The Old Bergen Church is the oldest continuous congregation in Jersey City and New Jersey. Located at the historic village of Bergen, south of present-day Journal Square, the Dutch Reformed congregation was founded during the administration of Director-General Peter Stuyvesant of New Netherland, circa 1660-1662, following the construction of the new fortified settlement on the hills overlooking the Hudson River.
By about November 1660, settlers had moved into the enclosed village. The earliest worship services for several years were held in their homes or the log blockhouse at the northwest corner of Vroom and Tuers Avenues. They petitioned for a dominie or cleric to be assigned from The Netherlands. In the meantime, the school master Engelbert Steenhuysen served as the first voorleser or lay leader. Fundraising to build a new church and cemetery on approximately four acres of land produced 417 guilders collected through taxation.
In 1680-1681, the first Dutch Reformed Church in Bergen was constructed at the highest section of the church-owned property near Vroom Street and Bergen Avenue. The distinctive Octagonal Church of wood and sandstone built by William Day was approximately twenty feet in diameter, with the roof sloping to a point. A history of the church provides details on the building: "Its windows were quite high from the ground probably as much for protection from the Indians as to prevent the children from looking out during the services. The archways over the door and windows were ornamented with small bricks imported from Holland. . .. The church was surmounted by a brass rooster used as a weathercock" ("Brief History of Old Bergen Church," 2-3).
At the opening of the Old Octagonal Church on May 23, 1681, Reverend Casper Van Zuiren from Long Island preached the first sermon. After 90 years, the congregation, consisting of members from the Bergen Township and Communipaw, eventually outgrew the Octagonal Church. In 1773, a new church was built near the same site during the tenure of its first regular pastor Dominie William Jackson (1757-1793). The sandstone church building, constructed in part with stone from the Octagonal Church, was 45 feet wide and 60 feet long. It lasted for 68 years through the Revolutionary War and the early national period of the US. The weather vane from the previous church was attached to its spire; it was later placed atop the cupola of the Columbian Academy, now the site of the Martin Luther King, Jr. School at Academy Street and Bergen Avenue.
During the Revolutionary War, New Jersey colonists were divided in their sympathies. Historian Richard McCormack claims that "The Conservative branch of the Dutch Reformed Church . . . was preponderantly Tory, especially in Bergen County" (128). However, the Reverend Jackson, a skilled orator, openly addressed his congregation about support for the patriots. His comments resulted in a personal reprimand before Lord Howe, the British Commander of New York. The Rev. John Cornelison (1793-1828) succeeded Jackson. During his long tenure, Cornelison held religious services for slaves in his home, some joining the congregation.
The third and present structure, now called the Old Bergen Church, was built in 1841 on the site of the old parsonage on Bergen Avenue at Highland Avenue, one hundred yards from the earlier two churches. The second church was razed, and religious services were temporarily held at the Columbian Academy. The one-story structure of cut brownstone was designed by William H. Kirk & Company and built by Clark and Van Nest of Newark. Kirk (1813-1894), who served as a state senator, designed several Reformed Dutch churches in New Jersey, like the North Dutch Reformed Church (1858) in Newark.
The Greek Revival style design reflects the architectural style popular during the Jacksonian era. The church features a full-length portico, supported by six columns, in front of a brownstone façade with pilaster corners. In the center are the church tablet of white marble on black marble and the inserted cornerstone. Two separate front doorways with six-paneled doors open into the vestibule. Atop the church is a wooden belfry that has pilasters at each corner flanking the louvers. Wood fascia board surrounds the roofline below the eaves. Stone from the 1773 church is embedded in the south wall of the church ("Brief History . . . " 6).
The interior of the Old Bergen Church features a balcony and mahogany decor. The stained-glass windows reveal the benefactors and founding members of the congregation and community. They were contributed by the Van Reypen, Newkirk, Van Horne, Sip, and Van Winkle families, among others. A signed Louis Tiffany-stained glass window is in the sanctuary. Church records and sermons were preserved in Dutch until the early nineteenth century. The completed church was dedicated on July 14, 1842.
In 1900, a Sunday school was added at the northwest corner. A meeting room, named for the Reverend Dr. Cornelius Brett (1876-1916) in 1924, contains artifacts from the earlier churches. Among the items are two communion cups made from silver by Hendrikus Boele in 1730. They have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The addition of a Memorial Chapel in 1959 honors the men and women of the congregation who served in the military during World War II.
Old Bergen Church joined Trinity United Presbyterian Church in 1970. The Trinity Church, which served the same area of Jersey City, was an outgrowth of the merger of the First Presbyterian Church and the Westminster Presbyterian Church (founded in 1869). The new federated church retains the name "Old Bergen" Church.
In the 1980s, the Old Bergen Church helped found the Newport Interfaith Center, sponsored by six denominations to address the religious needs of Jersey City's new residents in the Newport section of Jersey City. The Chapel of Peace has also been used for the new Filipino congregation of the Evangelical Methodist Church and the Asian Indian congregation of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.
"300th Anniversary of the Bergen Reformed Church - 'Old Bergen' 1660-1960." Jersey City, NJ: Old Bergen Church of Jersey City, November 1960. Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.
"330 Years and Still Caring." Jersey City, NJ: Old Bergen Church of Jersey City, November 1990. Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.
"Bergen's Quaint Relics." New York Times 20 December 1896.
"Brief History of Old Bergen Church: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day." January 12, 1976. Joan D. Lovero Collection, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library.
Van Winkle, Daniel. "History of Bergen Village." Fourth Article. New York Times 6 October 1910.