No. 78  January 2010
The authoritative source on early churches in New Jersey

ISSN 1543-3250

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Feature of the month

Patrick Keely, Catholic architect

Every year about this time (it seems) the media take note of another closing of a large, nineteenth-century Roman Catholic church. Attendance has diminished, or the physical condition of the building requires costly repairs, or the space is needed for a parking lot, or the mission is better served by converting the building into a social service center—those are the justifications offered by diocesan officials, often in the face of concerted and passionate protests by the parishioners. Some of the buildings have been saved by determined preservation efforts, but I assume several are gone. In the last few years we heard of the Church of the Assumption in Philadelphia; in Boston, Trinity, and in New York, St. Brigids were the targets. All three were the work of architect Patrick Keely. Regardless of the outcome in those cases, we shall not soon run out of churches by Keely, for he designed more than 600 of them, according to his obituary in the American Architect on his death in 1896.

Keely (b.1816) was a trained architect who emigrated in 1841 from Ireland and settled in Brooklyn. His father was a carpenter and builder, perhaps even an architect, who worked with Augustus W. Pugin, the leading English Catholic proponent of the Gothic style. He established his practice in Brooklyn and apparently worked as a carpenter for several years before he was engaged to design a Catholic church there (the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Williamsburgh section) in 1847. That neo-Gothic design attracted considerable attention, and Keeley was soon in demand along the East Coast. Rapid growth in Catholic populations after 1850 led to a demand for hundreds of new churches. His Irish background undoubtedly helped his practice, as the Catholic hierarchy which had been largely German and French in the early decades of the nineteenth century came to be dominated by those of Irish extraction sometime before the Civil War. In fact, Keely's practice virtually monopolized Catholic church building in the eastern states and Canada for a quarter century; he designed 30 churches in Boston alone, planned 20 cathedrals, and was probably America's busiest architect. My incomplete count of his churches in New Jersey credits him with 16, including two cathedrals, Sacred Heart in Trenton and St. John the Baptist in Paterson. I believe he should be credited as well with St. Patrick's Pro-Cathedral (above) in Newark, although Fr. Patrick Moran, the priest there is usually named.

William Pierson's American Buildings and Their Architects (Vol 2, 1978) notes that Keely favored English Gothic traditions rather than European (French and German) and that preference reflects itself in his work. According to Pierson, "Keely's Gothic style was based on English, not continental styles, and was particularly reminiscent of the work of Pugin. [It] related more to the Ecclesiological Gothic of Upjohn than to the erudite eclecticism of James Renwick, [who designed New York's St. Patricks on Fifth Avenue certainly the best-known of the Gothic cathedrals in this country.] [Keeley's plans] set the tone for all Catholic churches of the mid to late nineteenth century in this country." Jersey City's St. Bridgit's (above) is a good example—an asymmetrical facade featuring towers of different height, and often a polychrome treatment using brick and stone. He was masterful in his attention to detail, inside and out. He paid close attention to suppliers—his correspondence with several glass makers, for example, spans a 30 year period.

Keeley's son Charles was active in the practice, and some churches (Philipsburg's St. Philip and St. James) have been credited to Charles Keely rather than to Patrick Charles Keely (father). It may be difficult, and perhaps irrelevant to sort that out. The American Architect reported that "The practice of the office is enormous. Fifty churches it is said being sometimes in the process of erection from the designs of father and son." Keely's brother-in-law, James Murphy of Providence, RI was an architect who designed the exceptional St. Patrick's Cathedral in Norwich, CT, although there is no suggestion that he was ever involved in Keely's practice.

If I had been asked to characterize his work, I probably would have said that his churches were usually conventional and repetitive, but there are many exceptions, even in his New Jersey work (Washington, Trenton, Newark). In preparing this article, I now see an astonishing range of styles and treatment—Romanesque, neo-Renaissance, French Empire, as well as the English Gothic. That range may reflect the budget and size of the church, or perhaps the preferences of the local bishop, but it does demonstrate Keely's versatility. It does not provide any evidence that Keely's style developed over the years—Washington's St. Joseph is as modern and accomplished as Holy Cross (Rumson) and Sacred Heart (Trenton) done 12 years later. The plans for Holy Cross are instructive— he buried a full dome over the crossing, but did it internally, with no projection into the external roof line. In Washington (Warren County) one can find a full clerestory in a relatively small wooden church.

Newark's St. Patrick's Pro-Cathedral seems to be in the French tradition whereas the several churches in Jersey City are definitely more English. St. Mary's Abbey church is decidedly German Romanesque, and Sacred Heart in Trenton (below) is a Renaissance-tending to-baroque style in my opinion. His design for St. Michael's Monastery church in Union City looks like it might have been imported from Montreal or somewhere in France.

Works: Jersey City, St. Bridget's (1882) • Jersey City, St. Patrick's (1871) • Jersey City, St. Joseph's (1872) • Jersey City, St. Peter's Church and College (18__) • Jersey City, St. Michael's (1869-72) • Jersey City, Central Missionary Baptist (1882) • New Brunswick, St. Peter the Apostle (1856-1865) • New Brunswick, Church of the Sacred Heart (1883) • Paterson, St. John the Baptist (18__) • Phillipsburg, St Philip & St James (1873) • Union City, Church of St. Michael's (1862) • Mt Holly, Church of the Sacred Heart (1872) • Newark, St Patrick's Pro-Cathedral (with Father Moran) (1849) • Washington, St. Joseph's (1872) • Rumson, Holy Cross (1885) • Trenton, Basilica Church of the Sacred Heart (left, 1884) • Convent Station, Mother House of Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth •

Contemporary design plans for Rumson's Holy Cross church may be found online, but curiously, none of Keely's churches in this state have been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey. "He was never much noted by his peers or the press during his lifetime, but he showed skill and refinement in his interpretation of English Gothic." (Grove Dictionary of Art).

Efforts to keep this website up to date, and to maintain a regular schedule of publication of my books on the religious architecture of the state have taken a backseat to my involvement in preservation of a mid-eighteenth century manor house in Phillipsburg. We have obtained a $120,000 grant from Warren County to continue that effort, so I expect my attention to the old churches will be somewhat sporadic. Nevertheless, I expect to release two books by early spring—one on Mercer County's churches and another on Cumberland County.

In November my newest book on the old churches of the state—A Proper Style: tradition and change in the religious architecture of Monmouth County was published. The book is is a richly-illustrated guide to all 116 of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century churches and meetinghouses still standing in Monmouth County. My intent was to explore and explain the history of Monmouth's religious buildings, from the earliest religious structure—a beautifully-restored wooden-frame meetinghouse in Upper Freehold Township, erected in 1739, to the stylish Methodist church in Bradley Beach, built in 1900. The subtitle of the book, tradition and change in the religious architecture of Monmouth County, New Jersey, suggests that the book goes well beyond an inventory of the old churches of the county—in fact, it might serve nicely as a basic reference on architectural styles and construction traditions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Each of the 116 surviving churches from the county’s early history is visited and photographed, with special attention paid to their founding, construction and architecture. From the sophisticated Gothic Revival designs erected in stone by leading architects to the simple wooden-frame meetinghouses built by hand by members of the congregation, the book offers an engaging account, illustrated by stunning photographs of the visual and material presence of Monmouth's religious buildings. Twenty are on the National Register of Historic Places, and several others ought to be, and I try to make a case for their inclusion.

The 352 page book includes more than 250 photographs, tables and drawings, an outline of architectural styles, a summary of the religious denominations operating in the state during the early centuries, a glossary of architectural terms, an extensive bibliography, and index. The book is available from, and the publisher's website,



Copyright 2010 Frank L. Greenagel