St. Aedan’s Roman Catholic parish was founded in 1912, dedicated in 1931, and became affiliated with Saint Peter's University in 2011. The Romanesque-style church, at the northeast corner of Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street, is staffed by Jesuit priests to serve the university community and the local parish.
Plans were in progress for the modernization and commercialization of the Journal Square area at the time St. Aedan’s parish was founded. Journal Square was a bustling business and transportation hub. There were banks, restaurants, retail stores, the Public Service Railway Company, and its namesake, the Jersey Journal. Local historian J. Owen Grundy writes that it was quite a transformation from the “. . . quiet, tree-lined cobble-paved gas-lit residential neighborhood” of earlier years (48).
South of Journal Square in the Bergen Square district, part of the city’s Ninth Ward, was the neighborhood of the city’s Republican upper-middle-class residents. The Old Bergen Reformed (third) Church (1841) at Highland Avenue and its cemetery on the east side of Bergen Avenue gave provenance to this historic section of Jersey City. Other sites in the district are 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 Fourth Regiment Armory, (1893-1927) now the site of Hudson Catholic Regional Academy). Newer commercial and apartment buildings have replaced the colonial-era homesteads owned by the Sip, Van Reypen, and Newkirk families; their names are now recalled only by local street crossings at Bergen Avenue.
Foye's Place, a small street a few blocks south of Bergen Square, was near the home of Revolutionary War heroine Jane Tuers and the Tise Tavern, an early stop on early stagecoach routes in the 1700s. Foye's Place connected Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street. It forms a triangular-shaped location serially known as Montgomery Junction, the Bergen Triangle, and then McGinley Square (minus a fourth side) from 1953.
A small enclosed depot with a waiting room on the intersection sheltered trolley and later bus passengers. According to local historian Cynthia Harris, the depot was donated by 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 crossroad continues to be heavily trafficked as a transportation hub and shopping area for Jersey City residents.
Frank M. Foye ran a real estate business on the site that gave Foye's Place its name. He owned Foye’s Hall (once the Columbia Hotel) and then called Foye Apartments. The two-story Hall was used as 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).
Phillips Hall (later a Moose Hall), closer to Bergen Avenue, was adjacent to Foye's Hall. It was also a multi-purpose building with stables, carriages, and stores on the first floor. A Buick agency showroom briefly occupied the ground floor (Eaton 102 and Graham 35, 79, 81, 89). The second floor had rental space for social activities like weddings, Miss Florence’s dance class, Cinderella Dances, and the War Camp Community Center during World War I. Lodging accommodations occupied the third floor.
A fire on April 7, 1900, destroyed Foye's Hall. It ruined the ground-floor businesses, like the plumbing store of Fergus Keleher (No. 2 Foye Place), Tailor Silver (No. 6), and the paint store of Michael Harris (No. 7). 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. Twenty-six horses and vehicles in the stables at Phillips Hall suffered water damage but were all safely removed. The total damage caused by the fire was estimated at $25,000. Phillips Hall was demolished ca.1964.
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” with “a large hall, where meetings, balls, and fairs may be held.” (Evening Journal 7 April 1900). A 1912 Sanborn map confirms that the completion of the Foye Apartments, a three-story building
In 1970, Foye's Place was closed to automobile traffic and incorporated into a pedestrian plaza during the redevelopment of McGinley Square.
Irish Workers and City Transportation
From the mid-1800s, Bergen's central location made it the starting point for several street railway lines. Electrified trolleys, which replaced horse-drawn streetcars, ran routes throughout Jersey City. They connected the city's residential areas of Lafayette, Greenville, and the West Side with the Exchange Place waterfront area. Transportation became a thriving enterprise. Maps in the Plat Book of Jersey City (Hopkins 1928) identify the ample space occupied by the car barns on both sides of Montgomery Street between Tuers and Jordan avenues and the Public Service Repair Shop. The trolley car barns owned by Public Service Railway Company appear among the numerous low-rise buildings near Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street. Public Service was the forerunner to Public Service Transportation formed in 1917, Transport of New Jersey (1971) and New Jersey Transit Corporation (1980).
Irish Catholic immigration contributed to the rapid growth of New Jersey's urban centers between 1850 and 1860. In his study, Douglas V. Shaw reports that in 1880 “Immigrants . . . . of Irish birth or parentage constituted 63 percent” (39) of the state's population. In Jersey City, the Irish settled close to where they could find work, like the waterfront and the railroad yards. By 1871, the Irish immigrant community lived in the city's “horseshoe” district. It 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.
According to historian Eugene M. Tobin, the Irish gradually settled throughout the city or wherever there was a call for work. The trolley industry, begun in 1890, was one of them. Irish Americans worked on the trolleys as motormen and conductors. The electric streetcars lines, which replaced horse-drawn streetcars, claims Tobin, did not alter Jersey City neighborhoods. Instead, it reinforced ethnic, class, and neighborhood divisions created by the local annexations to Jersey City in the 1870s and the arrival of newer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century.
The city's rapid transit system gave impetus to accelerating the decentralization of city life. It contributed to the growth of specialized retail centers, which carried the purchasing power of an expanding population to enterprising shop owners along its route. As a result, retail districts were dispersed to many independent centers throughout Jersey City. (Tobin 9) rather than a central commercial hub.
According to the 1910 US Census, the Irish were 28.3 percent of the city’s population of 267,779. They had begun to lose their numerical advantage to the “new” wave of German, Italian, and Russian immigration. Despite their lesser numbers, however, the Irish held on to their political dominance for a long time. Their advantage came from their earlier settlement, English language, and majority in Mayor Frank Hague's organization that doled out political influence and employment in exchange for party loyalty (Quinn 153).
Contributing to the city’s ethnic composition during the era of immigration was the role of ethnic parishes that gave support, solidarity, and affiliation to the new residents. 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
St. Aedan's parish in historic Bergen Square reportedly began with the gathering for Catholic mass of mostly Irish trolley car workers in a rented second-story room in either the Foye Apartments or Phillips Hall, both in a convenient location across the street from the Montgomery Street car barns. 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 on 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 additional 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 known as St. Aedan's Chapel reportedly attracted 300 parishioners at the dedication. St. Joseph’s rector and chapel's founder, the Rev. Dean P.E. Smythe, presided at the ceremony. The Evening Journal article forecast that soon the branch chapel might not suffice for the growing congregation and a larger church needed.
In 1912, the Rev. John J. O’Connor, then the Bishop of Newark, responded to the turnout by the faithful. He approved a new, nearby independent parish, across from the Old Bergen Church, as an offshoot of St. Joseph’s Church. 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 (1870/71-1936) was named the first pastor. He was the former pastor of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in New Durham (now part of North Bergen), NJ, and a curate at St. Joseph’s Church in Jersey City,
A 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. A New York Times article 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.” Also, 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 closely guided the development of the parish for the next 24 years. It included establishing a school, rectory, convent, and permanent church. He deferred on building a church for priority to a three-story parochial school (now Primary Prep, a private elementary school) on the west side of Tuers Avenue. St. Aedan's school, which opened in November 1913, joined ten other parish schools in the city at the time.
The decision for the parochial school reflected the Progressive Era (1890-1920) emphasis on education as the means for the working class to achieve middle-class status. It also demonstrated a concern that the public schools could be places for the “assimilation” of Catholic students (see Petrick 112).
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. They lived at 800 Bergen Avenue until the site was needed for the church construction. A new three-story convent for the teachers opened at Tuers Avenue and Mercer Street 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, 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 the property. The desirable location across from 2600 Hudson Boulevard, which included the apartment complex of Mayor Hague, became the campus of St. Dominic’s Academy in 1942.
Religious services were held on the school's first story for the next seventeen years. By the 1920s, overcrowded services led to the building of a temporary portable chapel adjoining the church property on Tuers Avenue, with 600 seats.
In 1926, Father McGinley launched his campaign for a church on the rectory property at Bergen and Mercer and a new (the second) rectory. The Bishop of Newark, Thomas J. Walsh, approved the project and the groundbreaking took place three years later on March 19, 1929. Fundraising occurred before the Stock Market crash in October of 1929. It allowed the construction to proceed despite the 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
New Jersey-born architect Edward A. Lehman, a Jersey City resident, was selected to design the new Romanesque-style church. It combines Roman and Byzantine elements in a cruciform design with a narthex, nave, transept, and semi-circular apse. The dome, over the nave and the transept, and the terra-cotta-colored tiled roof draw attention to the church's height. Masonry walls of orange-red face brick and red sandstone give it a commanding, even fortress-like, presence.
Most of the exterior ornamentation is on the porch of the church. A three-part principal entrance consists of multi-paneled wood double doors below a decorative dentil molding. The doors, set in a frame of semi-circular arches with ornamental molding, rest on rounded columns. A biblical scene is over the church doors—the widow’s son of Naim, Jesus’s preaching to the multitude, and the primacy of Peter; and a biblical quotation is carved in the tympanum over each doorway. Decorated pier buttresses flank the entrance. They contribute to the exterior design of the façade and support the structure.
The center bay on the church’s façade reveals a diagonal art-deco pattern in the brickwork that adds interest to the church walls. A cross at the apex of the front elevation calls attention to a rose window with vine-motif molding below. Carved stone symbols of the four evangelists—Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), John (eagle), and Luke (ox)--are set at its quadrants.
At the rear of the church, there is a circular drum dome (60 feet in diameter and 108 feet high) with windows and blind arches at the base and a bell tower.
In 1927, Father McGinley purchased fifteen bronze church bells for the tower, weighing from 90 to 600 pounds. The bells from Canada arrived the following year and were stored in the neighboring Bergen Avenue warehouse of Goodman’s furniture store. The cost of installation was prohibitive for the parish until 1947. That year, Monsignor John C. McClary liquidated the church’s mortgage and installed the bells in the tower. They were 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.
Lehman and Father McGinley selected the Italian ecclesiastical artist Ilario Panzironi of the Panzironi Brothers Studio of New York City to design the church interior. The Panzironis, descendants of sixteenth-century Florentine artisans, 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, displayed in exquisite detail, were installed under the direction of Bruno di Paolo. Mosaic images of saints are set on a gold background on the spandrels of the arcades, the Stations of the Cross, and the chapel of St. Joseph.
A harbinger of the church’s future affiliation with Saint Peter’s University is Panzironi's selection of the symbol of the peacock, the university's mascot, and a familiar image in Roman Catholic iconography; two peacocks represent the duality of the earthly and the divine in human nature. They appear in the mosaic at the apex of the 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 also appears in a few of the church’s stained-glass windows.
Multi-colored marble enhances the church’s interior in the flooring, wainscoting, arches, columns, and piers. The sanctuary's 96-foot white marble altar railing extends to the side altars. It has contrasting baluster columns and carvings of dark-colored marble.
A ribbed-vaulted ceiling over the nave opens the church's interior 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, donated by Mayor Hague in memory of his parents, takes center stage in the church sanctuary. The marble baldachin over the tabernacle sits on six columns rising from the floor in a semi-circular design. It is decorated with a mural on the underside of its dome and mosaic peacocks on the exterior of the canopy. By Vatican II regulations, a second altar without a tabernacle is in front of the original high altar. The apse, or semi-circular wall behind the altar facing east, is surrounded by columns and arches with elongated stained-glass windows.
The decoration of the north and south elevations is restrained, having only mosaic Stations of the Cross and two-level 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 the vaulted ceiling provide some natural lighting to the vaulted ceiling in the nave.
Arcades with Roman arches run parallel to 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 supported by the piers. They reinforce the building and give 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 piers, decorated with a striped horizontal pattern, appear in the inner curve (intrados) of the arches.
In keeping with the Byzantine design, icons of saints are rendered in colorful mosaics that adorn the spandrels above the arches in the arcades. The first mosaic at the arcade to the left depicts St. Aedan, the church’s patron saint. Known for founding many churches in Wexford County, Ireland, St. Aedan is pictured holding a model of a church in his hands. Among the other icons are those of St. Agnes, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Patrick, and St. Catherine of Siena.
Although not common in a Byzantine-style church, several statues were incorporated into 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 are near the sanctuary, and an image of St. John the Baptist is 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). A founder and chairman of the board of Trust Company of New Jersey, Heppenheimer was a member of the Port of New York Authority and a close associate of Mayor Hague. When Heppenheimer died in 1933, his funeral services were held at St. Aedan’s.
After the completion of the new church and rectory, Father McGinley continued his pastorate 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. The intersection of Bergen Avenue, Montgomery Street, and Foye Place consecutively was known as the Bergen Triangle and Montgomery Junction. It was renamed "McGinley Square" for the Right Reverend Roger A. McGinley in 1953. The plaque placed there in 1968 remembers him as a “priest and patriot.”
St. Aedan’s parish traditionally served a mostly Irish-Catholic congregation in the south Journal Square area from its founding until the 1970s. Today, it represents a diverse ethnic population of Filipino, Hispanic, Black, and Asian worshippers. Located in the McGinley Square revitalization area, the parish neighborhood has benefitted from the improvement efforts of local merchants, community groups, Saint Peter’s University, The Beacon apartments, and the City of Jersey City.
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Zakalak, Ulana. “The Glamorous Peacocks of Saint Aedan’s Church.” (September). Jersey City Stained Glass Masterworks: 2010 Calendar. Jersey City, NJ: Composition Printing, 2010.