St. Mary's Roman Catholic church
Salem, Salem County
Oak & Carpenter Streets
founded c.1848, built 1849-52
Catholics were rarely welcomed in south Jersey in the pre-Civil War period, and the paucity of nineteenth-century Roman Catholic churches in the county reflects that. This is the earliest surviving one, erected in 1849-50. It is a squat stone Gothic building with the customary buttresses, Gothic-arch windows and entrance and sort of crenelated battlements at the top of the tower. It was described by Cushing's correspondent as "beautiful and capacious."
The parish was incorporated in 1864, but services had been held as early as 1744 in a private dwelling in Mannington Township—the Kiger/Geiger House, also known as the Jesuit Mission house, which was erected as a dwelling perhaps as early as 1720. The Kiger brothers, were among the first in a group of German and Belgian workers employed at the Wistarburg Glassworks, inhabited the house by 1744 and about that time they invited visiting priests to conduct services there—services which may have continued for about 20 years. The church's website calls attention to Sickler's note on Catholicism in the county:
In all the years prior to the American Revolution, there was one church which had been none too welcome in Salem county, although as far as the historian can discover there were no open steps taken against it. But the laws of England provided heavy penalties against the worship of its ritual, and the colonies were no exception to the mother country. This religion, banished from England because of the rigorous prosecution of the statutes of George II, and worshipped in silence and seclusion was the faith of the Roman Catholic Church. . . in most of the colonies along the Atlantic seaboard their path was stony. . . . Fenwick's colony, free from religious persecutions, had little need of worrying about the Catholics and the statutes against them until Caspar Wistar established his glass works at Wistarburgh in 1739. Then for the first time, French, Belgian, and German families who were Catholics came into the county to work at the glass house.
Jaquett says the first Catholic mass held in the town of Salem was said in a residence in 1847; Cushing puts it in 1848. The first resident priest arrived in 1851; before that there were occasional, often irregular visits by priests from Philadelphia. The initial members listed by Cushing consisted largely of men with Irish names (no women are mentioned). Until the state's constitution was amended in 1844, Catholic institutions had limited civil rights.