Jersey Shore church saved from demolition as city weighs future of Gothic artwork

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A few blocks from the boardwalk of one of the Jersey Shore’s most visited beaches, Holy Spirit Church towers over Asbury Park like a relic from another age.

Almost as old as the town itself, the 142-year-old Catholic church is the oldest in the Diocese of Trenton and is filled with stained glass windows, marble statues and ornately carved Stations of the Cross.

“It’s a work of art, it’s an absolute work of art,” said Asbury Park resident Thomas De Seno, a former parishioner and graduate of the long-closed Holy Spirit High School.

Earlier this year, it emerged that the now unused church could be demolished to make way for a cluster of single-family townhouses with elaborate roof terraces overlooking Asbury Park beach. But, the local town planning council rejected the idea in August rejecting the developer’s application.

This saved the 19th century church. But why? Church supporters, developers and local officials say the future of Holy Spirit Church remains uncertain and could be heading for a fight in court.

The precarious position of the church has drawn renewed attention to the lack of local ordinances protecting historic structures in Asbury Park, according to residents of the town, which has already lost too much history as more and more developers are moving in to construct luxury buildings and homes along its famous beach.

The Church of the Holy Spirit, founded in 1879, was built in a late neo-Gothic style. When it opened in 1880, the church was a bustling place of worship for the growing number of Catholics settling near the Jersey Shore. Holy Spirit also operated a parsonage, convent, and its own school for K-8 students in a building behind the church.

Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park was known for its stained glass windows, marble interior and statues, as well as its carved Stations of the Cross (pictured here).

For decades the church operated as a community center, hosting Ladies Guild luncheons, the Rosary Society, a couples club and regular school dances, according to archived newspaper clippings. But, eventually, church attendance began to decline.

In 1980, Holy Spirit School closed due to declining enrollment. The building, sold by the Diocese of Trenton, was converted into a 16-unit residential building in 2005, records show.

The number of parishioners also began to steadily decline. Mass attendance at Holy Spirit Church fell 45% between 1990 and 2010, according to the Trenton Monitor, which reports on the Diocese of Trenton.

Behind the scenes, the Diocese of Trenton, which oversees the parish, was also dealing with financial issues and a tough decision about consolidating the parishes.

The other four Catholic dioceses in New Jersey – the Archdiocese of Newark and the dioceses of Metuchen, Paterson and Camden – have all faced financial difficulties in recent years, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual abuse lawsuits of the clergy and settlements reached through the New Jersey Independent Victims Compensation Fund.

Holy Spirit Church pastor Reverend Miguel Virella announced in late October 2021 that the church would close and the building would be sold. De Seno said the elders and the community at large were shocked.

“Nobody knew anything,” De Seno said.

In letters sent to parishioners, Virella said selling the property would allow the parish to pay all of its debts and complete renovations to Our Lady of Carmel Church on Asbury Avenue, which combined with the Holy Spirit to form Mother of Mercy Parish in 2014.

Virella did not respond to requests for comment.

Last summer, residents learned that the Asbury Park Planning Board was holding a hearing to consider an application by Mountain View Developments, a subsidiary of JLD Investment Group, to demolish the church on Second Avenue and subdivide the property in six lots.

When locals showed up at local meetings to ask officials how a building with such a rich history could risk being demolished, many were surprised to learn that the building had no designation that protected it from being bought. and the bulldozer.

The future of the Church of the Holy Spirit is uncertain

A rendering of single family townhouses, center, offered by Mountain View Developments. The six lots will include multi-level housing, multiple bedrooms, a garage, rooftop spaces and a backyard.

“The Holy Spirit Church property is not listed on the National and NJ Register of Historic Places, nor is it identified by ordinance as local historic property,” the preservation architect said. historical Daniel Lincoln, who was commissioned by Mountain View Developments to write a report. on the historic status of the church. His report is available on the city’s planning board website.

But even if the Church of the Holy Spirit were listed on the historic register, it still wouldn’t be safe because at Asbury Park “there are no restrictions on private owners who own listed buildings,” Lincoln said.

Asbury Park does not have specific ordinances related to the protection of historic properties and has not established a Historic Preservation Commission to review alterations to historic buildings, he explained.

The former Palace Amusement building, a historic structure that housed an indoor amusement park, is among the historic structures that have been demolished in the city. Only the iconic ‘Tillie’ mural on the exterior of the building was saved.

The planning board rejected the application submitted by Mountain View Developments in a 4-2 vote on August 1, but the decision did not necessarily save Holy Spirit Church.

The vacant building in legal limbo. Despite the planning board’s vote, Mountain View is proceeding with the purchase of Holy Spirit Church, according to church officials.

“The contract with JLD Investment Group LLC and Mother of Mercy Parish (which oversees Holy Spirit Church) is still in effect,” said Rayanne Bennett, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Trenton.

“No further details will be provided until the sale is complete,” Bennett said.

Mountain View has 45 days from Sept. 12, when the city planning board passed its denial resolution, to challenge the decision in court, said Irina Gasparyan, administrative secretary for the planning and redevelopment department of the city.

It’s an unfortunate situation, said Elisabeth Wendel, the listing’s real estate agent. She said the buyer’s original plan was to use the original Holy Spirit Church structure and turn it into housing.

“Their main basis is to maintain the integrity of this church, restore it and turn it into townhouses. They don’t want to demolish the structure. That’s not what they want to do,” said Wendel.

When asked why the developer had submitted a request to demolish the church to make way for single-family homes, Wendel said city officials had previously rejected Mountain View’s plans to put condominiums in the building. church with affordable housing.

So the developer decided to submit a demolition plan for the church, “which they are allowed to do, but don’t want to do,” Wendel said.

But this plan to build single-family homes on the site was also rejected.

Joseph Hanna, co-founder and president of Mountain View, said he could neither confirm nor deny whether there would be a legal challenge to the planning board’s decision.

“While it would be tragic to demolish another landmark in Asbury Park, the fact is that there is currently no review process or order to stop this private owner from doing so,” Lincoln said.

“Sometimes a demolition like this is necessary to prompt the local government to take definitive action to prevent further historic destruction,” he added.

When asked if there are plans to update local land use ordinances to include protection of historic properties, Asbury Park Mayor John Moore said he had no “No comments yet”.

Several members of the city planning board, including chairwoman Barbara Krzak, have expressed interest in addressing the protection of the city’s historic buildings.

“Unfortunately, it takes apps like this to spark a movement – also for our citizens to work with our government to say ‘OK, what happens next? How can we prevent this from happening and make historic preservation orders stricter? said Krzak.

Church of the Holy Spirit in Asbury Park

The Holy Spirit Church at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Bond Street in Asbury Park on Wednesday, September 28, 2022.John J. LaRosa | For NJ Advance

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