Issue No. 0   March 2001
The authoritative source on
early churches of New Jersey

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  St. Patrick's Pro-Cathedral

       St. John's Church

Feature of the month

      Is this the second oldest Catholic
      Church in New Jersey?

This simple wood frame Church of the Sacred Heart in Mount Holly may be, after Saint Patrick's Pro Cathedral in Newark (built in 1849), the oldest extant building erected for Catholic worship in New Jersey. Partisans of St. John's Church in Newark may object, arguing that it is the oldest in the state, based on a erection date of 1826 or 1828. My reading of the sources leads to the conclusion that those early dates are unsupportable; I believe that 1858 is more likely to be the year when the church assumed its present form. In any case, I have not yet photographed and documented all the old churches I know or suspect still exist, so I must suspend final judgment for the moment.
      Although the initial Roman Catholic services were not held in the Mount Holly area until 1848 when Father Mackin of Trenton visited the area, the parish got its start with the arrival in Burlington of a boat from Ireland in 1843. Services were most likely held in private homes until this modest frame structure was built on Mount Holly Avenue in 1852. Land for a cemetery was purchased in 1857, and in 1871, this building, then in dilapidated condition, was moved to a recently purchased lot on West Washington Street, then known as the Sand Hill, an expanse of sand with no houses for a quarter of a mile. That street was already home to the Mount Moriah African Methodist Episcopal church, which was built in 1826 several blocks east, on the site of what was then and remains the Mount Moriah cemetery.
     In 1872, a new Sacred Heart church was started and the original building, somewhat enlarged, was used as a parish hall, and later as a school. The new building, designed by Charles Keely, appears now to be abandoned, succeeded in recent years by a third Sacred Heart church several miles away in a section that would probably have been regarded back in 1872 as off limits to Catholics. In the nineteenth century, the earliest Catholic churches, like the A.M.E. churches, would only have been found on the outskirts of the towns, and not simply because that's where their members lived. A couple of sympathetic Protestants bought property on Bridge Street in Lambertville in their own name, later transferring it to the parish of Saint John the Evangelist, because such a prominent site would not have been sold to Catholics, even late in the nineteenth century.
     In the center of the town, on the commons or at a prominent site on the main street, you would have found the church of the original settlers, most likely a Presbyterian church in much of the state, or that of the grandees, the Anglican church. In south Jersey, of course, it would have been a Quaker meetinghouse, and in Bergen and Somerset counties, it would have been a Reformed church.



Copyright © 2001 Frank L. Greenagel