By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
About this time last year, lawn signs proclaiming “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church” were still popping up at homes and businesses across Sea Isle City.
Fearing that the church would be demolished, preservationists launched a fundraising and social media campaign to rally community support.
“We knew it would be an uphill battle,” acknowledged Mike McHale, a former Sea Isle mayor and one of the leaders of the Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church group.
However, in a dramatic turnaround, the 137-year-old church is now safe from the wrecking ball and is about to make its public debut this weekend in an open house to showcase its history, architecture and renovations.
The open house is scheduled on Saturday, beginning with public tours of the church from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Anne Koch will give a presentation on the church organ from 11 to 11:30 a.m. and then McHale will discuss the building’s history at 11:30 a.m. The open house is free to the public.
In what is being hailed as a communitywide effort, the Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church group has raised about $150,000 in donations to undertake an extensive renovation of the Gothic-style sanctuary at the corner of 44th Street and Landis Avenue.
“As a community, I think there is more respect and appreciation of the church now,” McHale said. “I think it’s been a rallying point for the community. So many people have volunteered.”
McHale, though, noted that he never thought that the fundraising efforts would result in so much money for the church’s renovation. One former Sea Isle summer resident, Lisa Poole Deem, recently donated $35,000 to pay for a new heating system in the building.
“There is still a lot of work to do,” McHale said, adding that a new air-conditioning system will be the next major part of the renovations.
The renovation work began with the removal of mold contamination that had formerly kept the building closed. Painting, plumbing, electrical and roof improvements are all part of the project.
“Today, the church looks better than it did 50 years ago,” said McHale, who has been a member of the parish for about 50 years.
Local contractors have donated their work and materials to help refurbish the building. One local contractor, Ed Pearce, of Painting by Pearce, is meticulously repainting the white building at no cost. McHale estimated that the painting work would probably cost $25,000 to $30,000 if Pearce did not donate his services.
Visitors stepping through the mahogany front doors of the historic church are greeted by a vaulted ceiling featuring massive arched beams that resemble the bottom of a ship’s hull.
Adding to the allure of the sanctuary are stained-glass windows – more than a century old and believed to be irreplaceable – that line the walls and depict St. Joseph and other religious imagery.
St. Joseph’s image is also prominently portrayed in a statue that overlooks the steps of the church’s front entrance. An ornate stained-glass image of St. Joseph comprised of 750 individual panes of glass decorates the inside of the church on the second floor.
Topped by a soaring white steeple, the building has been a religious, historic and cultural landmark in Sea Isle City for nearly as long as the community’s founding in 1882 by visionary real estate developer Charles K. Landis.
McHale, a trustee of the Sea Isle City Historical Society and Museum, will discuss the church’s history in a presentation during the open house.
One of the most interesting aspects of the church’s history is that the building was moved in 1903 from its original location on Central Avenue to its present site at 44th and Landis.
Although it isn’t exactly clear why the church was moved then, it is believed it was to protect it from chronic flooding on a low-lying island vulnerable to stormwater. The building was also raised, which changed the entrance to the church from the basement to the front steps overlooking Landis Avenue, McHale explained.
The old church 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.
McHale’s group battled with St. Joseph’s former pastor over the fate of the old church, prompting the communitywide effort to preserve the structure, including the proliferation of the “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church” lawn signs.
However, those signs have all but disappeared following the appointment last year of Father Perry Cherubini, the new pastor. Father Cherubini has had a cordial relationship with the preservationists during the renovations to the historic building.
“He has been a godsend,” McHale said of the new pastor.
As work continues on the church’s renovations, the preservationists have urged supporters to remove their lawn signs as a gesture of respect for Father Cherubini.