St. Joseph of the Palisades Church has been servicing the North Bergen, Guttenberg, and West New York area for 150 years. More or less.
“The foundation date of the parish is sort of nebulous,” explained Msgr. Gregory Studerus last month. “In looking at historical records, we found that the first official baptism that took place was in October of 1863. So we chose to start our anniversary year on the feast of St. Joseph, which is in March of 2013, and end on that feast this year.”
That means the big event, the festive celebration of a century and a half as a community centerpiece and landmark, will occur on Wednesday, March 19, with a solemn mass and reception. But the event is being marked by a whole series of celebrations that actually began months ago.
“We started our celebration last year with our international festival back in June,” said Father Studerus. “In October we celebrated the 110th anniversary of the church building and at that point kicked off the restoration project of the church. And then in December it was also the 60th anniversary of our auxiliary chapel up in North Bergen, Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel.”
Closing out the year will be a week of events beginning Sunday, March 16 with masses and special presentations on Sunday, followed by St. Joseph’s Feast Day on Wednesday and a solemn mass and gala dinner on Saturday, March 22.
“We’re trying to bring the church back to its original appearance.” – Father Gregory Studerus.
Tickets for the gala cost $60 per person.
By the time the week of celebrations take place, the church will look very different. Extensive renovations are currently in progress, including exterior building work, new floors, restored stained glass windows, new lighting, refurbished pews, and a warmer, more attractive color scheme.
“We’re trying to bring the church back to its original appearance. Not item per item an exact restoration but very much the sense of the warmth and beauty of the place,” said Studerus. “The archdiocese allowed us a year and a half ago to restore all the exterior problems of the building. From a loan from the archdiocese we were able to repair all the gutters and the roof, tighten up the waterproofing of the building. And then, because we sold our high school two years ago, we’ve taken a small part of the proceeds from that and have completely refurbished the interior of the church, upstairs and downstairs.”
St Josephs of the Palisades is actually two churches in one: the grand church upstairs and the original hall in the basement.
“Actually when the parish was founded the original church was in Guttenberg,” he said. “It was founded by mostly German immigrants. And then they bought this property some time around 1903 and they started building. The lower church was started in 1903 and the upper church was finished in I believe 1912. They used the lower church for a long time. They had plans for the grand building above but you know it takes time to pull the money together.”
Services are held regularly in both spaces.
The upper church
“It’s a major change from the way it was,” said Studerus of the new interior. “Basically the church was all painted white about 20 years ago. So it really was redecorated. Actually we tried to mimic a church that I had seen in Barcelona last year and tried to get the warmth that it had.”
The new look consists or more earth colors with gold highlights. Meticulously planned and designed, it looks more natural and appropriate.
“That was my goal,” he said. “That it would look like it was supposed to be. If you look at pictures of the original, it was much more decorated. There was stenciling and a lot of the early 20th century kind of decorative work. The structure is so beautiful. It’s a wonderful space.”
Work has been going on for months, with a local painter who is a member of the congregation taking on the task of redoing the vast, vaulted interior. The huge air conditioning unit that used to block one of the stained glass windows was changed, allowing use of the balcony again for a choir loft. The floor was completely redone and all the pews taken out in sections for refinishing.
“The painter would work right until Saturday evening and when the pews were out every week they’d have to set up chairs and take the chairs down,” he said. “They stopped at Christmas so we could function with the church, because we haven’t been able to close the church during all this time. Every weekend they had to put it back in functional order because there are too many people. The windows are still waiting for some of the pieces to come back and be reinstalled. Right now they’re in the process of putting a whole new lighting system in. we’re hoping most everything is done by March the 16th.”
In addition to new LED lights being installed throughout the room, there are grand plans for new lighting. “We’re hoping to have a chandelier hang from the center here based on the design of the original chandeliers,” Studerus said. “We asked a lighting company in Jersey City to design one to hang from here, modeled on those old fixtures. We’re just not sure whether they’re going to have it finished on time. It’s our hope.”
Other projects lie ahead, including building a second level for the outside parking lot.
“The problem with every urban church is parking,” he said. “When this church was built it was just walking communities but it’s no longer just that. People come from a distance today. Maybe it’ll be done while I’m here, maybe it’ll be done by somebody else. We’ll see.”
Another item on the to-do list is refurbishing the huge mural over the sanctuary area, one of the main focal points of the church.
“There was a fire back in the ’80s and for some reason they decided they had to retouch the painting,” Studerus said. “And whoever did it did a less than quality job. The scenery had the whole scene of Jerusalem. It was a hill but you saw in the distance this whole area of the rooftops of Jerusalem, the gardens and the trees and a much more dramatic sky. And they obviously kept all of the figurative work but they touched it up and a lot of the life of the painting is lost. So that’s one of the things that we hope maybe we’ll have another artist come and restore. We’ll never be able to match it but I think we’ll be able to liven the figurative work.”
“This is a wonderful parish,” said Studerus, who has been at St. Joseph of the Palisades for eight years, after being reassigned from Resurrection Parish in Jersey City. “It’s a wonderful place to work. It’s about 80 percent Hispanic, people from every country in Latin America. And very dedicated people. Wonderful people to work with. I’m very happy here.”
He noted, “Before it started, it was like, oh we’re going to paint the church. Now every day it’s another minor decision to make. Should this be gold or should that be brown?”
“It’s been an expensive project,” he continued, “but we’ve tried to keep it within a strict budget because the sale of our high school building allowed us to consider doing the restoration, but actually 90 percent of the proceeds of that sale are necessary for income to cover ongoing operating deficits.”
People interested in contributing to the restoration can contact the church at (201) 854-7006. Donations can be made for the restoration in general or for specific aspects, like stained glass windows. Contributors will be listed in a book published for the celebration week.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.