By Donald Wittkowski
The Sea Isle City Chamber of Commerce and Revitalization is looking to set up a historic preservation fund at the same time a feud continues over whether one of the oldest buildings in town should be saved or demolished.
Christopher Glancey, the Chamber president, insisted that the organization is officially staying neutral in the local controversy over the fate of the historic chapel at St. Joseph Catholic Church.
“The Chamber, as an organization, is not taking sides in this situation. The Chamber is not making a stand one way or another,” he said.
Glancey said the Chamber may use its designation as a member of New Jersey’s Main Street community revitalization program to acquire grants for historic preservation in Sea Isle, which might include the old church.
“It’s perfectly within our charge. It is a good thing for us to preserve the character of our island,” he said.
A battle has erupted among some of the parishioners and a church committee over whether the 134-year-old St. Joseph chapel should be saved or possibly redeveloped into a new spiritual life center.
Preservationists have launched a “Save St. Joe’s Historic Church” campaign that includes a Facebook page petition drive to rally support on their side.
Scattered throughout town are “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church” signs. A rendering of the old chapel is on the signs, accompanied by the words “Sea Isle City landmark since 1884.”
The historic chapel stands side-by-side with the modern $7 million St. Joseph Catholic Church that opened in December 2011 and includes a 1,300-seat sanctuary serving as the main worship hall for the congregation.
A church committee studying the future of the old 225-seat chapel has recommended looking into the possibility of demolishing the structure and using the site at the corner of 44th Street and Landis Avenue to build a spiritual center that would serve as meeting space, a venue for special events and new classrooms.
The committee wrote in a letter included in the Sept. 9 church bulletin that there are no immediate plans to demolish the old chapel. According to the committee, an engineering study will be conducted to assess the cost of rehabilitating the chapel into a spiritual center versus building new.
“Regardless of which route is ultimately chosen, the space will be respectful to the history and design of the existing building,” the letter said. “It will continue to blend seamlessly with the new church. Appropriate care will be taken to safeguard and incorporate the historical aspects of the church.”
Former Sea Isle Mayor Mike McHale, a St. Joseph parishioner, is one of the leaders of a church faction that opposes the idea of tearing down the old chapel.
“There’s some great history there,” he said. “I believe the flavor in the parish and in the city is that people want to keep that building.”
McHale appeared during the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly board meeting on Dec. 4 to try to rally the organization’s support for saving the church.
“We’re asking for their support. We’re all on the same mission for the preservation of historic buildings,” McHale said in an interview after the meeting.
Chamber members, however, repeatedly stressed during the meeting that the group should avoid being pulled into the church controversy by officially remaining neutral.
“I want to stay as far away from the church (feud) as possible,” said Liz Pane, the Chamber’s treasurer.
Another Chamber member, Mike Monichetti, the owner of Mike’s Seafood & Dock Restaurant, added, “This is a hot topic here.”
After discussing the issue, Glancey and other Chamber members suggested looking into creating a historic preservation fund for the old church.
Exactly how the preservation fund would work remains to be seen. Glancey indicated that he intends to discuss it with the Chamber’s attorney and will report back with more details at the January board meeting.
“Historic preservation is part of our charter. This is one of the last few historic buildings left on the island,” Glancey said in an interview.
Glancey noted this is not the first time the Chamber has considered using its designation as a member of New Jersey’s Main Street community revitalization program to preserve one of Sea Isle’s historic buildings.
Last year, the Chamber discussed applying for a historic preservation grant to save the Townsends Inlet Civic Center when the privately owned community site was facing possible foreclosure for back taxes. The Civic Center, a building that dates to 1888 and formerly served as the city’s old trolley stop, avoided foreclosure when the taxes were paid off.
The old St. Joseph Church chapel was built just two years after visionary real estate developer Charles K. Landis founded Sea Isle City in 1882 as a Venice, Italy-inspired beach resort.
Over the years, parts of the building have become deteriorated. Joseph Murphy, who serves as church deacon, said during an interview in September there is no heat in the chapel, two of the four air-conditioning units have failed, the pipes leak and it costs “a fortune” to maintain the structure.
Murphy, one of the members of the church committee that is studying the chapel’s fate, believes the best option is to replace the little-used building with a modern, cost-efficient spiritual life center.
McHale, though, argued that the chapel remains structurally sound. He said an engineering study conducted in 2008 concluded it was in good shape.
Now, the parishioners are awaiting the results of a new engineering study authorized by St. Joseph’s that will determine the current condition of the building. According to the church committee, the study will assess the cost of rehabilitating the chapel into a spiritual life center versus building an entirely new spiritual center.