Two weekends ago, I attended a memorial mass for my father at St. Michael's Roman Catholic Church, in Jersey City, NJ. You can see from this photo I took here of its exterior that it’s a handsome old church.
My dad—who died this winter, at age 101—never had the opportunity to step inside this historic building. But what I think might have appealed to him, as someone who loved to unroll stories in his rich brogue all the way to the end, would have been the many tales that could have been told over the years about the priests inside this church in Jersey City's old Irish-American “Horseshoe” section (nicknamed after its shape following Republican gerrymandering), as well as the active and faithful parish they led.
The parish was founded in 1867, and the church’s interior contains a number of decorative touches that would have made the predominantly Irish immigrants who filled its pews well into the 20th century feel at home. With a swelling congregation came the additional infrastructure so familiar to Catholics nationwide for generations: a rectory, convent and school.
As late as 1959, one year before the first Catholic would be elected President, St. Michael’s still had 1,000 communicants and members. But amid a perfect storm of traditional parishioners flocking to the suburbs or dying, the population falloff after the Baby Boom, and the larger trend toward secularization in American culture, the parish underwent a period of adjustment so characteristic of other Catholic urban parishes in the last several decades, as the number of congregants fell and the convent and school were closed.
If demography is destiny, then the revival of Jersey City as a whole bodes well for St. Michael’s. Combined with several other downtown Jersey City churches into Resurrection Parish in the late 1990s, St. Michael’s was designated an independent unit once again by the Archdiocese of Newark four years ago.
Through the peak of its influence as a “powerhouse” parish and beyond, St. Michael’s was steered by a succession of strong-willed, often remarkable pastors who heavily influenced the spiritual, social, and even political life of the city, including:
*Monsignor John Sheppard, who encouraged a young Frank Hague and advised (and even endorsed) the future political boss of Jersey City for the rest of his life;
*Monsignor Leroy McWilliams, who taught three future leaders of the Church in New Jersey: Archbishop Thomas Boland of Newark, Bishop James McNulty of Paterson, and Seton Hall President Msgr. John McNulty; and
*Fr. Hugh Fitzgerald, the kindly longtime parish who advocated for the homeless, Hispanic and Vietnamese immigrants.
The St. Michael’s of the 21st century has not been without challenges (notably, severe water damage in 2014). But physical improvements since the turn of the millennium has given visitors more of a sense of what it was like in its heyday.
Leading the transition into this new age is Fr. Tom Quinn, whom—full disclosure!—I have known since our days growing up at St. Cecilia’s in Englewood, NJ. His work experiences before his 2005 ordination—journalism, acting, nursing—amply prepared him, in ways I doubt he could have anticipated at the time, for a calling requiring constant communication and pastoral care.
Across the street from St. Michael’s, in Hamilton Park and beyond, is a more diverse, transient and secular world than the one it has known before. Yet inside, the venerable church continues to awe and inspire. As it moves from retrenchment to rejuvenation, it is fortunate to have in Fr. Tom a pastor blessed with energy, good humor, a sense of resolve, and a glowing faith.
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