On October 23, Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. The church on 28th Street and Kennedy Boulevard, has been a mainstay in the city of Bayonne and a pillar in the community for 100 years.
A group of Carpatho-Russian immigrants from Hungary in Bayonne organized in 1918, getting approval from Archbishop Alexander Nemolovsky, of the Russian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Aleutian Islands to found Saints Peter and Paul’s parish.
These immigrants formed the Carpatho-Russian American Citizens Club in 1919. Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church was later incorporated by the State of New Jersey on December 22, 1922.
Soon after, a house was purchased on West 27th Street and two lots West 28th Street in Bayonne. According to rector Very Reverend Wilfred Sophrony Royer, construction on the original church began in January of 1923 and finished by September of 1924.
Construction of a new building begin in 1936, where the old church stood. The church was completed in stages and finished in May of 1938, and it still stands in the same location today.
A history of Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church
As Bayonne’s only structure of Russo-Byzantine architecture, the church became a local landmark. In the years that followed, improvements such as new bells, a chandelier, iconography on the walls, and stained glass windows were added to the church.
Two homes on the corner of 28th Street and Kennedy Boulevard were purchased in November of 1955 and demolished in 1957, making way for the church parking lot. The house adjacent to the church was bought in 1964, which was later demolished, and a new rectory was built in 1980. Other improvements to the church included: wall icons painted for the church, new sidewalks, a new fence, new pews, air conditioning, wooden floors, red carpeting, gold-leafing of the cupolas, and other refurbishment of the church interior and exterior.
Over the course of its 100 year history, Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church was served by thirteen parish priests and has had twenty-seven parish council presidents. The Bayonne Community News visited the historic church to interview the current priest, Royer.
Royer is not only a local faith leader, but a professor of philosophy at Saint Peter’s University. As of August, Royer has been the priest at Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church for nine years.
“It certainly is a historic occasion,” Royer said of the centennial anniversary of the parish.
The difference between a parish and a church is simple, he said: “I suppose the terms are interchangeable, but a parish refers specifically to a local community. The word church could be in either local communities such as this or refer to the church worldwide.”
Church boasts rich local Orthodox history
“They built this church on top of the original,” Royer said. He noted the historic nature of the building and highlighted the Russo-Byzantine architecture.
The icon screen, or iconostas, in the church is from the former Saint Platon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Tenafly. The seminary was the largest in the Western Hemisphere until it closed in 1922, and the Saints Peter and Paul Church inherited their icon screen as it opened.
“Our icon screen is the icon screen from that seminary chapel,” Royer said. “Which is why if you look on the door on the screen, that’s Saint Platon… We started the same year that seminary closed. Tenafly is not very far from Bayonne. So it was brought here.”
In terms of the congregation, while other faiths may be dwindling locally, this Orthodox church is going strong, Royer said.
“We get a lot of people walking through the doors,” Royer said. “That doesn’t mean they stay.”
The parish has grown more diverse simultaneously with Bayonne.
“In many older parishes, the congregations were mostly American born,” Royer said. “The parish is now multi-ethnic. I think about one fifth of our membership is of Middle Eastern origin, because of the local demographics.”
Congregation going strong in 2022
While some Catholic parishes have consolidated in Bayonne in recent years due to dwindling attendance in the Archdiocese of Newark, Royer said the Diocese of New York and New Jersey is heavily invested in keeping Orthodox churches open. The demographics of the faithful are changing in Bayonne, but the Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church remains strong.
“Our Diocese and our Archbishop Michael Dahulich, and the same is true of other dioceses, they try to keep parishes open as long as possible,” Royer said. “It’s only when it comes to a point where they cannot sustain themselves or that they will finally close a parish. Even before they do that, if they can’t support a resident priest, they’ll keep the parish open as long as possible by sending diocesan supply clergy.”
Royer continued: “That means a church may not get a priest every Sunday. It depends on the availability of supply clergy in our diocese. In the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, that’s in pretty short supply right now. We have retired priests, but some of them aren’t up to traveling. We are pretty much able to fill the vacancies in parishes, but when it comes to finding substitute priests or supply priests, there’s not that many.”
Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church has done surprisingly well amid the COVID-19 pandemic, recording its first infection among congregation members just this year, Royer said. Things were hard at first, but have largely normalized now.
Undeterred by COVID-19 pandemic
“For the first three or four months, the church wasn’t open to the public,” Royer said remembering 2020, noting he was celebrating special services by himself. Eventually, the state allowed churches to reopen with limited capacity, and Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church was one of them.
“The first Sunday we opened to the public in 2020 happened to be Orthodox Pentecost,” Royer said. “We had to follow state rules about limiting the percentage of people, it was 25 percent of seating capacity. We put tape across every other pew and instructed people to set on opposite ends. I restricted to the choir loft to the choir director and his family.”
As time went on, the restrictions began to affect the church less, Royer said.
“When we could have 50 percent of the seating, at the point that would almost be the size of the entire congregation if they all came at once,” Royer said. “So we didn’t have to really worry about that. But we also had diocesan rules.”
Things are “mostly” back to normal, “more or less,” Royer said in 2022. “I still have a few people who wear masks during church. Hudson County was a hotbed for COVID-19, but we did not have a single case in this congregation until January of this year. That’s because we followed diocesan rules to the letter, and they were pretty strict.”
Looking ahead to centennial celebration
The parish has five affiliated organizations: the Ladies Guild, the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Sisterhood, the Carpatho-Russian American Citizens Club, the Bayonne Alpha Chapter of the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians in America, and Lodge #100 of the Russian Brotherhood Organization of the U.S.A. These organizations not only served the church but were also involved in community affairs, Royer said.
According to Royer, many notable individuals hail from this parish including clergy, community leaders, and corporate executives, as well as Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Nicholas Oresko, the namesake of Nicholas Oresko Community School, and Golden Globe Award-winning actress Sandra Dee, born Alexandra Zuck.
Having been at multiple parishes in the past, Royer said this is the first 100th anniversary he’s celebrated. He was always a part of planning celebrations for those parishes, and has his hand in planning upcoming events for Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church.
“We have an anniversary committee,” Royer said. “The person that pretty much took charge of that was our recording secretary Marge Kovach.”
A Hierarchical Divine Liturgy will be served on October 23 at 9:30 a.m. by The Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, the Most Blessed Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard, Archbishop Michael Dahulich of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey, and Royer. A centennial banquet is being held at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Bayonne from 12 to 4 p.m. on that day.
Additional information about the parish and its anniversary celebration can be found on the parish website at sspeterandpaulbayonne.org.
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.