Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church on Grand Street, founded in 1907, is the second oldest Slavic Orthodox Church in New Jersey, the first being founded in South River (Middlesex County) in 1905. Today’s congregants, mostly descendants of Eastern European immigrants, belong to the self-governing body of the Orthodox Church of America.
The Paulus Hook church site has for over 200 years been reserved for religious observance. The site location is, in fact, on one of the four lots designated exclusively for church use before any significant settlement took hold in the present historic district.
Paulus Hook Origins
The provenance for the church lot dates back to the Associates of the Jersey Company who in 1804 formed a development corporation for Paulus Hook. The leading investors were New York Federalists Anthony Dey, Jacob Radcliffe, and Richard Varick with Alexander Hamilton as their attorney, among others. They were mostly merchants and lawyers intent on transforming the farms and marshlands of Paulus Hook into a thriving community. The swampy frontier-like Hudson River waterfront property, with only thirteen residents, was leased from Cornelius Van Vorst (1728-1818) a descendant of the site's early-17th century Dutch proprietor.
The Jersey Company had the tract surveyed and a map prepared by Joseph F. Mangin. It was divided into blocks 200-by-400 feet and subdivided into lots (1,344) 25-by-100 feet, most of which were underwater. An offering of 1,000 shares for the lots was available to prospective buyers to raise revenue for the project.
According to historian Barbara Petrick, under the articles of the Association, the Company offered an incentive to promote settlement: "At the highest and driest point . . . is . . . a tier of four lots marked 'church grounds,' the only sites named on the original map." (10) Furthermore, "As the original proprietors assumed, it was the churches which would provide the anchor of civilization. With the churches would come the schools, and the families would thus be supported in the essential work of molding their youth into decent citizens" (11-12).
Four churches were eventually established on the donated properties although the population of the area grew more slowly than the Associates anticipated. St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Church, organized in 1808, was the first to take advantage of the Associates’ offer for property on the north side of Sussex Street, between Washington and Warren streets. It installed the cornerstone for its stone church in 1831. Saint Peter's Roman Catholic Church also began that year on the north side of Grand Street. The Methodists organized themselves in 1835 and built a brick church on York Street by 1843.
Church Development on Grand Street
In 1807, the Associates approached members of the Dutch Reformed Church (now Old Bergen Church) at Bergen Hill to build an additional church on the south side of Grand Street to attract residents. The offer was declined due to a lack of interest by a sufficient number of male church members to form a Consistory (governing body).
The Associates then offered the lot to Presbyterian members. In 1826, they succeeded in laying a cornerstone for a wooden church, known as The First Presbyterian Church, to accommodate 400 parishioners. A New York Times article reports on the conditions of the Grand Street property at the time: "The ground at that point was all swamp, and the edifice stood upon 500 piles. Some years afterward the floods nearly swept this foundation of inverted tree-trunks away, and the Dutch farmers of the district only saved the building from being destroyed by turning in one and all with their carts and burying the piles beneath fresh earth" (February 16, 1880).
The First Presbyterian Church at Grand Street was short lived due to a change in church affiliation in 1830. Petrick explains that, "This congregation . . . parted with the pastor and voted to become Reformed Dutch. A proper stone church [a requirement by the Associates] was never completed, however, and the Grand Street Church, as it was commonly known, had difficulty finding stable leadership and financial support" (12). The Grand Street church joined the Dutch Reformed Church in the Classis (governing body) of Bergen as a result of their affinity for the preaching of Rev. S.H. Meeker, a visiting minister from Bushwick, Long Island. A later group of Jersey City Presbyterians established a different First Presbyterian Church in 1844 located at Sussex and Washington Streets.
It was not until September 22, 1853, that the Dutch Reformed Church was able to install a cornerstone on their Grand Street lot for a cut-stone church to replace the wooden church they used for worship. The lot was then next to, and west of, Lyceum Hall, that served as the first Hudson County court house to 1843. Among the items placed in the cavity of the cornerstone were psalms of the Reformed Dutch Church and its constitution.
The architect initially engaged to construct the new church was Scottish-born John W. Welch (1824-1894) who settled in Brooklyn. He is best known for the landmark St. Luke's Protestant Episcopal Church (1889) in his home town and for Eberhardt Hall at New Jersey Institute for Technology, the former Newark Orphan Asylum (1857).
The completion of the Dutch Reformed Church was delayed over three years. Reportedly a dispute with Welch and cost overages of more than the intended $20,000 left the building with only its outer walls. It took time to raise more funds and hire a new architect.
The New York Times states that the new architect for the Gothic Revival style church was "Mr. M. Lineau [sic], of Jersey City." In all likelihood, it was Detlef Lienau (1818-1887), born in the area of Denmark that became Germany. After training in Germany and Paris, he immigrated to America to join his brother Michael in Jersey City. A prolific architect, Lienau was one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. His first design in Jersey City was a house for his brother Michael (today at Lienau Place in Jersey City Heights) in 1849. In 1850, he designed the Grace Church Van Vorst at 39 Erie Street. He later designed the Mechanics and Traders Bank Building in 1859, the original First National Bank building at One Exchange Place in 1864, and the building that became the American Sugar Refinery at 174 Washington Street in 1863.
On the occasion of its dedication on April 5, 1857, the New York Times describes the Dutch Reformed Church in great detail: "It is built of brown sand-stone from Belleville and Little Falls, N.J. Its architectural style is perpendicular Gothic of the Twentieth Century. . . . The nave, extending the length of the Church is 48 feet high and 30 feet wide. . . . The roof of the Church is open-timbered. . . .” (9 April 1857).
Other features of the 106-feet long and 70-feet wide construction are ten stained-glass windows, 128 pews for 750 persons, gas lights, and ten arches supported by eight columns. Additional work was required for the towers and basement. The estimated cost of $30,000 for the construction doubled by the time it was completed, making it the most expensive church in Jersey City.
Saints Peter and Paul on Grand Street
By the 1870s, Jersey City experienced an increase in population due to immigration, urbanization and industrialization. The political consolidation of Jersey City in 1870, combined with three major railway lines coming into the city and the factories, such as Colgate, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, P. Lorillard Tobacco, American Sugar Refining, and Dixon Crucible, among others, brought newcomers looking for jobs and housing. The population surged to 82,000 and would continue to climb to 200,000 by 1900. This was a quantum leap from the few residents at Paulus Hook when the Associates looked to grow their community.
Among the new immigrants to Jersey City in the post-Civil War era were Eastern Europeans from what is now Slovakia and the Ukraine but which were formerly parts of Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire. They first organized under a charter, dated December 1889, as the Saints Peter and Paul Brotherhood, a temporary civic society for Slavic immigrants. They began their worship in a wooden building on Chestnut Street, opposite the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery on Newark Avenue. By 1902, the congregation had moved into a newly constructed brick church at the southeast corner of Greene and Sussex Streets.
At the time, the congregation was composed largely of Eastern Rite Catholics who worshipped according to the Byzantine liturgical rite under the general ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. Attempts to replace the Byzantine rite with more Latinized forms of worship ultimately led a faction of about 500 congregants to withdraw and to form a separate congregation where their Eastern religious liturgical traditions and heritage would be preserved. They were drawn to the Russian Orthodox movement in North America led by the Very Rev. Alexis Toth, starting in 1892. The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches follow the Byzantine rite, but they have their own hierarchical structures, and they are separated from the Roman Catholic Church.
The seceding faction began to hold services at 74 Grand Street, the former annex building to PS No. 1. During the next twenty years they moved to "house churches." The first was at 131 Grand Street and then one at 64 Grand Street, rented for $35.00 per month. They were incorporated as "Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of Jersey City" on February 16, 1907.
The new congregation petitioned Archbishop Platon, of New York and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church, to join the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America. He responded with the temporary assignment of Archpriest Alexander Hotovitsky, who is highly revered as a founder of the Orthodox church on Grand Street. He led the parish in its First Divine Liturgy on October 24, 1907, that took place at his 64 Grand Street residence. In 1994, Rev. Hotovitzky was canonized as "missionary to North America and New Martyr of Russia," having been martyred in Russia in 1938.
In 1908, the Rev. Alexander Nemolovsky replaced the Rev. Hotovitsky and became the first permanent pastor, living at a 131 Grand Street, rented for $25.00 per month.
Having outgrown its "house church" at 64 Grand Street, the Russian Orthodox members sought to acquire the vacant First Reformed Church of Jersey City on Grand Street, which had consolidated with the Wayne Street Reformed Church. In 1909, the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese in America (since 1794) purchased 111-113 Grand Street property for $35,000, from the Collegiate Reformed Church of New York City; it had provided a mortgage for the church in the 1850s.
Redesigned "in the Traditional Russian Orthodox Manner"
With the incorporation of their new parish (August 31, 1909) work began to prepare the church in keeping with the celebration of the Orthodox liturgy. On July 7, 1909, a hand-carved solid oak Iconostasis (icon screen) was purchased for $1,200. Its center decorous Royal Doors with icons and red curtain were modeled after those at Saint Nicholas Cathedral in New York City. Oil-painted icons on canvas for the Iconostasis were imported from Russia. The Iconostasis, set on a platform accessed by stairs, divides the altar (sanctuary) from the rest of the church, symbolically separating the Divine from the human. An icon of the Last Supper appears over the Royal Doors.
Rev. Joseph Lickwar, pastor of Saints Peter and Paul since 1991, describes the significance of these Orthodox features:
"Typical of Orthodox churches is the use of images. In Orthodoxy the writing of words and the writing of images are one and the same. Images or icons are silent sermons uttered in color. A wall of icons, the iconostasis, displays saints including Saint Nicholas, a fourth century bishop. . . . Beyond the wall is the sacred inner space of the altar, or Holy of Holies. Richly encrusted icons enhance this space creating an inspiring worshipful environment" ("Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church." Jersey City's Sacred Spaces, 2004). The Table of Oblation, to the left of the Iconostasis, is decorated with icons where the sacred vessels for Holy Eucharist are placed.
The church's exterior elevation retains original features of the sandstone Gothic-Revival style structure. The church’s façade has two elongated pier buttresses that accent its corner towers and give the church, with pitched roof and open medallion, a heightened symmetrical appearance. The towers were capped with three Russian-style cupolas, copper domes and Orthodox three-bar crosses to symbolize the Trinity. Bells were installed in the towers to summon the faithful to service.
The rectangular doorway with inset archivolt defines the pointed-arch doors with slender ornamental molding surround and hood molding and label stops. The teak doors, with carved Orthodox cross in the wood, were imported from Hong Kong and installed in 1965; a large three-part Orthodox cross is also affixed to the doors. In 2009, the name of the church in gold letters was installed between the molding that extends across the building's facade and separates the entrance and the large stained-glass window above. The foiled arch Gothic-style window has hood molding with label stops. A decorative rectangular carved medallion is set to the right and left of the doorway.
On the interior, the original Gothic arches and poured-cement columns remain. A new spruce ceiling has modified the former ceiling trusses to allow for overhead murals, a significant feature of Orthodox churches. The more than 70 murals, with decorative stenciled borders, on the walls of the nave and ceiling are the work of iconographer Photius Bodasiuk of Kiev, Russia. He completed the work over a three-year period in the 1940s.
The sparkling center-aisle impored chandelier of 45,000 crystals draws the worshiper into the religious space that is filled with the tradition of Russian orthodoxy. Smaller chandeliers of the same design illuminate the side aisles. In contrast, the well-worn dark wood pews are a staid reminder of the original Dutch Reformed Church.
Over the years, additional lots on Grand Street were purchased by the parish. In 1960, the present rectory, designed by architect Maurice Kraut, replaced the rectory built on the 107 Grand Street lot (1916) and the former Lyceum lot at 109 Grand Street.
The parish of Saints Peter and Paul received funding from the New Jersey Historic Trust for a three-phase $1.1 million project (2000-2006) to restore the church to its 1924 appearance, commenting that it "survives today with an unusual degree of architectural integrity." The renovation was completed for the church's centennial celebration in 2007.
"90th Anniversary; Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, 1907-1977."
"110th Anniversary: Saint Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, Jersey City, NJ, 1907-2017."
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"Opposed to Change in Ritual." Evening Journal, Jersey City. 26 February 1909.
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Petrick, Barbara Burns. Church and School in the Immigrant City: A Social History of Public Education in Jersey City, 1840-1930. Metuchen, NJ: The Upland Press, 2000.
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