The historic chapel, built in 1884 as the original sanctuary for St. Joseph Catholic Church, is at the center of a debate over whether it should be preserved or redeveloped.

By Donald Wittkowski

The ubiquitous “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church” lawn signs in Sea Isle City may finally come down.

A proposed compromise in a feud between parishioners and the church leadership over the 135-year-old chapel appears to have removed the possibility that the building on Landis Avenue could be demolished at some point.

Father Joseph Perreault, pastor St. Joseph’s, sent a two-page letter to parishioners this month urging both sides to reach “middle ground” in a controversy that has sharply divided the Catholic congregation.

The pastor and a group of church leaders believe the old chapel is a financial burden and should be considered for redevelopment, while preservationists want the building saved.

“The issue of the original, old Church has become the focal point of the current tension. This is, indeed, regrettable,” Father Perreault wrote in his letter.

Hoping to end the conflict, Father Perreault, along with members of the church’s Parish Council and Finance Council, are offering to compromise with parishioners who are adamantly opposed to any thought of demolishing the old chapel.

The proposal has a series of conditions attached to it, but it essentially calls for the creation of a “restricted account” to repair and maintain the chapel instead of the church continuing to assume the financial responsibility for its upkeep.

The restricted account would be funded by donations from church members, although it would be controlled by Father Perreault. He would also oversee all work done on the old chapel, according to the proposal.

Former Mayor Mike McHale. seen looking through documents at the Sea Isle City Historical Museum, is leading a church faction to save the old chapel.

Mike McHale, a former Sea Isle mayor who leads a church faction that wants to preserve the chapel, said the proposal appears promising.

“We’re open to it. We’re encouraged that the church will stay,” McHale of the historic chapel in an interview Saturday.

Representatives of McHale’s group plan to meet with Father Perreault in the next week to discuss details of the chapel’s maintenance and repairs. McHale noted that there are local contractors who are offering to do the work for free.

Parish member Jackie Meiluta, who chairs a committee that is studying the old church’s future, said she “absolutely” supports the proposed compromise.

“I’m pleased. I certainly don’t want the parish to be unhappy,” she said.

Discussions about the fate of the old chapel are part of a broader church strategy, known as the “Catholic Strong” fundraising campaign, to find ways to reinvigorate St. Joseph’s parish in the future, including creating a more robust senior ministry.

The Catholic Strong Committee, chaired by Meiluta, wrote in a letter included in the Sept. 9, 2018, church bulletin that a study will assess the cost of rehabilitating the chapel into a spiritual life center versus building new. A spiritual life center is envisioned as meeting space, a venue for special events and possibly new classrooms.

“We believe money is better invested in services and programs for people rather than maintaining a building that is rarely used. This may sound harsh but funds are limited and tough decisions need to be made, if not now, then in the coming years,” the Catholic Strong Committee said in a statement to parishioners.

Signs in favor of saving the old church are popping up across town.

Meiluta has repeatedly stressed that no final decisions have been made on whether to demolish or preserve the old church, which dates to 1884 and stands at the corner of 44th Street and Landis Avenue.

While Meiluta doesn’t want to see church funds poured into the old chapel, she said she would not object to members of the parish using their own money to preserve the building.

“If people prefer to donate money to maintain that building, that’s fine,” she said in an interview Saturday.

Parishioners who want to preserve the building have launched a “Save St. Joseph’s Historic Church” Facebook campaign, believing that the chapel is in danger of being torn down. They have placed blue lawn signs throughout Sea Isle calling for the chapel to be preserved.

In his letter, Father Perreault stated that if the proposed compromise is accepted, the “Save Our Historic St. Joseph’s Church” lawn signs would have to be taken down. The signs are a common sight around town, at homes, businesses and on vacate property.

McHale said a clear majority of the church members want to save the chapel. He said donations to the church have been declining recently, a sign that parishioners disagree with St. Joseph’s leaders over the building’s fate.

“It’s the heart of our community,” McHale said. “It’s our history. It’s our legacy. The architecture is beautiful.”

The new St. Joseph Catholic Church, which opened in 2011, stands next to the old chapel overlooking Landis Avenue.

The historic chapel 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.

The old 225-seat chapel is little-used these days. It is in need of a series of improvements, including new heating and air-conditioning, as well as plumbing and electrical repairs. A recent engineering report found that the building has mold damage that must be cleaned up.

In his letter, Father Perreault said that it has simply become “financially burdensome” for the parish to maintain the cost of the old chapel at the same time it is funding the new church.

“In 2015, parish leaders determined that the investment of significant financial resources in this facility was ill advised,” he wrote, referring to the old chapel.

Based on the conclusions of the recent engineering report, the chapel is in “fair” condition, Father Perreault told parishioners in the Jan. 20 church bulletin. The building’s roof is in “good” condition. The report also found “areas of concern,” including evidence of possible termite infestation, cracks in the timber arches inside the sanctuary and mold.

Estimates to clean up the mold range from $73,000 to $83,000, Father Perreault said.

An old postcard depicts the historic St. Joseph Catholic Church long before the new church was built.