A Building of Countless Memories… A Sanctuary to Our Lady!
Compiled by Nicholas Grillo
During the first few years of the early 1880’s the Italian speaking population of Jersey City began to increase rapidly, but they had no church of their own. In the towns, villages and cities of Italy the local church had been to these people a spiritual and social force. By the end of 1884 Bishop Wigger directed Father De Concilio to organize the Italians of Jersey City into a parish and to build a church. Father James S. Hanly, the pastor of St. Bridget’s was assigned to guide the new parish through its embryonic years.
With the money contributed by the congregation, two lots, 340 and 342 Sixth Street, between Monmouth and Brunswick Streets, were purchased for about two thousand dollars. A small frame structure already on the site was used as a temporary chapel. The first Mass celebrated was in February 1885.
After the purchasing of the property Father Hanly and Father Chiuso, a resident priest, immediately set to the task of having a church built. Construction was undertaken in the spring of 1885 and completed by summer. It was a simple rectangular wood structure with a double-pitched roof set back on the lot. It was thirty feet wide and fifty feet long with a seating capacity of about three hundred people. The cost when completed was approximately six thousand dollars. On August 22, 1886, Bishop Wigger dedicated the church while both Father Hanly and Father Chiuso assisted.
The Church and community continued to bloom. In 1891, under the pastorate of Father Leonard Mazziotta, the church was redecorated, but expansion was imperative. The parish population had grown to nearly five thousand people. A larger church was a must. Building the church on the parish’s three lots on Sixth Street had not at first entered into Father Mazziotta’s plans for two reasons. First, construction on the present property could not be large enough to accommodate the congregation Holy Rosary was sure to have in the next years. Second was esthetical. The church property was near the center of the block. Inevitable construction on either side of the property would interfere with the flow of sunlight into the building and incarcerate the exterior beauty of the edifice.
Father Mazziotta wanted to secure a more favorable location comprising four lots on the corner of Sixth and Brunswick Streets. On it he intended to erect a church with a seating capacity of at least eight hundred people. He contemplated enlarging the old church and converting it into a rectory and hall. The estimated total cost was approximately twenty-five thousand dollars. To finance the project he proposed to rent the hall for social affairs, hold a fair once a year, and organize a church society for the express purpose of acquiring funds. In addition, he would depend on regular parishioner donations.
Two months later, however, Mazziotta decided on a course that was more practical for the Parish. Contracts were signed with Neil Campbell and Keary Brothers Construction Company. The old church was elevated and brought forward to the Sixth Street line. An extension forty-four feet wide and forty-five feet deep was added to the rear making the total length of the church ninety-five feet. It had a main and two side altars with a seating capacity of about six hundred people. A reed organ pumped by a foot pedal was installed in the choir loft.
For the next seven years Holy Rosary experienced a quiet tenor of spiritual progress and numerical growth. Devotions and traditions brought from the many provinces of Italy were incorporated into the daily and Sunday Mass schedules.
In October 1901 Father Vincent Sciolla was named pastor. He was immediately confronted with a congregation numbering about ten thousand and continuing to increase rapidly. Certainly a larger and more durable church was needed. By January 1903, he had completed major improvements on the rectory and reduced the existing debt of Holy Rosary to several thousand dollars. He formed the St. Rocco Society to help in the purpose of building and improving the Parish Church. In June 1903 he bought three lots adjoining the eastern extremity of the present church property on Sixth Street at a cost of sixteen thousand dollars. By the end of the month plans for a new church were made by architect, Eugene Ciccarelli. Foundation piles were driven in July by C. H. Kruger and Sons. Local contractor John Wheelihan and Sons was contracted to build the church.
On Sunday, October 25, 1903 the cornerstone was laid by Right Reverend John A. Sheppard, Vicar General and pastor of St. Michael’s Church.
The ceremony commenced with a procession through the streets of downtown Jersey City. Monsignor Sheppard and Father Sciolla were accompanied by other New Jersey clergy, Mayor Mark Fagan and an entourage of city officials. Church societies, their banners flapping in the air, Italian societies of Jersey City and large delegations from neighboring cities marched through the streets. Waiting at the church were three to four thousand people. They crowded the sidewalks and streets while hundreds watched from the top of the railroad elevation.
After the gray marble cornerstone was blessed, the contractor Wheelihan guided the stone into position. Father Ernesto D’Aquila, rector of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Newark, delivered the sermon in Italian. He commended the people of Holy Rosary for their support and loyalty to their pastor and encouraged further cooperation with him in his efforts to advance their spiritual welfare.
By December the new church was completed. Pressed Trenton Brick and Bluestone was used for the shell of the ninety-five foot building. The campanile (Bell Tower), one hundred twenty-five feet tall, added another ten feet to the width of the façade. Holy Rosary in actuality was two churches—main level and basement—each seating about eight hundred people. The upper church had a new main altar; however, the two side altars and alter used in the lower Church were from the old structure. The Holy Water Font was of Venetian marble and the pews were oak. The stained glass windows depicted the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. The church was simply and pleasantly decorated.
The edifice is a synthesis of three architectural types—Greek, Byzantine and Roman. Greek strength and simplicity of design were reflected in the basic rectangular building with a double-pitched roof, a pediment, Corinthian architrave, frieze and cornice. The arched doorways, windows and niche reflected the quiet grace of Roman architecture. Three elegant Byzantine pillared cupolas crowned the campanile and atop each of the two pilasters framing the façade. The central nave between two side aisles was reminiscent of the Roman basilica and divided by two rows of columns. Each has a Corinthian capital of acanthus leaves. The vaulted nave, aisles, arched recesses of the two side altars and the sanctuary is Byzantine expressions of Roman structural features.
Parishioners were asked to “purchase” various parts of the Church. Bricks used in its construction were sold for five cents each. There were over 500,000 bricks used. The stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross bear a roll of names of early parishioners and donors to the Church. On Sunday, September 18, 1904 Bishop John J. O’Connor dedicated the new Church of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. Several thousand parishioners along with clergy and city officials were present.
Over the next years the only improvements were in decorating the Sanctuary. By 1924, under the pastorate of Monsignor Felix DiPersia, the parish population has again outgrown the seating capacity of the Church. DiPersia advised his twenty thousand parishioners that there was a necessity to enlarge it. By 1926, a sharp increase in donations enabled the Parish to be financially secure enough to undertake expansion. Construction begun in late summer was completed by November 1927. The Vicar General of the Diocese of Newark, the Right Reverend John A. Duffy, rededicated the Church.
There had been an extension thirty feet long grafted to the rear of the basic structure. The total length of the church was now one hundred and thirty feet with a seating capacity of about one thousand. The new sanctuary was a half dome winged by two side altars. It had a round, stained glass foil window in the center of the rear wall immediately above the altar. On the two sidewalls were small stained glass arched windows. The main altar, made in Italy, was of marble. It included a mosaic of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Pompeii above the tabernacle. The marbleized altar in the right wing of the sanctuary had a picture of the last supper carved in its apron. The twin altar in the opposite wing had a carving of the souls in purgatory. Along with the altar a marble baptistery, oak pulpit and marble altar rail to replace the old one were added. A reconditioned organ was installed in the choir loft.
In 1933, Pope Pius XI consecrated Holy Rosary as the first Italian church in the diocese of Newark. The Liturgy of Consecration was not unknown to the early Church and has roots in the rite instituted by Solomon. Whether blessed or consecrated, a church is set aside and dedicated to the worship of God. The difference between consecration and blessing is that consecration imprints an indelible mark on the building. A consecrated church may never again be used for any other purpose but the worship of God.
Bishop Thomas Walsh presided at the Consecration Ceremony on October 6, 1934. The exterior, interior, statues, vestments, and vessels were blessed. Before the ceremony of consecration twelve gold crosses with candleholders were attached to the interior walls. The crosses may never be removed and the candles are only lit on the anniversary of the consecration. The purpose of the crosses is to serve as evidence that the church is a consecrated one.
Forty years passed before Holy Rosary Church began to show its age. The three cupolas on the façade were in danger of falling onto the street below. The surface of the brick was weather beaten, interior wall and ceiling plaster was deteriorating, wiring was faulty and the lighting no longer adequate for the congregation.
In 1948 Pastor [Emeritus] Father Gerard Santora had the cupolas removed and the tower surmounted with a spire. In 1950 he had new wiring and lighting fixtures installed. The walls and ceilings were repaired and redecorated and the Sanctuary lamp hanging from the ceiling was removed. The sanctuary floor was covered with terrazzo and embedded with the motto of Holy Rosary “Ad Jesum per Mariam”. A cement veneer in the form of bricks was placed over the exterior walls of the church and the bluestone steps were removed and replaced with brick. In April 1953 a new organ built by Schantz Organ Company of Orrville Ohio was blessed and replaced the older organ.
It was not until the 1970’s that Holy Rosary Church had any major repairs implemented into its facilities. Under the pastorate of Monsignor Francis R. LoBianco, air conditioning was installed in 1973. The Church was completely repainted, the ceiling was rewired, new light fixtures were installed and in 1982 the Church furnace was replaced.
In 1985 the Parish celebrated the Centennial of its founding. At that time a Capital Campaign was initiated by Father Nicholas DiMarzio (now Bishop of Brooklyn). “A Mother’s Love” began and the parishioners of Holy Rosary lovingly contributed to its success. A goal set of $500,000 and was nearly doubled through the generous donations of Holy Rosary’s parishioners. The Campaign’s success enabled for the rest of the Church to be rewired. It allowed for the organ rebuilding, the marble floor installed, the bell ringing mechanism to be replaced and the tower repaired, inside and out. New front steps, a new sound system and the redecoration and enlarging of the vestibule also were accomplished. In addition to the work in the Church, the boilers in the school were replaced. The capital campaign initiated by Bishop DiMarzio was completed by Father Paul Bochicchio. The Church under Father Paul flourished through the programs and activities for all parishioners but especially for the youth.
A revival of spirituality as well as the repainting of the Church in 1995 improved the beauty of the interior of Holy Rosary under Father Anthony Manocchio. Father had been a much-loved professor and Spiritual Director of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Maryland. Fr. Anthony, was scheduled to have open heart surgery on December 22nd, but decided to postpone the surgery so he could be with his parishioners are Holy Rosary for Christmas. Sadly, he passed away on New Years Eve in the Rectory before mass his sudden death on December 31st, 1995 left both the Parish and the Seminary in shock.
Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick then appointed Father Robert LaFerrera as administrator. During his tenure a new ambo was installed and a new sound system. In 1998, former Holy Rosary priest Father [Monsignor] Joseph Chiang became administrator of Holy Rosary and later pastor. During Monsignor Chiang’s tenure the parish center was completely renovated along with the park behind the church. In 1999 a new sound system was installed and in May 2000 a campaign began for the restoration of the pipe organ. The organ now 47 years old was deteriorating and needed to be repaired. Parishioners again generously contributed over $50,000 and the organ was restored. In December of 2002, new digital bells were installed in the bell tower. The new bells, in addition to playing the angelus, intone hymns prior to Mass.
In the spring of 2003 Monsignor Chiang announced his retirement as pastor of Holy Rosary. Archbishop John J. Myers appointed Father Rino Lavaroni, a former priest of the Parish as pastor of Holy Rosary. Fr. Rino was faced with the tuff task of revitalizing the parish which lost much of its spirituality and parishioner base.
In the spring of 2004 the Archdiocese announced plans to merger, liquidate and consolidate several parishes in the Archdiocese. Included in these recommendations were Holy Rosary and our neighbors, St. Anthony. The Archdiocese recommended that Holy Rosary and St. Anthony’s join St. Michael’s Church (Parish of the Resurrection) and that their properties be liquidated. In response Holy Rosary has set up a Taskforce committee to help revitalize the parish and submit counter recommendations to the Archdiocese for their approval. Though the months ahead are uncertain for Holy Rosary, the pastor and the parishioner’s trudge on and continue to bring new life into the parish. In less than 2 years, we have doubled our parishioner base, and in less than a year, all outstanding debts, left from previous administrations, will be paid. Jersey City is going through a gentrification, and the parish is beginning to realize its effects. The new parishioners are from all walks of life and are
all slowly becoming a part of the family of Holy Rosary.
2004 and onwards
Over the year 2004 & 2005 several necessary improvements were made to the church and rectory. In July, a new Climate System was installed in the Church. The plaster in church was repaired and painted. New heat was installed on the first floor of the rectory. The garages on 6th street were repaired. A new flat roof installed under air condition in church. Renovations began in the church Parish Center, where a new heating and cooling system was installed in the main meeting space.. The once abandoned convent on Brunswick street has been leased to the Jersey City Board of Education. The income will go to parish improvements and debt payments. Nearly $100,000 thousand dollars was spent on necessary repairs over the year.
Sadness struck Holy Rosary on the morning of August 28th, 2005. Msgr Gerard M. Santora, Holy Rosary’s longest serving pastor, passed away at the age of 93. Msgr. Santora pastoral tenure ranged from 1939 – 1968. During his reign a countless number of improvements were made to the parish. Some of the most noteworthy, were the extension of the school building, new convent, new Rectory, and remodeling of the exterior and interior of the church. Holy Rosary’s’ parish life was at its peak during the pastorate of the “Priest of Priests” tenure. In October of 2005 new flooring and fresh coats of paint where installed in the rectory. On October 2nd, 2005 Holy Rosary celebrated its 120th anniversary of serving the downtown Jersey City Community. 18 members of Holy Rosary Church both, living and deceased were inducted into the newly established “Holy Rosary Hall of Fame”. Each year on the parish anniversary more people will be added.
On October 26th, 2005 Holy Rosary received joyous news. The Archdiocese Taskforce Committee agreed to the recommendations Holy Rosary and St. Anthony’s Parish submitted. The Parishes will remain open and are asked to “Partner” together. In 2 years both parishes will be re-evaluated to see if they should continue the “partnership” or merger together. For the time being, Holy Rosary and St. Anthony’s will remain open and independent.
Cum Pietro Ad Jesum per Mariam