800 Bergen Avenue
|Postcard view of the St. Aedan's R.C. Church circa 1930.
Courtesy, Jersey City Free Public Library
Located near Jersey City’s historic Bergen Square district is the parish of Saint Aedan’s Roman Catholic Church. The Romanesque-style church stands prominently at the northeast corner of Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street. Dedicated in 1931, the parish joined the campus ministry of Saint Peter’s University on Kennedy Boulevard and Montgomery Street in July 2011 and celebrated its 100th founding anniversary in 2012. It will eventually be known as “Saint Aedan’s: The Saint Peter’s University Church” and will continue its ministry to the local parish as well as the university community.
Foye Place was named for Frank M. Foye who ran a real estate business on site. He owned the original Foye’s Hall (once the Columbia Hotel), which was later replaced by the Foye Apartments. The two-story Foye’s Hall was used as both 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).
Closer to Bergen Avenue was the adjacent building called Phillips Hall (later a Moose Hall). Phillips Hall seems to have been another multi-purpose structure with stables, carriages and stores on the first floor. For a time, a Buick agency showroom occupied the ground floor (Eaton 102 and Graham 35, 79, 81, 89). On the second floor was rental space for social activities like weddings, Miss Florence’s dance class, Cinderella Dances and War Camp Community Center during World War I. Lodging accommodation occupied the third floor.
Foye’s Hall was destroyed by fire on April 7, 1900, ruining the ground floor businesses such as the plumbing store of Fergus Keleher (No. 2 Foye Place), Tailor Silver (No. 6) and the paint store of Michael Harris (No. 7); the other two stores (Nos. 3 and 4) were vacant. 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 on the triangle formed by Foye Place, Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street. Twenty-six horses and vehicles in the stables at Phillips Hall, which suffered water damage, were all safely removed. Total damage caused by the fire was estimated at $25,000.
Irish Workers and City Transportation
From the mid-1800s, the central location of Bergen developed as the starting point for several important street railway lines. Horse-drawn streetcars and later electrified trolleys ran along a number of routes throughout Jersey City that connected residential areas in Lafayette, Greenville, and West Side with the Exchange Place waterfront area. It was a thriving enterprise as evidenced from the ample space occupied by the car barns on both sides of Montgomery Street between Tuers and Jordan avenues as well as the Public Service Repair Shop depicted in the Plat Book of Jersey City (Hopkins 1928). Among the numerous low-rise buildings near Bergen Avenue and Montgomery Street were the trolley car barns owned by Public Service Railway Company. It was the forerunner to Public Service Transportation formed in 1917, later Transport of New Jersey (1971) and then New Jersey Transit Corporation (1980).
According to the 1910 US Census, the Irish were 28.3 percent of the city’s overall population of 267,779 but would eventually lose their numerical advantage with the “new” wave of immigration by Germans, Italians and Russians. In spite of their lesser numbers, the Irish held on to their political primacy for a long time due to their earlier settlement and English language as well as their dominance in the organization of Mayor Frank Hague who offered political influence and employment in exchange for party loyalty (Quinn 153).
Contributing to the city’s ethnic composition was the role of ethnic parishes, giving support, solidarity and affiliation to new immigrants. Among the Catholic parishes most clearly identified with the Irish were St. Michael’s (252 Ninth Street), St. Joseph’s (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
The beginnings of a new Catholic parish in the historic Bergen Square district reportedly came from the observation of the gathering of trolley car workers, mostly of Irish descent, in a rented room on the second story of either the Foye Apartments or the adjacent Phillips Hall for the celebration of Catholic Mass. It was a convenient location across the street from the aforementioned Montgomery Street car barns and 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 at 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 addition of about 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 reportedly attracted 300 parishioners when it was dedicated as St. Aedan’s Chapel and the Rev. Dean P.E. Smythe, rector of St. Joseph’s and founder of the chapel, presided at the dedication. The article concludes with a forecast that in the near future the branch chapel of St. Joseph’s might not suffice and a larger church would be needed.
In 1912, the Rev. John J. O’Connor, then the Bishop of Newark, responded to the workers demonstration of faith with the decision to begin a new and independent parish nearby, across from the Old Bergen Church between Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street, as an offshoot of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on Pavonia Avenue. 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 (1871-1936), formerly pastor of St. Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in New Durham (now part of North Bergen), NJ, was named the first pastor.
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. His obituary in the New York Times, 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.” It also comments that when the construction of St. Aedan’s Church was planned, “. . . Mayor Hague gave personal as well as material assistance. The Mayor was one of Mgr. McGinley’s parishioners.” Father McGinley was a curate at St. Joseph’s Church in Jersey City prior to his pastorate at St. Brigid’s.
The decision for the parochial school, which opened in November 1913, was in keeping with the emphasis on education as the means for the working class to achieve middle class status during Progressive Era (1890-1920) as well as a view that the public schools could be places for the “assimilation” of Catholic students (see Petrick 112). Religious services took place on the first story of the school for the next seventeen years. By the 1920s, the success of Mass attendance caused overcrowding at the school resulting in the building of a temporary portable chapel with 600 seats adjoining the church property on Tuers Avenue; it became clear that construction of a new church building was becoming a necessity.
As part of the parish expansion, a new three-story convent for was built on Tuers Avenue and Mercer Street and opened 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, had 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 its property. The desirable location across from 2600 Hudson Boulevard, that included the apartment complex of Mayor Hague, became the campus of St. Dominic’s Academy in 1942.
Saint Aedan’s Church Construction
Edward A. Lehman, a New Jersey-born architect and a Jersey City resident, was selected to design the new Romanesque-style church. It combines both Roman and Byzantine elements in a cruciform design with a narthex, nave, transept and semi-circular apse. The dome, which crosses the nave and the transept, and the terra-cotta colored tile roofing draw attention to the full-height of the structure. The exterior masonry walls of orange-red face brick and red sandstone give the church a commanding, even fortress-like, presence, at the corner of Bergen Avenue and Mercer Street.
The ornamentation of the exterior is mostly on the porch of the church. The three-part principle entrance consists of multi-paneled wood double doors below a decorative dentil molding. The doors are set in a frame of semi-circular arches with ornamental molding resting on rounded columns. Over each door is a biblical scene—widow’s son of Naim, Jesus’s preaching to the multitude, and primacy of Peter. A biblical quotation is also carved in the tympanum of each doorway. Decorated pier buttresses flank the entrance; they contribute to the exterior design of the façade as well as support the structure.
The center bay on the church’s façade reveals a diagonal pattern in the brick work, and art-deco designs add interest to the church walls. A cross at the apex of front elevation calls attention to the central feature below--a rose window with vine-motif molding. Carved stone symbols of the four evangelists—Matthew (angel), Mark (lion), John (eagle) and Luke (ox)--are set at its quadrants.
Walking to the rear of the church, one observes the circular drum dome, 60-feet in diameter and 108 feet high, with windows and blind arches at its base, and the bell tower.
In 1927 Father McGinley had purchased fifteen bronze bells, weighing from 90 to 600 pounds, for the tower. They arrived from Canada in 1928 and were stored in in the neighboring warehouse of Goodman’s furniture store on Bergen Avenue. The cost to install the bells was prohibitive for the parish to finance until 1947. That year, the Monsignor John C. McClary successfully liquidated the church’s mortgage and decided it was time for the installation of the bells in the tower. They were first 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.
To design the interior of St. Aedan’s Church, Lehman and Father McGinley selected a prominent Italian ecclesiastical artist, Ilario Panzironi of the Panzironi Brothers Studio of New York City. Descendants of sixteenth-century artisans in Florence, the Panzironi’s 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 were installed under the direction of Bruno di Paolo. They dominate the interior furnishing of the church and were displayed in exquisite detail. The results are particularly noted in the mosaic images of the saints set in a gold background on the spandrels of the side arcades, the Stations of the Cross, and the chapel of St. Joseph.
Almost as a harbinger of the church’s future affiliation with Saint Peter’s University, Panzironi prominently displays the peacock—the school’s mascot —as a recurring image in the church’s iconography. Two peacocks¸ representing the duality of human nature—the earthly and the divine--appear in the mosaic at the apex of the canopy or 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 is also seen in a few of the church’s stained glass windows.
Multi-colored marble occupies many of the church’s interior features such as the flooring, wainscoting, arches, columns and piers. The 96-foot white marble altar rail, in front of the sanctuary, extends to the side altars. It has contrasting baluster columns and carvings of dark-colored marble.
The interior of the church opens to a ribbed vaulted ceiling over the nave 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, which was donated by Mayor Hague in the memory of his parents, takes center stage in the sanctuary. The marble baldachin over the tabernacle is decorated with a mural in the underside of its dome and features the mosaic peacocks on the exterior of the apex of the canopy. It sits on six columns that rise from the floor in a semi-circular design. In accord with Vatican II regulations, a second altar without a tabernacle has been placed in front of the high altar. The apse, or semi-circular wall behind the altar facing east, has a surround of columns and arches with elongated stained-glass windows.
The decoration of the north and south elevations is restrained featuring only the mosaic Stations of the Cross and two levels of 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 vaulted ceiling provide some natural lighting to the vaulted ceiling in the nave.
An arcade with Roman arches runs parallel to each of 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 that are supported by the piers. They support the building and allow for 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 striped horizontal pattern of the piers is repeated in the inner curve (intrados) of the arches.
In keeping with Byzantine church décor, iconic images of the saints are rendered in colorful mosaics that adorn the spandrels above the arches in the arcades. The first mosaic at the top of the arcade to the left depicts St. Aedan, the church’s patron saint. Known for his founding of many churches in Wexford County, Ireland, St. Aedan is seen holding a model of a church in his hands. Among the other images are mosaics of St. Agnes, St. Francis of Assisi¸ St. Patrick and St. Catherine of Siena.
Although unusual in a Byzantine-style church, several statues were incorporated into some of 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 near the sanctuary, and an image of St. John the Baptist 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). Active in local and state banking and politics¸ he was a close associate of Mayor Hague. Heppenheimer was the founder and chairman of the board of the Trust Company of New Jersey and a member of the Port of New York Authority. When he died in 1933, his funeral services were held at St. Aedan’s.
After the completion of the new church and rectory of St. Aedan’s, Father McGinley oversaw the continued development of the parish and the details of the church 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. A plaque, remembering Monsignor Roger McGinley as “priest and patriot” was placed at the corner of Bergen Avenue and McGinley Square in 1968.
St. Aedan’s parish served a mostly the Irish-Catholic congregation in the south Journal Square area from its founding in 1912 until the 1970s. Today the congregation represents a more diverse ethnic population of Filipino, Hispanic, African-American and Asian worshippers who gather from the parish’s extended borders. The parish is located in the heart of the McGinley Square revitalization area, and the surrounding neighborhood is gradually being improved through the combined efforts of local merchants, community groups, Saint Peter’s University, The Beacon apartments, and the City of Jersey City.
| By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub