van Vorst," in Jersey City Stained Glass Masterworks, 2010 Calendar. Jersey City, NJ: Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy.
Gray, Christopher. "A Pair of Bluebloods with Blueprints." New York Times 5 January 2014.
McLean, Alexander. The History of Jersey City, N.J. Jersey City, NJ: F.T. Smiley and Co., 1895.