It is easy to spot the tall steeple of Saint Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church while driving east across the NJ Turnpike extension bridge (I-78) into Jersey City. Considered one of the tallest church towers in all of New Jersey, the bright red and green steeple is the signature feature of the Gothic Revival style church located on Greenville Avenue and Old Bergen Road. Built in 1888 on what is the highest point in southern Greenville, 98 feet above sea level, the edifice resembles a medieval cathedral surrounded by the surrounding streets and homes. In an article about the church's dedication, the New York Times claims "The architecture of the building is pure Gothic" (July 16, 1888).
In June 2012, St. Paul's celebrated its 150th anniversary and new parishioners of Asian Indian, Hispanic, Filipino and African-American ancestry joined in the festivities alongside the parish’s old-time members. With roots going back as far as 1861, St. Paul’s is numbered among the older Roman Catholic communities in Hudson County. The parish originally encompassed all of south Greenville and was surrounded by water on three sides: the Upper New York Bay on the east, the Morris Canal on the south (now the Bayonne city line), and Newark Bay on west. Originally, the parish extended as far north as Bidwell Avenue, but in 1906, Armstrong Avenue was designated as its new northern boundary, following the creation of Sacred Heart Parish.
One hundred years after it was originally organized to serve the sacramental needs of local German and Irish immigrant families, St. Paul’s had grown to become the largest Roman Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of Newark in the 1960s with 8,000 members. In 1963, following the construction of over 500 new homes in the Country Village area along the Newark Bay shoreline, St. Paul’s was divided into two parts. Those members who lived on streets west of Kennedy Boulevard formed a new parish called Our Lady of Mercy whose church and school buildings were originally intended to house a regional Archdiocesan Catholic High School for girls.
The parish is closely identified with the surrounding Greenville neighborhood. Many parishioners still call their church "St. Paul’s (Greenville)" rather than by its official name of St. Paul the Apostle. The history of both the parish and its neighborhood are closely intertwined and the growth and prosperity of the parish over the years reflects the changing fortunes of the Greenville section of Jersey City.
Prior to the start of the Civil War, the small farming and fishing village of Greenville had begun to attract new residents. Irish and German immigrants began to settle among the established though small population of English, Dutch, and African descent. Well-to-do New Yorkers built large country homes along the Bergen Point Plank Road (now Garfield Avenue) with its panoramic views of New York Bay. Locally famous as “celeryville” for the hardy crisp-stalked vegetable that grew in abundance, Greenville had plenty of open fields, orchards and woodlands. Farmers raised livestock on the gently sloping meadows and fishermen harvested the plentiful oyster beds along both shorelines. Market gardeners found eager buyers for fresh produce and dairy in the nearby cities of New York and Jersey City.
Seeking to ensure local control over the future development of their community, Greenville’s leading residents and property owners managed to establish an independent, though short-lived, municipal government in 1863. During the subsequent decade, new railroad stations and new streetcar lines were opened, and more people came to live and work in Greenville. The old farms were gradually replaced by new houses, stores, factories, schools and churches, transforming the area from a rural backwater to a thriving town.
A large number of those drawn to settle in Greenville were Roman Catholics, many of whom were recent immigrants from Ireland and Germany. With no church of their own, attendance at Sunday Mass required an on-foot trek to St. Joseph’s at Baldwin Avenue or St. Peter’s at Grand Street, each several miles away. The need for a Catholic church in Greenville was forwarded to Bishop James R. Bayley, the first Bishop of the newly-created Diocese of Newark. The request was honored and thus began the parish of "St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Greenville, N.J." incorporated in 1861. At the bishop’s behest, the Passionist Fathers of St. Michael’s Monastery at West Hoboken (now Union City) responded by establishing a mission at Greenville where Masses were celebrated in the homes.
The congregation purchased two lots on the Old Bergen Road for $375 and built their first church at Old Bergen Road between Greenville and Linden Avenues. Father Vincent, C.P. served as its first pastor. It was a modest wood frame church 20-by-30 feet costing $1,382. Henry Lembeck, one of the founders of Lembeck & Betz Eagle Brewing Company, and William Farrell have been credited with advancing the church’s building program.
In its early years, the German influence was predominant in the parish. Bishop Bayley appointed a number of clergy of German background¸ such as the Rev. Peter Niederhauser, who could give sermons in both English and German. During his tenure at St. Paul's (1865-1869), two wings were added to the church and dedicated in 1869. The Rev. Joseph Mendl (1872-1878) expanded the frontage of the church in 1874 and purchased adjacent lots for future expansion. A two-story rectory was built at 14 Greenville Avenue, and the parish’s first elementary school (38 x 24 feet) costing $2,000 was built in 1872.
Greenville’s population continued to grow resulting in the annexation of the town to neighboring Jersey City in 1873. St. Paul's congregation grew in size accordingly, requiring new church and school construction as well as the expansion of the rectory.
Plans for the second and present church at the corner of Old Bergen Road and Greenville Avenue began in 1877 under the direction of the pastor, the Rev. J.J. Schandel (1882-1895). He selected the building's style with talented local architect Edward Simon, born in North Wales. The congregation of 3,600 parishioners conducted a successful building campaign for the church costing a total of $87,000. The church's cornerstone of polished marble was laid on May 29, 1887.
The following year, on July 15, 1888, Bishop Michael Winand Wigger of the Newark diocese presided over the dedication ceremony. Musicians from the Palestrina Musical Art Society of New York and the Metropolitan Opera House orchestra performed what the New York Times referred to as "[Albert] Schweitzer's mass," namely the humanitarians favorite Bach's Mass in B minor, reportedly for the first time in the country.
To mark St. Paul's Golden Jubilee in 1912, the present rectory was constructed. It was designed by J.T. Rowland, Jr., Jersey City's foremost architect of its public schools and the Jersey City Medical Center, among other properties.
St. Paul's red brick structure, 142-feet long by 62-feet wide, displays a characteristic pitched-complex gable roof and two steeples of dissimilar heights give the church an asymmetrical appearance that is found in many Gothic Revival churches.
The right corner steeple, with a 15-foot cross, sits atop the church’s main tower and rises to a total height of 219 feet. The clock, 100 feet from the ground and installed by A.E. Pollhaus in the front gable of the tower, is a surprising element for a religious structure. The shorter tower with steeple at the left side rises approximately 105 feet. In 1950 a hurricane damaged the roof and steeples, and replacement ribbed copper roofing was installed. The 18 tower bells, weighing 21,000 pounds, were installed by H. Stuckstede & Co. of St. Louis, MO, to summon parishioners to services. Since the 1990s electronic chimes have replaced the bells.
The church’s façade has four elongated pier buttresses that are accented with blue stone trimmings (caps) that define its three sections. The main features of the façade are the pointed-arch stained glass windows with stone sills that are placed in each section. The large stained glass window in the center below the elongated dentil molding under the cornice provides an additional sense of verticality as well as width to the understated entrance below. A set of double lancet stained glass windows, with stone cross placed at the apex of the gable frames the front door in a pointed arch design, appears on the church’s ground level and flank the entrance.
Four of the church’s stained glass windows were reportedly blown out during the Black Tom explosion on July 30, 1916. The Jersey Journal chronicles that "practically every pane in St. Paul's Academy [elementary school at Linden Avenue and Old Bergen Road] and most of the stained glass windows in the church were out" (July 31, 1916).
Over the decades, several additions and renovations were made to the church. Among them were three sets of Swedish wrought iron doors at the entrance, which depict events in the life of Christ, installed in 1932. At the rear of the church, a new sacristy was added in 1955. That same year, the imported marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary was placed near the main entrance of the church on Greenville Avenue.
The interior of St. Paul's has also been renovated and restored over the years. The ceiling rises to a height of 64-feet in the center and 32-feet at the side extensions. The original church decor was the work of Fred Herreilers. Among the church's design features were: the first High Altar of hand-carved wood, 40-feet high, designed and built by Anton Kloster of New York; stained glass windows by Falck Art Glass Works of New York; and the pulpit by the Globe Furniture Co.
The Stations of the Cross, imported from Paris, were set in the walls. Their delicate colors were painted over in white for a more "modern" appearance in 1974 and then restored to their approximate original appearance in the early 1990s.
On prominent display near front of the church is a large crucifix bearing the date of 1873, the only element preserved from the earlier years of the parish.
In 1928 a new organ with chimes was installed and replaced the original 40-foot organ by A.B. Felge of Erie, PA. A gold tabernacle and public address system were installed in 1932.
In the 1970s the church was renovated from the traditional arrangement of central aisle and bank of pews facing the marble altar to a semi-circular design of chairs without kneelers around a centrally located altar. The changes in the sanctuary and nave were intended to better express the spirit of the Second Vatican Council liturgical reforms of 1968. The church-in-the-round design stirred some controversy so that, after sixteen years, the church was restored to its original Gothic design with a $50,000 pledge campaign. The new traditional pews were manufactured by Mid-South Church Furnishings of Louisiana.
The first wood frame school (38 x 24 feet) costing $2,000 and adjoining St. Paul's first church was built in 1872. Five nuns of the Order of Dominican Sisters of Newburgh replaced the original lay teachers. The Sisters began their ministry as a teaching order in lower Manhattan and then at Mount Saint Mary Academy in Newburgh, NY, in 1883. They later founded the Mount Saint Mary Normal and Training School (1930s) and Mount Saint Mary College (1960).
The sisters at St. Paul's initially lived on second-floor of the Greenville Avenue rectory that was vacated by the pastor, the Rev. Joseph Mendl, until a four-story convent at the corner of Linden Avenue and Old Bergen Road was completed in 1877. The first floor of the rectory was used for classrooms.
The new school at the corner of Linden Avenue and Old Bergen Road behind the church opened in 1890 for 700 students, costing $40,000. It offered a Commercial Course, offering classes in stenography, typing and bookkeeping, that hoped to fulfill the educational goals of parents seeking to prepare their children for careers in business.
In 1926 the new and present school was completed at Greenville Avenue and Old Bergen Road for 1500 students and cost $600,000. The spacious building displays several classic architectural features such as the pair of Doric columns accenting the fenestration on the second floor and center pediment with decorative cartouche. It was the accomplishment of Monsignor Thomas F. Monaghan (1915-1958), a staunch advocate of Catholic education. With its focus on academics, the school gained a statewide reputation for the scholastic achievement of its graduates. During his 43-year tenure, Msgr. Monaghan also oversaw the renovation of the church and the construction of a new convent in 1929.
St. Paul’s School of Excellence closed in June 2003 due to escalating costs of operation and declining student enrollment. The CREATE Charter School occupied the facility until spring 2010. In September of that year the Infinity Institute of the Jersey City Board of Education leased the property for an accelerated college preparation program for the city's diverse student population.
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