On Easter Sunday, Bayonne honored and celebrated the life of a local faith leader who died last year from COVID-19.
On April 4, a portion of West 20th Street between Broadway and Avenue C was dedicated as Rev. H. Gene Sykes Way. Friendship Baptist Church, where Sykes was the pastor, is located there.
Henry Eugene Sykes was one of the first residents to pass away from the virus, exactly a year ago on April 4, 2020. His wife Fannie died on April 25.
Decades of service
Sykes became pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in 1992, after nearly two decades of work in the ministry throughout North Jersey. As pastor, Sykes moved the church from its old location on West 20th Street to its current spot down the block.
He oversaw the renovation and expansion of the church, including the construction of a 500-seat sanctuary and a daycare center. Following the expansion, Friendship Church established a soup kitchen and other services that reach out to the entire community.
Sykes was a volunteer city employee, serving on the Bayonne Housing Authority for many years. He was a member of the Bayonne Interfaith Clergy and held leadership positions in the local chapter of the NAACP.
Sykes founded and led two organizations: the Bayonne Community Action Project which advocates for the creation of affordable housing, and the Build America Association which operates an early childhood development center.
Fannie Sykes served as First Lady of the church for 27 years, also working as the general secretary and special assistant to the pastor. The Sykes are survived by their children: Lynne, Tonya, and John.
Prior to the dedication and unveiling of the new street sign, a memorial service was held at the church during Easter mass. Members of the congregation attended in person and via Zoom.
The service was a solemn yet joyous celebration of the life and impact of the Sykeses, filled with beautiful hymns and heartfelt memories of the late pastor and his wife.
Rev. Joseph Napier, who took over as pastor after Sykes died, led the mass and eulogized Gene and Fannie. “He lived, he died. She lived, she died. Now they live again,” Napier said at the podium beside a large picture of the couple.
Following the service, members of the congregation poured out of the church to the corner of East 20th Street and Avenue C, where city officials gathered with the Sykes family to unveil the new street sign.
“This will be a memorial, not only today, but in days to come, for the people of the Friendship Church and the city of Bayonne and the people of Hudson County whose lives Eugene Sykes touched over the years,” Napier said before the sign was unveiled.
John Sykes, son of Gene and Frannie, pulled the cover off the new sign, revealing the tribute to his father.
Honoring the Sykes
After the unveiling, Mayor James Davis presented the family with a proclamation declaring April 4, 2021, as Rev. Sykes Memorial Day. Davis said he misses Sykes’s infectious smile.
“He always came into my office, even when I was getting yelled at, he always made me laugh,” Davis said.
He said he misses Sykes’s wisdom: “He could explain anything like it was one plus one equals two.”
Above all, Davis said he misses Sykes’s friendship: “He made this city better.”
City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski said Sykes had a profound effect on the community and that he was greatly appreciated. The city council passed a resolution renaming the street after Sykes at the January council meeting.
“This is a small token, because what he has done for the community will live on forever, and we will continue growing on what he has done,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “This sign will be here as a memorial forever of what he has done. It will never be forgotten.”
Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, who represents the 31st Legislative District encompassing Bayonne, presented the family with two additional proclamations honoring the couple.
“Rev. Sykes was a builder,” Chiaravalloti said. “He built up his church. He built up the day care. He contributed to our community. His efforts on the Housing Authority were legendary. And I was privileged to call him a friend.”
Other city officials on hand included First Ward City Councilman Neil Carroll, Second Ward City Councilman Sal Gullace, Third Ward City Councilman Gary La Pelusa, Councilman At-Large Juan Perez, and candidate for Assembly William Sampson.
Later, John Sykes spoke on behalf of the family.
“If there is anything that we can take away from the life of Rev. Sykes, it is devotion to God and service to others,” John said.
The ceremony concluded as a few lines were sung from Sykes’s favorite song, “Amazing Grace.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.