St. Aedan’s is a Roman Catholic parish founded in 1912 and affiliated since 2011 with Saint Peter's University in Jersey City. The Romanesque-style church stands prominently at the northeast corner of Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street. Staffed by the Jesuit priests, the church serves also as the University Church for the Saint Peter's University community.
Dedicated in 1931, St. Aedan's celebrated its 100th founding anniversary in 2012.
Around the same time that St. Aedan’s parish was founded, plans were being laid for the modernization and commercialization of the Journal Square area to the north. By the late 1920s, Journal Square was a bustling business and transportation hub, complete with banks, restaurants, retail stores, the Public Service Railway Company, and, of course, its namesake the Jersey Journal. It was quite a transformation from the “. . . quiet, tree-lined cobble-paved gas-lit residential neighborhood” at the turn of the 20th century as described by local historian J. Owen Grundy (48).
Just south of Journal Square was the Bergen Square district, part of the city’s Ninth Ward where many of the city’s largely Republican upper-middle class residents lived. The Old Bergen Reformed (third) Church built at Highland Avenue in 1841 and its cemetery on the east side of the Bergen Avenue gave provenance to this significant section of Jersey City. Other historic sites included: the Van Wagenen estate (“Apple Tree House”) on Academy Street; Public School #11 (the oldest continuous school site in NJ, now Martin Luther King School at 886 Bergen Avenue); and the fortress-like Fourth Regiment Armory (on the site of Hudson Catholic Regional Academy) from 1893 until its destruction from a 1927 fire. Most of the colonial era homesteads of the Dutch settlers such as Sip, Van Reypen, and Newkirk were replaced by newer commercial and apartment buildings, and those first families are recalled now only by the unusual-sounding names of the local streets that cross Bergen Avenue.
A few blocks south of Bergen Square was a small street known as Foye’s Place close to the sites of both the home of Revolutionary War heroine Jane Tuers and the Tise Tavern, an important stop on early stage coach routes through the area since the 1700s. Foye’s Place connected Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street forming a triangular shaped location that was serially known as Montgomery Junction, the Bergen Triangle, and finally McGinley Square (minus a fourth side) since 1953.
A small enclosed depot with waiting room which sheltered trolley and then bus passengers formerly occupied the piece of real estate at this triangular intersection. According to local historian Cynthia Harris, the depot was the donation of the wife of New Jersey State Senator William Edwards (1887-1889). She was “. . . a firm believer in temperance and had purchased the plot of land to thwart plans for the building of a tavern” (Caldes 8). The depot was razed in 1973. This important crossroads was heavily-trafficked and gradually developed into a transportation hub and shopping area for Jersey City residents.
Detail of the 1873 Hopkins Atlas of Hudson County, NJ showing the intersection of Montgomery Street and Bergen Avenue. Although Foye's Place is not identified on this map, the location of the Columbia Hotel is clearly shown.
Credits: New York Society of Model Engineer's Library, Rich Taylor Collection and Historical Maps of New Jersey site of Rutgers University
Foye's Place was named for Frank M. Foye who ran a real estate business on site. He owned the original Foye’s Hall (once the Columbia Hotel), which was later replaced by the Foye Apartments. The two-story Foye’s Hall was used as both social and retail space: “The upper part was used for balls and other gatherings while the lower part was fitted up as stores, of which there were four,” reports the New York Times (April 8, 1900).
Closer to Bergen Avenue was the adjacent building called Phillips Hall (later a Moose Hall). Phillips Hall seems to have been another multi-purpose structure with stables, carriages and stores on the first floor. For a time, a Buick agency showroom occupied the ground floor (Eaton 102 and Graham 35, 79, 81, 89). On the second floor was rental space for social activities like weddings, Miss Florence’s dance class, Cinderella Dances and War Camp Community Center during World War I. Lodging accommodation occupied the third floor.
Foye’s Hall was destroyed by fire on April 7, 1900, ruining the ground floor businesses such as the plumbing store of Fergus Keleher (No. 2 Foye Place), Tailor Silver (No. 6) and the paint store of Michael Harris (No. 7); the other two stores (Nos. 3 and 4) were vacant. The fire spread to wood sheds behind the tenements on Tuers Avenue and “scorched” the lodge rooms at Phillips Hall and a saloon, owned by George Coyne on the triangle formed by Foye Place, Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street. Twenty-six horses and vehicles in the stables at Phillips Hall, which suffered water damage, were all safely removed. Total damage caused by the fire was estimated at $25,000.
Soon after the fire, Foye announced plans to build “a handsome new brick building” on the same site that would be “a modern one and an ornament to the neighborhood” (Evening Journal 7 April 1900). His intent was for the new three-story building to have on the second floor “a large hall, where meetings, balls and fairs may be held.” The 1912 Sanborn map confirms that the new structure was called the Foye Apartments.
Phillips Hall was demolished ca.1964 and Foye Place itself was closed to automobile traffic and incorporated into a pedestrian plaza during the redevelopment of McGinley Square in 1970.
Irish Workers and City Transportation
From the mid-1800s, the central location of Bergen developed as the starting point for several important street railway lines. Horse-drawn streetcars and later electrified trolleys ran along a number of routes throughout Jersey City that connected residential areas in Lafayette, Greenville, and West Side with the Exchange Place waterfront area. It was a thriving enterprise as evidenced from the ample space occupied by the car barns on both sides of Montgomery Street between Tuers and Jordan avenues as well as the Public Service Repair Shop depicted in the Plat Book of Jersey City (Hopkins 1928). Among the numerous low-rise buildings near Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street were the trolley car barns owned by Public Service Railway Company. It was the forerunner to Public Service Transportation formed in 1917, later Transport of New Jersey (1971) and then New Jersey Transit Corporation (1980).
Irish Catholic immigration was mostly responsible for the rapid growth of the state’s urban centers between 1850 and 1860. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Irish continued to arrive in large numbers. In his study of immigration in New Jersey, Douglas V. Shaw reports that in 1880 “Immigrants . . . . of Irish birth or parentage constituted 63 percent” (39) of the population. During the post-Civil War era, the Irish in Jersey City settled close to where they could find work, mostly in the areas near the waterfront and the railroad yards. By 1871, a focal point of the Irish immigrant community in Jersey City was the “horseshoe” district which acquired its name from the odd shape of the redrawn ward boundaries under a new municipal charter intended to limit the Irish political influence in local elections.
In time, according to historian Eugene M. Tobin, the Irish settled throughout the city wherever there was a call for work and the trolley industry, begun in Jersey City in 1890, was one of them. The trolleys were operated mostly by Irish-Americans working as motormen and conductors. The electric street cars lines of the 1890s that replaced horse-drawn street cars, claims Tobin, did not alter Jersey City neighborhoods:
Instead it reinforced ethnic, class and neighborhood divisions created by the annexations of the 1870’s [to the area of Jersey City] and the arrival of newer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. The most significant impact of the rapid transit system lay in the impetus it provided for the accelerating decentralization of city life. The street railways contributed to the growth of specialized retail centers by carrying the purchasing power of an expanding population to enterprising merchants who located their shops along the lines of traffic. As a result of this activity retail districts were established in a multiplicity of independent centers through Jersey City. (Tobin 9).
According to the 1910 US Census, the Irish were 28.3 percent of the city’s overall population of 267,779 but would eventually lose their numerical advantage with the “new” wave of immigration by Germans, Italians and Russians. In spite of their lesser numbers, the Irish held on to their political primacy for a long time due to their earlier settlement and English language as well as their dominance in the organization of Mayor Frank Hague who offered political influence and employment in exchange for party loyalty (Quinn 153).
Contributing to the city’s ethnic composition was the role of ethnic parishes, giving support, solidarity and affiliation to new immigrants. Among the Catholic parishes most clearly identified with the Irish were St. Michael’s (252 Ninth Street),
St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church (511 Pavonia Avenue), and St. Bridget’s (372 Montgomery Street). The support generated in these Irish Catholic strongholds, it is claimed, helped elect the first Irish-American Mayor of Jersey City, Charles O’Neill, in 1868 (Petrick 119-120), and bolstered the political organization of Democratic party boss Robert “Bob” Davis in the 1890s.
New Parish in Bergen
The beginnings of a new Catholic parish in the historic Bergen Square district reportedly came from the observation of the gathering of trolley car workers, mostly of Irish descent, in a rented room on the second story of either the Foye Apartments or the adjacent Phillips Hall for the celebration of Catholic Mass. It was a convenient location across the street from the aforementioned Montgomery Street car barns and the Mass schedule was set to complement the workers’ trolley runs (75th Anniversary, Saint Aedan’s Church).
By 1907, a branch mission of St. Joseph’s Church was established in a former saloon at 5 Tuers Avenue at the corner of Montgomery Street. The Evening Journal (13 May 1907) reports how “a former saloon [and pool parlor] site becomes a church edifice” when St. Joseph’s parish purchased the tavern and renovated that building with pews and an addition of about 15 feet to its length: “Having held services at Phillip’s Hall for several Sundays for the benefit of the Catholics living in the vicinity . . . , which is some distance from any of the Catholic churches on Bergen Hill, Dean Smythe decided to establish a permanent mission in the building, which was the only available place.” The mission reportedly attracted 300 parishioners when it was dedicated as St. Aedan’s Chapel and the Rev. Dean P.E. Smythe, rector of St. Joseph’s and founder of the chapel, presided at the dedication. The article concludes with a forecast that in the near future the branch chapel of St. Joseph’s might not suffice and a larger church would be needed.
In 1912, the Rev. John J. O’Connor, then the Bishop of Newark, responded to the workers demonstration of faith with the decision to begin a new and independent parish nearby, across from the Old Bergen Church between Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street, as an offshoot of St. Joseph’s Church on Pavonia Avenue. The parish boundaries were Sip Avenue to the north, Jewett Avenue to the south, Gray Street to the east and Hudson Boulevard to the west. It was named in honor of St. Aedan (550-632) of County Wexford, Ireland, and for the Irish-American workers and their families. The Rev. Roger A. McGinley (1871-1936), formerly pastor of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in New Durham (now part of North Bergen), NJ, was named the first pastor.
New York native, Father McGinley attended St. Laurent College in Montreal, graduated from Seton Hall College in NJ, and was ordained from the Immaculate Conception Seminary in NJ. His obituary in the New York Times, reports that his first assignment was to St. Michael’s Church in Jersey City: “While at that church, he met Mayor Frank Hague. At that time Mayor Hague was seeking his first elective office, that of Constable. The priest and the public official became firm friends.” It also comments that when the construction of St. Aedan’s Church was planned, “. . . Mayor Hague gave personal as well as material assistance. The Mayor was one of Msgr. McGinley’s parishioners.” Father McGinley served as a curate at St. Joseph’s Church in Jersey City prior to his pastorate at St. Brigid’s.
Father McGinley closely guided the development of the parish for the next 24 years that included establishing a school, rectory, convent and lastly a permanent church. Church construction on Bergen Avenue was deferred to the building of a three-story parochial school on property purchased on the west side of Tuers Avenue (now Primary Prep, a private elementary school). It would join the city’s ten other parish schools.
The decision for the parochial school, which opened in November 1913, was in keeping with the emphasis on education as the means for the working class to achieve middle class status during Progressive Era (1890-1920) as well as a view that the public schools could be places for the “assimilation” of Catholic students (see Petrick 112). Religious services took place on the first story of the school for the next seventeen years. By the 1920s, the success of Mass attendance caused overcrowding at the school resulting in the building of a temporary portable chapel with 600 seats adjoining the church property on Tuers Avenue; it became clear that construction of a new church building was becoming a necessity.
St. Aedan’s parochial school was initially staffed by ten sisters of the teaching order of Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell recruited from St. Joseph’s. The growing number of nuns for the schools lived at 800 Bergen Avenue until the site was needed for the construction of the church.
As part of the parish expansion, a new three-story convent for was built on Tuers Avenue and Mercer Street and opened in September 1927. For its first rectory, Saint Aedan’s bought the “Romanesque-Shingle-style club house” (Gabrielan 74) on the northeast corner of Bergen and Mercer in 1917. The Carteret Club, a men’s social organization founded in 1885, had occupied the site from March 1889. After its removal, it built a more fashionable meeting place at the southeast corner of Duncan Avenue and Hudson (now Kennedy) Boulevard with prominently placed tennis courts at the corner of its property. The desirable location across from 2600 Hudson Boulevard, that included the apartment complex of Mayor Hague, became the campus of St. Dominic’s Academy in 1942.
By 1926 Father McGinley was prepared to launch his campaign for a new permanent church, which was to utilize the rectory property at Bergen and Mercer, and a new (the second) rectory. The Bishop of Newark, Thomas J. Walsh agreed to the project and the ground breaking took place three years later on March 19, 1929. The fund raising for the new church occurred prior to Stock Market crash in October of 1929 allowing the construction and design to proceed in spite of the resultant financial calamity of the Great Depression. The church would cost $1,000,000 upon completion. Bishop Thomas J. Walsh dedicated the church on October 4, 1931, with Mayor Hague and former Governor A. Harry Moore at the service.
St. Aedan’s Church Construction
Edward A. Lehman, a New Jersey-born architect and a Jersey City resident, was selected to design the new Romanesque-style church. It combines both Roman and Byzantine elements in a cruciform design with a narthex, nave, transept and semi-circular apse. The dome, which crosses the nave and the transept, and the terra-cotta colored tile roofing draw attention to the full-height of the structure. The exterior masonry walls of orange-red face brick and red sandstone give the church a commanding, even fortress-like, presence, at the corner of Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street.
The ornamentation of the exterior is mostly on the porch of the church. The three-part principle entrance consists of multi-paneled wood double doors below a decorative dentil molding. The doors are set in a frame of semi-circular arches with ornamental molding resting on rounded columns. Over each door is a biblical scene—widow’s son of Naim, Jesus’s preaching to the multitude, and primacy of Peter. A biblical quotation is also carved in the tympanum of each doorway. Decorated pier buttresses flank the entrance; they contribute to the exterior design of the façade as well as support the structure.
The center bay on the church’s façade reveals a diagonal pattern in the brick work, and art-deco designs add interest to the church walls. A cross at the apex of front elevation calls attention to the central feature below--a rose window with vine-motif molding. Carved stone symbols of the four evangelists—Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), John (eagle) and Luke (ox)--are set at its quadrants.
Walking to the rear of the church, one observes the circular drum dome, 60-feet in diameter and 108 feet high, with windows and blind arches at its base, and the bell tower.
In 1927 Father McGinley had purchased fifteen bronze bells, weighing from 90 to 600 pounds, for the tower. They arrived from Canada in 1928 and were stored in in the neighboring warehouse of Goodman’s furniture store on Bergen Avenue. The cost to install the bells was prohibitive for the parish to finance until 1947. That year, the Monsignor John C. McClary successfully liquidated the church’s mortgage and decided it was time for the installation of the bells in the tower. They were first shipped to Cincinnati for cleaning and ceremoniously blessed by then Archbishop Walsh, on June 28. The bells were restored and rededicated on September 15, 1985.
To design the interior of St. Aedan’s Church, Lehman and Father McGinley selected a prominent Italian ecclesiastical artist, Ilario Panzironi of the Panzironi Brothers Studio of New York City. Descendants of sixteenth-century artisans in Florence, the Panzironi’s were renowned for their work on churches and cathedrals in Europe. In 1926, Pope Pius XI knighted Ilario Panzironi with the title of papal count for his artistic work at the Vatican.
Panzironi’s artistry unifies the murals and the other design features throughout the church. The shimmering Byzantine-influenced mosaic tiles were installed under the direction of Bruno di Paolo. They dominate the interior furnishing of the church and were displayed in exquisite detail. The results are particularly noted in the mosaic images of the saints set in a gold background on the spandrels of the side arcades, the Stations of the Cross, and the chapel of St. Joseph.
Almost as a harbinger of the church’s future affiliation with Saint Peter’s University, Panzironi prominently displays the peacock—the school’s mascot —as a recurring image in the church’s iconography. Two peacocks¸ representing the duality of human nature—the earthly and the divine--appear in the mosaic at the apex of the canopy or baldachin over the high altar. The artist Ulana Zakalak explains, “. . . the ‘multitude of eyes’ upon its stunning fantail, suggests the all-seeing eye of God and the church” (Jersey City Stained Glass Masterworks: 2010 Calendar). The peacock is also seen in a few of the church’s stained glass windows.
Multi-colored marble occupies many of the church’s interior features such as the flooring, wainscoting, arches, columns and piers. The 96-foot white marble altar rail, in front of the sanctuary, extends to the side altars. It has contrasting baluster columns and carvings of dark-colored marble.
The interior of the church opens to a ribbed vaulted ceiling over the nave and then widens to the expansive area of the dome supported on pendentives, or curved triangular vaulting. The large archway that precedes the entrance to the sanctuary is ornately decorated with portraits of saints, geometric patterns, and rectangular piers.
A mural of the Coronation of Mary covers the ceiling over the sanctuary. The original high altar of white marble, which was donated by Mayor Hague in the memory of his parents, takes center stage in the sanctuary. The marble baldachin over the tabernacle is decorated with a mural in the underside of its dome and features the mosaic peacocks on the exterior of the apex of the canopy. It sits on six columns that rise from the floor in a semi-circular design. In accord with Vatican II regulations, a second altar without a tabernacle has been placed in front of the high altar. The apse, or semi-circular wall behind the altar facing east, has a surround of columns and arches with elongated stained-glass windows.
The decoration of the north and south elevations is restrained featuring only the mosaic Stations of the Cross and two levels of stained glass windows. Elongated windows on the ground level allow understated lighting from outside, typical in Romanesque design. Sets of triple windows placed in recessed or back arches at the curve of vaulted ceiling provide some natural lighting to the vaulted ceiling in the nave.
An arcade with Roman arches runs parallel to each of the church’s north and south side elevations. The arcades are composed of double arches, separated by a column, and set in blind arches overhead that are supported by the piers. They support the building and allow for an unobstructed view of the sanctuary from the 1500 seats in the nave. Horizontal-striped rectangular piers and round columns in varying hues of browns, tans and greens accentuate the church’s Byzantine style, as does the flat floral-pattern of the white capitals. The striped horizontal pattern of the piers is repeated in the inner curve (intrados) of the arches.
In keeping with Byzantine church décor, iconic images of the saints are rendered in colorful mosaics that adorn the spandrels above the arches in the arcades. The first mosaic at the top of the arcade to the left depicts St. Aedan, the church’s patron saint. Known for his founding of many churches in Wexford County, Ireland, St. Aedan is seen holding a model of a church in his hands. Among the other images are mosaics of St. Agnes, St. Francis of Assisi¸ St. Patrick and St. Catherine of Siena.
Although unusual in a Byzantine-style church, several statues were incorporated into some of the interior spaces. They appear in the side altars dedicated to St. Joseph (right) and the Immaculate Conception of Mary (left), a statue of the Sacred Heart and a carved figure of Christ on the Cross near the sanctuary, and an image of St. John the Baptist on the Baptismal Font.
The church’s organ on the west (front) elevation is reportedly a gift from Jersey City financier General William Christian Heppenheimer (Graham 44). Active in local and state banking and politics¸ he was a close associate of Mayor Hague. Heppenheimer was the founder and chairman of the board of the Trust Company of New Jersey and a member of the Port of New York Authority. When he died in 1933, his funeral services were held at St. Aedan’s.
After the completion of the new church and rectory of St. Aedan’s, Father McGinley oversaw the continued development of the parish and the details of the church until his death on April 24, 1936. His name and work became synonymous with the extended parish neighborhood along Bergen Avenue. In 1942 the church purchased the former site of the Fourth Regiment Armory on Bergen Avenue for a playground. A plaque, remembering Monsignor Roger McGinley as “priest and patriot” was placed at the corner of Bergen Avenue and McGinley Square in 1968.
St. Aedan’s parish served a mostly the Irish-Catholic congregation in the south Journal Square area from its founding in 1912 until the 1970s. Today the congregation represents a more diverse ethnic population of Filipino, Hispanic, African-American and Asian worshippers who gather from the parish’s extended borders. The parish is located in the heart of the McGinley Square revitalization area, and the surrounding neighborhood is gradually being improved through the combined efforts of local merchants, community groups, Saint Peter’s University, The Beacon apartments, and the City of Jersey City.
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"W.C. Heppenheimer, Banker, Dead at 73." New York Times. 17 September 1933.
Zakalak, Ulana. “The Glamorous Peacocks of Saint Aedan’s Church.” (September). Jersey City Stained Glass Masterworks: 2010 Calendar. Jersey City, NJ: Composition Printing, 2010.