The bells of St. Joseph’s toll again

The century-old bells from the former Slovak church find new life in Bayonne's Fitzpatrick Park

On Dec. 1, the city of Bayonne held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new bell and clock tower in Fitzpatrick Park at 27th Street and Avenue C.

The tower is the new home for three bells that used to ring at the former St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. The bells were saved from the church at the corner of Avenue E and 25th Street prior to its demolition.

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While the façade of the church could have been preserved through designation by the Bayonne Historical Preservation Committee, the Archdiocese of Newark declined to do so. This paved way for developers to level the area and start from scratch, demolishing the approximately 112-year-old church to construct two six-story residential redevelopments on the site.

Before it closed, the church shifted from being Roman Catholic to Syriac Catholic, known as St. Joseph’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral for the last few years of its life. However, for most of its existence, the church was Roman Catholic and the spiritual home for Bayonne’s Slovak community that built the church in 1909.

The City Council voted unanimously in January of this year to award the contract for the construction of the bell tower to Picerno-Giordano Construction of Kenilworth for $250,275, the same contractor that conducted the renovations of Fitzpatrick Park. In March, the bells were shipped off to Cincinnati, Ohio to be revitalized.

Following that, the bell tower arrived on or around Oct. 5 from the Verdin Bell Company in Ohio where the bells were polished, refurbished and retoned. The ceremony, which had been originally set for Oct. 11, was rescheduled to December due to the need for electrical testing of the tower.

The tower was slated to be built near or as part of the new under-construction 25th Street pedestrian bridge before space limitations prevented that. Now it has been erected in the recently renovated Francis Fitzpatrick Park, serving as the finishing touch.

Mayor James Davis said the city is moving forward but preserving its history, like the bells of the former St. Joseph’s Church.

New bell and clock tower

A clock with four faces, one on each side, is a prominent feature of the tower. The bells are mounted inside the tower.

The bells are all different ages from around the years 1897 and 1919. One of the bells is a former fire bell, and the other two were made for the church. Each has a different and distinct tone.

They are active bells, capable of making sounds along with music or tolling for the hour. The bells can be programmed to ring at specific times.

The bell tower includes a weather vane on its top. This kind of bell tower is placed frequently in town squares and shopping districts across the country.

At the ceremony, Mayor James Davis said that Bayonne was “moving forward” while “preserving its past.” Addressing longtime St. Joseph’s parishioners who were present, he praised the preservation and reuse of the bells of the church.

“This is about moving Bayonne forward,” Davis said. “We’re not forgetting where we came from. It’s about preserving our past … It was hard enough to understand that one of our churches were sold and now it’s going to be knocked out of development. This gave us the opportunity to the community, the Slovak community, to say, ‘Listen, we’re not going to forget your church and that you were here and had a place.’ ”

Director of Public Works Tom Cotter, credited with being a major force behind the clock and bell tower, said that many were involved in the undertaking.

Davis thanked Rich Picerno of Picerno-Giordano Construction, who recently renovated Fitzpatrick Park where the clock and bell tower is located. The contractor also recently completed Phase II of Collins Park renovations, and is working on other parks throughout the city as the Davis administration redoes nearly each one.

“It’s beautiful,” Davis said of the park. “All of our parks are slowly becoming beautiful.

In addition Davis thanked “the person most responsible for getting this done.” He said this was Director of Public Works Tom Cotter.

“It drove him crazy and I know I drove him crazy,” Davis said. “He really deserves most of the credit here.”

‘It took a village’

Taking the podium next, Cotter told the audience that the bell tower project was the result of many people’s hard work. He said that was akin to when the Slovak community got together to purchase the bells all those years ago.

“I know a lot of people feel I had a lot to do with this, but it’s not a one-man job,” Cotter said. “It’s the same with these bells. Money was raised by the Slovak community years ago. They put their pennies, dimes and nickels together because they believed in the community. They wanted that. It bound them together, it made them a union, and it made them a community. And that’s what Bayonne is. Bayonne’s a community.”

Former City Council President Joseph Makowski and former City Council President John Halecky were both parishioners of St. Joseph’s and praised the preservation of the bells.

Cotter also recalled the story of how the bells were saved. He heard them ring during the demolition of the church and made a beeline to Davis to prevent their destruction

“When I was driving, I heard [bell noise],” Cotter said. “The bells were still there! I went right to the mayor’s office. Thank God we have Jimmy as our mayor. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I don’t care what you’ve got to do, get me those bells. So we went on a mission to get the bells.”

Cotter extended his thanks to the church property developers for assisting in the bell tower project. He said they paid for the tower constructed without issue.

“We worked it out with the developer,” Cotter said. “They were more than gracious. They made the donation to have this tower built. So I want to thank them for doing that. They could have played hardball with us, but they didn’t. So they bought into the whole community thing. I think it was the spirit of the bells that maybe lives inside us. All of us.”

Cotter thanked Davis and the City Council, and also expressed gratitude to Joe Bolowski of Control Services, Doug Gefvert of Verdin Bells, Rob Russo of CME Engineering, Business Administrator Donna Russo, Chief Financial Officer Donna Mauer and Public Works Superintendent Joe Cannarozzo.

“Joe Bolowski went out of his way to make sure we got those bells down safely,” Cotter said. “They could have been damaged, but they weren’t.”

Last but not least, Cotter shouted out the Public Works Department employees who assisted. He added: “Our DPW workers are some of the best workers here in Bayonne.”

Cotter also credited former Bayonne resident Robert Papp for showing him a history of St. Joseph’s Church that helped with the project.

“When I found out what the bells were, gave me a history of the bells. He came in, he lives out of town but grew up here in Bayonne, but wanted to be a part of it.”

City officials cut the ribbon on the new clock and bell tower at the end of the ceremony.

Bells to toll for another 100 years

According to Cotter, the bells will now live on for another century. The city preserved them and the church’s history despite the redevelopment of the land, a theme for the Davis administration amid the redevelopment boom.

“These bells are going to be here for another 100 years,” Cotter said. “At one time, they served a purpose for the Slovak community. Now they’re going to serve a purpose for the whole community of Bayonne. Everyone can enjoy them.”

Former City Council Presidents Joseph Makowski and John Halecky, both former St. Joseph’s parishioners, addressed the crowd. They were accompanied by their wives, Karen Makowski and Geraldine Halecky, who were also St. Joseph’s parishioners.

Makowski expressed sadness about the passing of St. Joseph’s, but also expressed joy over the preservation of the bells. A longtime parishioner of the church, he thanked those involved in making the clock and bell tower happen.

“It’s a happy day, but it’s also sad,” Makowski said. “Those who have been in St. Joseph’s parish for so long … Its lifespan is over 120 years. These people were the heart of St. Joseph’s … so closely to their heart. It really hurt when the church came down. But the church isn’t gone. This will make us always remember it and it brings a smile to us because the people of St. Joseph’s were a special people. I’m sure there’s a lot of St. Joseph’s people here. I was proud to be a member of that parish and I want to thank Tommy Cotter.”

The nearly century-old bells from St. Joseph’s now toll again.

Makowski echoed Cotter that these bells would be there for many years to come. He said that when former parishioners drive by, they will remember St. Joseph’s and continue to tell the story of the church to others.

“This is not just a project,” Makowski said. “This is something deep in the hearts of all the people. I’m sure everybody from St. Joseph’s, when they’re in the car with someone else, they’re going to say those are the bells of St. Joseph’s.”

Halecky said that he was “probably the oldest member of St. Joseph’s,” and that he had been a member for over 80 years. He said the church provided “over 100 years of memories.”

One of Halecky’s own memories was recalling that he had pulled the church bell cords. He ended by quoting poet John Donne: “‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ Thee is St. Joseph’s.”

Just it time for the holidays

In addition to those city officials, present for the ceremony was Bayonne Purchasing Agent Amy Ockay Dellabella, a former St. Joseph’s parishioner and a niece of Monsignor Clement Ockay, who served as the church’s pastor. She was joined by husband Brian Dellabella of the Bayonne Finance Department. They were married at St. Joseph’s Church.

The ceremony ended with a ribbon-cutting. Concluding the event, the sound of the bells playing Christmas music echoed in the cold night air.

A fourth bell from the former church will be placed inside City Hall at a later date. Details concerning the fourth bell will be announced after arrangements have been made.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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