By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Parishioners speak fondly, passionately and reverently about the historic St. Joseph Catholic Church in a newly released documentary that chronicles their efforts to save the 136-year-old sanctuary from demolition.
“This is a little story about a little seaside town with a little historic church that might only have a little time left,” the narrator says in the opening line of the 37-minute documentary, titled “Our Little Church.”
Preservationists regard the old church as a sacred sanctuary that has been a religious and historic landmark in Sea Isle City dating back nearly as long as the shore town’s formal founding in 1882 by visionary real estate developer Charles K. Landis.
“It is the basic fabric that ties this whole community together. It is,” Mike Boyle, one of the founding members of a group called Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church, says in the documentary.
“You walk into that building and it’s a spiritual thing. You can’t look at that building and not be spiritually moved,” adds Tom Henry, another founding member of the group.
The group is appealing to the Vatican to reverse a “Decree of Relegation” issued this year by the bishop of the Diocese of Camden that declared the church is no longer sacred. The decree is seen as a prelude for the church’s demolition. The Vatican is expected to rule on Dec. 9.
The historic church, built in 1884, stands side-by-side with the modern $7 million St. Joseph Catholic Church that opened in December 2011. The new church includes a 1,300-seat sanctuary serving as the main worship hall for the congregation.
Church leaders have argued that St. Joseph’s simply can’t afford to maintain and refurbish the old church at the same time they are using the modern church. They have talked about the possibility of demolishing the old church to make room for a new “spiritual life center” for meeting space, special events and new classrooms.
Not wanting to take on substantial debt to finance the old church’s upgrades, the Parish Council and Parish Finance Council both unanimously voted to seek the “Decree of Relegation” from Bishop Dennis Sullivan of the Diocese of Camden, which oversees St. Joseph Church.
For more than two years, members of the Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church group have fought to reopen the now-shuttered old sanctuary and revive it as a place for weddings, funerals and baptisms.
“It’s a very important, sacred place to a lot of people in this community,” said Andy Bednarek, another founding member of the group.
The documentary premiered Monday on the Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church Facebook page. To view it click here: (7) Facebook
It recounts the parishioners’ struggle to save the church while also tying together their lifetime of family memories in St. Joseph’s ranging from baptisms to First Communion and from weddings to funerals.
“It creates a human and, I think, an emotional connection,” said Kelly McCarthy, a Sea Isle resident and playwright who created the documentary with her co-director Brian Morris and executive producer Eric Cecilio.
Cecilio also provides the spiritual soundtrack for the documentary with his singing of “Ave Maria,” the traditional Christian prayer of praise to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The narration is done by Tom McCarthy, an actor and Kelly McCarthy’s father.
Kelly McCarthy said she found it inspiring to interview so many parishioners who have such a great love for the old church.
“What really came out of that was their passion for that building,” she said in an interview.
Occupying the corner of 44th Street and Landis Avenue, the old church is an example of the Gothic-revival architectural style. It has stained-glass windows about 100 years old, mahogany front doors and soaring exposed arched beams in the sanctuary that resemble the inside of a ship’s hull.
“You feel like you’re close to heaven in that church,” Kim Gibson, a Sea Isle restaurateur whose family has been attending St. Joseph’s Church for more than 100 years, says in the documentary.
Another parishioner, Mary Jane Mazzella-Gleeson, marvels over the fond memories she has of walking down the street with her mother to attend Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s years ago. In the documentary, she expresses her fears that the church will be demolished and lost forever.
“I beg of you, do not tear this institution down,” Mazzella-Gleeson says, referring to the Catholic church hierarchy. “It’s not just an institution. It’s the heart and soul of this town.”