Saint Peter's was the first parish established in Jersey City and in Hudson County. The Church was founded on January 29, 1831, under the diocese of New York (the Diocese of Newark, NJ, was not established until July 29, 1853). The Bishop of the Diocese of New York at the time was John DuBois, New York's third Bishop. Associates of the Jersey Company donated four tracts of land on Grand Street on March 10, 1831 (McLean: 302) to area Catholics for the purposes of building a church for the newly established St. Peter's parish.
It is widely believed that prior to the building of the church, Catholics traveled across the Hudson River to masses in Saint Peter's on Barclay Street and Saint Patrick's on Mott Street in Manhattan. It has also been written that masses were celebrated in private homes in Jersey City by priests who made the trip across the Hudson River. In A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish, the first mass was celebrated in Jersey City by the Rev. John Conroy on the First Sunday of Advent in 1829 at 52 Sussex Street. It was at the home of the McQuaid family whose son Bernard became the first president of Seton Hall College, and then the first bishop of Rochester, NY in 1868 (1). At the time there were approximately 100 Catholics in Jersey City.
Rev. William Byrnes, the first pastor and the first permanent priest in the city, accepted the gift of land and construction began in 1831 by contractor John McIver (McLean 302). The pilings did not hold in the marshy soil, however, and the structure collapsed before it was completed. In the aftermath, Mass was once again held in private homes by Fr. Byrnes. He was forced by ill-health to give up his pastorship in 1836, however, and died in 1837. Rev. Hugh Mohan succeeded Fr. Byrnes, and reconstruction of the church at 112 Grand Street went on so well under his leadership that services were held in 1837. It was dedicated in 1839 by Archbishop John Hughes, the fourth Bishop and first Archbishop of New York, assisted by Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick of Boston, Massachusetts.
Four other pastors, in addition to Fr. Mohan, served the congregation from 1836 to 1844: Fr. Bernard O'Reilly, Fr. Walter Quarter, Fr. Patrick Kenny, and Fr. John Rogers (The Cornerstone Laying and Dedication… 1). The longest-serving pastor prior to the Jesuits taking over in 1871 was Fr. John Kelly. He was ordained by Bishop DuBois on September 14, 1833 (Flynn 98). Fr. Kelly acquired additional property and had a rectory built next to the church at 56 Grand Street in 1845. He oversaw the vast and rapid growth of the parish and started the first parochial school in Jersey City in the basement of the church (Brann 350). It was staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Mount St. Vincent of New York. The parochial school continued in temporary quarters from 1846 until the construction of the parish school on the corner of York and Van Vorst Streets in 1861. The Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Charity of Convent Station, NJ, took over the supervision of the school. It celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1996 and was merged, along with other parochial grammar schools in Jersey City, into Resurrection Elementary School in 2002.
Fr. Kelly soon realized that the existing church was too small to accommodate the growing number of parishioners. He purchased additional lots on Grand Street in 1863, and the work on the second church, at Grand and Van Vorst Streets, began in 1865. The cornerstone was laid in September by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, the first Bishop of the Newark diocese, and the first mass celebrated in December of that year (Flynn 97) before the church was fully completed. It was dedicated in 1867.
The cornerstone contains three tablets with the following Latin transcriptions:
Among the clergy present were Fathers Senez, Brann, Hennessey, De Concillio, Neiderhauser, Krause, and Valenti (from "Recall Cornerstone…" Jersey Journal 1 October 1958).
Fr. Kelly died on April 28, 1866, and did not see the completion of the new church. Fr. Patrick Corrigan, the first native son of the parish to be so assigned, succeeded Fr. Kelly in May 1866. Soon after he became pastor, a fire nearly destroyed the still uncompleted church, but firefighters brought it under control quickly, and construction continued. According to A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish, "The old church became a public hall, known as the Grand Street Hall, until the trustees of St. Peter's sold the old edifice to the Sisters of Charity and they converted the building into a select school for girls" (3). They relocated students from their existing school at 136 York Street.
A passage in A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish recalls that "On September 8th, 1870, Bishop Bayley designated Fr. Corrigan to act on his behalf and consult with the Jesuit fathers with a view to taking charge of the parish and opening a college. After some months of discussion, the matter was settled and on April 12, 1871, the Fathers of the Society of Jesus assumed charge of St. Peter's parish. The Jesuit Fathers of the Mission of New York (their corporate title at the time) assigned Fr. Victor Beaudevin as the first Jesuit pastor" ( 5). Fr. Corrigan became pastor of St. Bridget's in Jersey City. The property at the time consisted of the old and new churches, four cottages, and the parish school, valued at $250,000 (McLean: 302).
The State of New Jersey granted St. Peter's College a charter in April 1872, and five years later Fr. John McQuaid, S.J., who succeeded Fr. Beaudevin in 1874, began a construction program: "Fr. McQuaid, in a true sense, built St. Peter's College and the Preparatory School" (The Cornerstone Laying and Dedication… 2). He served as pastor of St. Peter's Church until 1889, and was succeeded by Fr. Peter Cassidy, S.J. Once the College and Preparatory schools were established, the pastors also assumed the Presidency of these institutions.
The second church was consecrated on July 2, 1892, its debt having been cleared. The following morning His Excellency, Bishop Winand M. Wigger, the third Bishop of the Newark Diocese, was the celebrant of a Solemn High Mass: "The sermon was delivered by Father James A. Doonan, S.J. A special Parish Choir sang under the direction of Prof. Joseph Ferry, Sr., and the music was supplied by the famed orchestra of the New York Metropolitan Opera Co. (The Cornerstone Laying and Dedication… 2).
The cornerstone for a new parochial school that included St. Peter's Hall was laid on June 12, 1899, by the Rev. Edward Purbrick, S.J., Provincial of the Maryland-New York Province of the Society of Jesus. At the ceremony, the sermon was preached by the Rev. Charles Kelly of Our Lady of Grace Church, Hoboken (Berg 4). The Grammar school celebrated its 150th Anniversary in 1996. From 2000-2002, it housed grades 4 through 6 before merging, along with other parochial schools, into Resurrection Elementary School.
Credit for the complete redecoration of Saint Peter's Church in 1904 is attributed to Fr. John Fox, S.J., Rector; he appointed a Church Improvement Committee and secured the services of Francis Schroen, S.J., the noted artist and decorator. A new white Vermont marble altar was installed, a donation by Michael Doyle and his daughter in memory of wife and mother, Ann Doyle.
Saint Peter's Church grew in reputation as the "Jesuit Church," the only one in New Jersey. The church prospered in the next several years with a congregation of 5,000 from the original 100 under the rectorship of Father John Harpes, S.J., and his successors, Father Joseph Zwinge, S.J. (1901-02), Father John Fox, S.J. (1902-1907), Father Edward McGrath, S.J. (1907-11), and Father Joseph Mulry, S.J. (1911-15).
Activities in the revitalized church are detailed in The Cornerstone Laying and Dedication of the New St. Peter's Church program (1961): "In 1910 Father McGrath organized the Holy Name Society, and under Father Mulry the membership increased to 1,300. It was while Father Mulry was rector that the Novena of Grace, March 4th to 12th, came into its own, and thereafter flourished until the Novena was introduced widely in other parishes.
"During this time also the famous May Walks received great impetus. Members of the parish societies would march through the streets of the parish and then proceed to the church where Our Lady would be crowned Queen of Heaven.
"A high point in the life of the parish at this time was the erection and dedication of St. Peter's Clubhouse in 1913. The clubhouse, on the corner of Grand and Warren Streets, contained a music room, reading room, billiard room, library, bowling alleys and a gymnasium. It was enjoyed by the men and women of the parish for many years" (2).
The Church was severely damaged in the Black Tom Explosion of July 30, 1916. The generosity of the parishioners, however, enabled pastor James McDermott, S.J., to have the damages repaired and services resumed.
A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish relates that "Father Dennis J. Comey, S.J., focused interest on the youth of the parish during his rectorship. He founded the Shoestring Club in 1937 for adolescents and young adults, which was eminently successful as a means of advancing the spiritual as well as the social life of the young. During the Second World War the Sisters of Charity established a two year commercial course in the grammar school building to prepare students in office skills. After the war, pastor Fr. Vincent J. Hart, S.J., oversaw a major rehabilitation of the lower church and a thorough cleaning of the exterior" (7-8).
A hurricane in November 1950 flooded the lower church, and Fr. Walter J. Malone, pastor, decided to suspend services there and install a terrazzo floor fortified by concrete. The soil beneath the floor eventually deteriorated, which led to structural problems, and the church had to be abandoned. The oldest Catholic church in Hudson County at the time (Judkins), it closed on December 15, 1957, and was demolished during the summer of 1958. Masses were offered in the school auditorium while a drive was conducted to raise funds for a new church building. The original statue of St. Peter which graced the main altar was moved to the foyer of the grammar school until it closed in 2002. Today it is located at Resurrection Elementary School.
The cornerstone was laid and the third and present Church was dedicated on January 29, 1961. The architect was Arthur E. Rigolo. The parish saw a large-scale increase in its Hispanic population during the 1950s, followed in the 1960s by a substantial increase in the number of parishioners from the Philippines. Masses in Spanish and Tagalog were offered regularly to suit the needs of the community.
A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish describes the design of the new Saint Peter's Church: "Simplicity is the keynote of [the] present church. The web like black steel frame clearly defines the support of the church. The hardwood facing of the confessionals adds the warmth of natural wood to complement the more rugged appearance of the block walls. The long narrow slots of stained glass introduce natural light. The rhythmic vertical pattern in wood, block and glass is carried through on the confessional walls, rear wall and the sanctuary wall. A selection of simple primary colors, emphasized at the Baptistry and altar canopy, together with the use of daring techniques for the symbolic stained glass windows and the cut glass stations of the cross, complete the design" (9-10).
The Stations of the Cross and the reredos behind the altar are given special mention in A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish: "[They] are executed in an unusual medium: cut glass of various colors embedded in concrete. The Stations are fashioned in continuous panels, each six feet long. The first station is preceded by a special panel, the Cross of Calvary, and the fourteenth is followed by the Cross of Glory. The Stations and reredos, the statue of St. Peter with the net in the church vestibule, and the stained glass windows are the work of the artist Charles Blasé Vukovich of Maywood, New Jersey" (10).
The program for the dedication of the new St. Peter's Church in 1961 further describes the interior of the church: "The stained glass windows tell the theology of the sacraments in a series of symbol stories. The three great windows in the Baptistry teach us the origin, the action, and the goal of the wonderful sacrament, Baptism, that initiates the faithful into the Christian life. Each of the other Sacraments has a special window for its own story, while the half windows above the two side entrances belong to Our Lady. On the Epistle side the 'Ave Maria' window depicts the Annunciation; on the Gospel side the 'Ave Regina' window portrays the Annunciation. The first window to the east of the Baptism windows on the Epistle side is the Confirmation window; then in order are the windows of the Eucharist, Penance and the Annunciation. Directly across the church is the Assumption and Coronation window and to the west the windows of Marriage, the Priesthood and the Sacrament of the Sick" (The Cornerstone Laying and Dedication… 4).
In 1975 Deacon Modesto Reyes was the first deacon ordained from St. Peter's parish, followed by Eligio Reves and Prudencio Perez in 1976, Luis Medina in 1978, and Jaime Ortiz in 1981 (Souvenir Journal, 150th Anniversary Dinner Dance, St. Peter's Parish 10).
Saint Peter's parish celebrated its 150th anniversary on October 4, 1981. It merged with other parishes in Jersey City in 1997. They are now being administered as Resurrection Parish. The Church and the Grammar School were purchased by Saint Peter's Preparatory School in 2005 from the Archdiocese of Newark, NJ, and a comprehensive Master Plan is currently underway to determine the best use of these tremendous new facilities for the Prep.
Berg, Nat. "St. Peter's Church Once Served Alone Area Which Now Has 55 Parishes," Jersey Observer 24 May 1947.
Brann, Rev. Henry A., D.D. "The Rev. John Kelly," Historical Records and Studies. NY: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1909.
A Brief History of Saint Peter's Parish. NJ: Jersey City, 1992.
Flynn, Rev. Joseph M. Catholic Church in New Jersey. NJ: Morristown, 1904.
Grundy, J. Owen. The History of Jersey City, 1609-1976. NJ: Jersey City: Progress Printing Co., Inc. 1976.
Judkins, William F. "St. Peter's to be Razed: Oldest Church in Hudson Bowing to Ravages of Time" (unnamed newspaper) nd.
"Recall Cornerstone Laying at St. Peter's R.C. Church: 4,000 at 1865 Event in Jersey City," Jersey Journal 1 October 1958.
McLean, Alexander. History of Jersey City, N.J.: A Record of Its Settlement and Corporate Progress. Jersey City: Press of the Jersey City Printing Company, 1895.
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, NJ website:http://www.rcan.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=category.display&category_id=36
Roehrenbeck, William. Chronology of Important Dates in the History of Saint Peter's College. NJ: Jersey City Public Library, 1971.
Ryan, Rev. Leo R. Old St. Peter's New York. NY: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1935.
Shelley, Rev. Msgr. Thomas J. The Archdiocese of New York: The Bicentennial History, 1808-2008. France: Editions du Signe, 2007.
Souvenir Journal, 150th Anniversary Dinner Dance, St. Peter's Parish, January 10, 1982.
The Cornerstone Laying and Dedication of the New St. Peter's Church Program. Jersey City: January 29, 1961.
Winfield, Charles H. History of the County of Hudson, New Jersey: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. NY: Kennard & Hay Stationery M'FG and Printing Co.:1874.
Cynthia T. Harris, MLS, Manager, New Jersey Room, Jersey City Free Public Library; Fr. Donald Fussner and Patricia Ruggiero of Saint Peter's Parish, Barclay Street, New York, New York; Rev. Msgr. Thomas J. Shelly, Fordham University professor and author; Brother Louis Mauro, S.J., Parish Business Administrator, Parish of the Resurrection, Jersey City, NJ; Sr. Anne Moroney, Guidance Counselor, St. Mary's High School, Jersey City, NJ; Sr. Marguerita Smith, O.P., Archivist, Archdiocese of New York, St. Joseph's Seminary, Yonkers, NY; and Alan Delozier, Director & University Archivist, Msgr. William Noe' Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ