Parish History

The History of Saint Peter Parish

Saint Peter Parish, A Witness to History

Before there was a township of Belleville, before there was an Archdiocese of Newark, there was a thriving Catholic community, living and praying in the area now served by Saint Peter Parish.

Early 19th century residents of the area were part of the Diocese of New York. Before Saint John Parish in Newark, N. J., was organized (1826), Catholics had to travel to New York City to have their children baptized, fulfill their Easter Duty or to marry sacramentally. This required a fifteen mile journey by foot, horseback or carriage to Jersey City; from there, they would go by boat to downtown New York City to Saint Peter Parish on Barclay Street. Otherwise, if they were fortunate enough to have a priest visit the area, Mass would be celebrated in the private homes of Catholic families in the area.

Once Saint John’s Church in Newark was opened in 1828, their journey was shortened. But their dream was to have a church of their own. In 1837, with the blessings of the Church, five Catholic men from the area, selected by the others in the community, came together as the Board of Trustees to incorporate as a church community under the laws of the State of New Jersey. Incorporation was granted and recorded on February 2,1837.

Amazingly, the parishioners, built a church in under two years. It was dedicated and opened for services on December 2, 1838, by Right Reverend John Dubois, D.D., third Bishop of New York, as a mission of Saint John’s in Newark. This was two months before Belleville was established as an independent entity (February 23, 1839). The parishioners had named their parish Saint Peter’s after Saint Peter’s on Barclay Street, New York City.

Father Francis Ferrall was the first resident priest of the parish; Father John Hogan became the first resident pastor in 1853. This was the same year that the Diocese of Newark was established, separating it from the Archdiocese of New York.

Over its one hundred and seventy-three year history, Saint Peter Parish has been blessed with the dedication and zeal of many priests. Of these, twenty-six have served as pastors or administrators. Some served for only a short time (Father Bernard McArdle,1839-40), and some for decades (Monsignor Joseph M. Kelly, who served for two years as curate, 1907-1909, and for thirty-four years as pastor 1932-1966). After leaving Saint Peter’s, some like Father David William Bacon (pastor in 1844), went on to serve the fledgling American Catholic Church in a greater capacity. Father Bacon later became the first bishop of Portland, Maine. Others, like Father James P. Smith (1898-1923) led vigorous pastoral lives, securing and building up both the physical presence and spiritual care of the parish. Father Smith never really left Saint Peter’s. In accordance with his wishes, he is buried in Saint Peter Cemetery on the western side of the church.

Father Smith’s pastorate was incredibly fruitful. When he became pastor, his primary goal was to lower the debt of the parish; he succeeded in wiping out the debt altogether.

By 1901, he had had blueprints drawn up for a new brick convent to be built for the growing number of Sisters of Charity who had come to teach at Saint Peter School. In 1913, E. M. Waldron Company of Newark, New Jersey, was hired to remove the tower of the old church, lower the church, and move it twelve feet west, to provide the needed space for the new church Father Smith planned to build. In a little more than a year, T. H. Poole of New York City, known for his design of Gothic churches in and around the City, was commissioned to draw the plans for the new Saint Peter Church. Gun and Van Dale & Co. was awarded the contract to build the granite English Gothic church Poole designed. The cornerstone was blessed on September 14, 1913, by Bishop John J. O’Connor, Bishop of Newark, who, on September 13, 1914, dedicated the church. This is the church that still stands today.

From the time of the death of Father Smith (August, 1923), until the appointment of Father Field as pastor (October, 1923), the parish was under the very able administration of Father Michael J. Whalen.

Like so many before him, Father Field added to the brick and mortar structure of the parish. He renovated the school building, built in 1890 by Father Dorin (1879-1893), and renovated the interior of the Church. He built the rectory that still stands today (although enlarged during the pastorate of Bishop Costello). His energy was boundless and tenacity legendary. His favorite expression, it is recorded, was “And they said it couldn’t be done!” He was a deeply patriotic man and erected a monument to the parishioners who had died in military service in “several wars.” By this time, Saint Peter Parish had seen the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I. The names of thirteen men were inscribed on the monument dedicated on May 30, 1929, just before the country slid into the Great Depression.

Father Field’s interests were eclectic. In addition to his ministrations to the spiritual life of his parishioners and his civic involvement, Father Field also began a Dramatic Club, built from earlier roots of the Saint Peter Glee Club and the Saint Peter Unit. Under the next pastor, Monsignor Kelly, this grew into the Petrean Club, and broadened its scope to include other activities such as dances, bowling and summer beach trips. Father Field, like his predecessor, Father Smith, is buried in Saint Peter Cemetery. He died on December 8, 1931. When Monsignor Kelly (at that time Father Kelly) came to Saint Peter Parish as pastor, he found that, in addition to all of Father Field’s other talents, he was an excellent financial administrator. In the depth of the Great Depression, the parish was financially sound and had a nest egg of $20,000.

Father Kelly’s appointment as pastor of Saint Peter Parish was somewhat of a homecoming for him. After ordination in 1907 at Saint Patrick Cathedral in Newark, Father Kelly was assigned to Saint Peter, serving with Father Smith who was the pastor. Even this assignment was interesting: his parents had been married in Saint Peter Parish. He served at Saint Peter Parish until 1909, after which he was sent to Our Lady of Grace Parish in Hoboken. During World War I, he served as a chaplain with the United States Army American Expeditionary Force.

When Father Kelly became pastor, he was faced with a major problem: the school begun under Head Master Patrick Smith in 1857, and housed in various buildings until 1890 when Father Dorin built a proper school at the corner of William and Bridge Streets, was woefully inadequate for the size of the student population. When Mr. Smith died in 1877, the Sisters of Charity were invited to come and assume the educational task at Saint Peter Parish. By the time Father Kelly arrived, there were ten grades, eight elementary and a two-year commercial school. The new school (still in use) was completed in time for the centennial celebration of the parish. The cornerstone was laid in 1936. The total cost of building the school was $109,771. This in the middle of the Depression.

Father Kelly was not finished yet. In 1940, he began the construction of a new convent (the current Retreat Center). Shortly thereafter, the United States entered World War II. As a result of the shortage of building supplies during the war, the convent was finally completed and dedicated in 1950. Father Kelly also expanded the school building adding the wing that houses the gym/auditorium and lower level classrooms. During this same time period (December 23, 1941) the plaster ceiling in the choir loft of the church fell. The organ and its many pipes was located in the choir loft and was filled with plaster, sand and dirt, rendering it mute. Remarkably, by October 25, 1942, a new organ was installed and dedicated.

During World War II, Father Kelly was bonded as a Local Property Officer of the Belleville Civil Defense. He also worked with the Belleville Foundation. His work with the War Financing Program and the American Red Cross were publicly recognized by the New Jersey War Finance Committee.

Like his predecessor, Father Kelly led a very vibrant parish. In addition to the sacramental life of the parish, Father Kelly oversaw the Dramatic Club. The parish still sponsored the Social Society, the Choral Society, the Holy Name Society, the Rosary Society and a baseball team. The Catholic Daughters and the Belleville Council of the Knights of Columbus also were active in parish events.

In 1905, Pope Pius X decreed that each parish should form a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to care for the religious education of Catholic children who were not attending Catholic schools. The Diocese of Newark had implemented this decree early in the 1920’s. There is no date of record as to when Saint Peter Parish established a CCD program, but given the vitality of the programs in the parish, it would seem that CCD was established quickly after diocesan norms were set. What is of record is that in the later years of Father Kelly’s pastorate enrollment in CCD had grown.

In 1948, Archbishop Thomas J. Walsh elevated Father Kelly to the rank of Domestic Prelate; his title became Right Reverend Monsignor. Monsignor Kelly continued to lead the parish with vigor for the next eighteen years. He died at the age of eighty-four in 1966.

A short time after Monsignor Kelly’s death, Saint Peter Parish was blessed with Bishop Joseph A. Costello as pastor; an honor for Saint Peter’s and a formidable task for Bishop Costello. His role as pastor was added to his being Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Newark, and Vicar for Priests. In spite of his demanding positions, he nevertheless became deeply involved in the parish. His gentleness and caring quickly endeared him to the parishioners. He always found time to listen and counsel; he especially loved the children and found time to visit the school, talk and listen to them.

Bishop Costello would guide the parish during an exciting and tumultuous period in the history of the Universal Church. Vatican II had ended the previous December. Many of the decrees of the Council would filter down to the parish level during his pastorate. These changes influenced liturgical celebrations, the role of lay people, sacramental preparations and celebrations, and other details that most Catholics today take for granted. His patience and gentleness were gifts to the parish at this time. He broadened the base of parish administration, forming a Parish Council and hiring a Director of Religious Education to oversee the instruction of nearly 800 public school children enrolled in CCD.

Bishop Costello, like those before him, was a real presence to the people of Belleville as well as to the parish community. He also saw to the physical structures of the parish. At the time, the rectory built by Father Field was too small for the number of priests in residence. Bishop Costello undertook renovation of the existing rectory and the building of an addition, providing office space for the priests and a badly needed parish meeting room on the lower level. The school was also improved with the cafeteria updated to make serving hot lunches possible.

In 1976, tragedy befell the parish. Late in the afternoon of March 24, the church erupted in flames. The fire began in the sanctuary and quickly engulfed the interior, destroying the roof. It was determined to be of suspicious origin. The building was unusable. Once it was determined that the exterior walls were sound and that all the stained glass windows, with the exception of the one above the altar, were salvageable, Bishop Costello declared that the parish would repair the damaged church. For the next two and a half years, liturgies were celebrated in the school auditorium. A spirited fund drive by the people of the parish resulted in raising enough money to supplement insurance and rebuild the church. Following the new liturgical norms established by Vatican II, and with active involvement of many parishioners, the church was rebuilt and the rededication of the restored church was celebrated on September 9, 1978, by Archbishop Peter L. Gerety.

To the dismay and heartbreak of the parishioners, on September 22, 1978, just thirteen days after the rededication, Bishop Costello died suddenly. The grief of the parish was palpable. He was waked in the restored church, with members of the parish and staff standing at the head of the casket as honor guards, many of whom had celebrated the rededication with him two weeks earlier. His was the first funeral from the rededicated church.

For two months the parish waited. In November, 1978, Father John M. Byrne, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Newark, was appointed to succeed Bishop Costello while still retaining all the duties and responsibilities of Chancellor. In 1979, Father Byrne was elevated to the rank of Monsignor. By November of that year, he had decided to resign the position of Chancellor and devote himself entirely to being pastor to the people of Saint Peter Parish. Like his many predecessors, Monsignor Byrne was a hands-on pastor. He saw to the modernization of the school heating system and replacement of all the old, drafty windows in the school. With a growing number of Spanish-speaking parishioners, Monsignor Byrne welcomed Father Javier Loscarcos to the parish to minister to their needs. The RENEW program, begun during Bishop Costello’s time, was enthusiastically continued under Monsignor Byrnes’ guidance.

A young adult group, moderated by Father John Dennehy and reminiscent of the earlier Petrean Club, was active as were the many girl and boy scout troops. With the increased participation of lay people in the sacramental life of the Church, the expansion and/or initiation of ministries such as Eucharistic Ministers, Lectors, Baptismal Preparation (begun under Bishop Costello) and Pre-Cana Teams helped to energize the parish. 1983 saw the organization of Saint Peter’s Senior Citizen Organization. The guest speaker at the first meeting was Mrs. Genevieve McCarthy, mother of Sister Pat McCarthy, who was principal of Saint Peter School at the time. This was also the year that saw the formation of Saint Peter’s Food Pantry. The pantry then, as now, distributed food to members of the parish and residents of Belleville who were in need. At that time all the food was contributed by parishioners. At one point, early on, parishioners even maintained a garden on parish property to help supply the pantry. The garden was located on William Street near Bridge Street. Both of these organizations are still vibrant parts of the parish. It was also during Monsignor Byrne’s pastorate that the Bishops of the United States mandated the implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA).

While pastor, Monsignor Byrne served as a member of the Chaplain’s Advisory Committee of the Board of Trustees of Clara Maass Continuing Care Center, and Dean of the North Essex Deanery. For personal reasons, Monsignor Byrne resigned as pastor of Saint Peter Parish in 1989.

Father Raymond Holmes succeeded Monsignor Byrnes and was installed as pastor on June 3, 1989. The celebrant was Bishop Joseph Francis, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark.

Each pastor envisions a parish from the vantage point of knowing the needs of his parishioners, his life experience and one or more of the models of the Church, espoused by Vatican II. Looking back at Father Holmes’ pastorate, he strove to build up the community model of the parish. Shortly after his arrival, he invited parishioners to send vacation postcards “home” to the parish, where they were displayed in the vestibule of the church. That same year, the special Labor Day Mass was inaugurated. Parishioners were invited to bring to the Mass symbols of their work or avocations. At the offertory, these were brought forward and placed in the sanctuary. After Mass, these, and all present, were given a special blessing and invited to partake of a continental breakfast.

The following year (1990), the parish Labor Day Picnic was added In 1993, Father Holmes began the practice of having families light the Advent Wreath at Mass. 1994 saw the introduction of the Giving Tree. There were many other outreaches to those in need, whether the need was physical or emotional. In 1990, parishioners unable to be with family members on Thanksgiving were invited to share Thanksgiving with Father Holmes at the rectory.

Like all good stewards, Father Holmes had to attend to the physical plant as well. The church windows needed attention, as did the boiler. By 1994, the floor of the church between the choir area and the Saint Joseph shrine was perceptively sinking. This required the removal of the first five pews, replacement of the rotted wood below the floor and new matching terrazzo flooring put down.

Growth in knowledge of the scriptures was encouraged through Lenten Scripture Study programs, Scripture Safari for grades K-3 during the summer, and an Advent series conducted by Father Holmes. The Franciscan Friars also conducted a mission in 1991.

In 1992, a financial campaign, Looking Toward the 21st Century, was conducted and the plaque listing the contributors was placed in the vestibule of the church.

During this time, the school continued to flourish under the leadership of Sister Patricia McCarthy. In 1992, the school applied for accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Elementary Schools. After an intense two year self-study, the MSC visited the school, evaluated the work, programs, and faculty of the school and in 1994 accreditation was granted.

Longstanding organizations such as CCD, RCIA, the Rosary Society, Youth Groups, School Parent/Teachers Association, Senior Citizens and Food Pantry continued to serve the parish.

In June of 1995, Father Holmes celebrated his 30th anniversary as a priest. It also marked the end of his pastorate at Saint Peter Parish. He was reassigned to Corpus Christi Parish in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, where he is still serving.

When Father Holmes was reassigned, Monsignor Joseph Slinger, came to Saint Peter as pastor. He brought with him a wealth of experience, both in education and in parish life. Holding a degree in Theology from Catholic University, Monsignor Slinger also had a master’s degree and a doctorate from Fordham University in sociology. He had been a professor in and chairman of the Sociology, Criminal Justice and Anthropology Department at Seton Hall University. At the same time, he served as a weekend assistant at Holy Family Parish in Nutley. At one point, he was also Associate Provost at Seton Hall University. Additional parish experience was as pastor at Saint Paul Parish in Jersey City and at Holy Trinity Parish in Hackensack.

During his short tenure at Saint Peter Parish (1995-1997), Monsignor Slinger continued the expansion of spiritually enriching activities. The Little Rock Scripture Study program was begun. It included in depth discussion of each week’s topic among the small group leaders before the actual groups met. These discussions were led by Monsignor Slinger. The Cornerstone overnight retreat program for adults was begun at this time. Groups of men or women would meet in the school auditorium. Prayer, large and small group sharing, discussion and community building presented an opportunity for those attending to deepen their faith and form close friendships. Support groups for separated/divorced Catholics and for the bereaved also met at this time.

Monsignor Slinger was also responsible for initiating the yearly event known as Saint Joseph’s Table. This is a venerable Italian tradition reaching back to the Middle Ages. It has the pain of drought and hunger in Sicily as its roots. The tradition says that through prayer to God and Saint Joseph, the drought was relieved, the crops planted and famine avoided. In thanksgiving, the people of the area began a yearly festival honoring Saint Joseph for his intercession and in praise of God’s mercy. Its focus has remained the same throughout the centuries; its celebration influenced by the regional interpretations of the people celebrating. The tradition came to the United States with the large migration of people from Sicily in the early 20thcentury. It is a time to recall and honor heritage and family and to reach out to those in need.

These were all additions to the already varied activities sponsored by the parish. Such events as the Annual School Carnival continued to build community. In his short pastorate, Monsignor Slinger also improved the image of the parish by installing a new bell system While the old bell still remains (and can be rung) in the belfry, Monsignor Slinger had an automated carillon installed. The many hymns that call us to worship are played on the carillon.

In 1999, Monsignor Slinger was appointed Vicar General for Human Services for the Archdiocese of Newark, with residency at the Cathedral rectory, and so, his tenure here ended. He currently serves as the Archbishop’s Liaison to the Cathedral Health Care System.

With the appointment of Father Joseph Girone as pastor of Saint Peter’s in 1997, the parish would have the longest serving pastor since Bishop Costello. Having grown up in Hoboken and West New York, New Jersey, Father Girone was already familiar with the many cultures that were emerging in the parish. His education and experience before ordination were also a plus. Father Girone holds a BA in English Literature from Fordham University, Teacher’s Accreditation from William Paterson University and a Master’s in Divinity from Immaculate Conception Seminary. Before his ordination in 1983, Father Girone taught at his alma mater, Saint Joseph High School, West New York, New Jersey (1973-1977). After ordination, he was assigned to Holy Trinity Parish in Hackensack, then to Saints Peter and Paul in Hoboken, and Saint Mary of the Assumption in Elizabeth, finally as pastor of Saint Peter. The parish celebrated his installation on September 14, 1997, with Bishop Nicholas Di Marzio, Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, as the main celebrant.

Father Girone faced a host of maintenance issues that he had to resolve: painting of the interiors of both the school and later the church; replacement of the school’s windows and repair of the stained glass windows in the church. There was also the need to repair the church doors, replace the heating system in the church and updating the lighting in the school auditorium. Many of the educational, spiritual and community building programs were continued and others were added.

As the last Sisters of Charity present at Saint Peter School went into retirement in 2005, plans for responsible use of the convent were explored. The decision to use the building as a Retreat Center under the stewardship of the John XXIII Movement opened avenues for many groups, both in the parish and in the surrounding areas. The Vietnamese community has used the Retreat Center for weekly Mass and for weekend retreats, as have the members of John XXIII.

Broadening the cultural base of the parish, during Advent each year, Saint Peter Parish has become one of the sites for the Filipino celebration of Simbang-Gabi. A parish wide dinner dance at which individual parishioners are honored for their service to the parish has been sponsored by the Hispanic Community.

The Community Cluster of the Pastoral Council regularly plans and caters (with the assistance of the Knights of Columbus) a Volunteers Dinner for all those involved in the various ministries of the parish.

They have successfully sponsored a fund raiser for the benefit of the school, and on occasion have been able to obtain tickets for a theater trip for parishioners.

Larger celebrations also dotted Father Girone’s pastorate. In addition to his installation, the parish celebrated the 25thAnniversary of Ordination for Father Mark O’Connell, the 25thAnniversary of the Rededication of the Church (September 14, 2003), and on May 3, 2008, the 25th Anniversary of Ordination for Father Girone. The celebrant for the Rededication Mass was Most Reverend Peter L. Gerety, Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Newark.

A part of Father Girone was missionary. He frequently visited Central and South America to work among the poor. But there was also the tour guide in him. He led parishioners on pilgrimages to Italy and France.

A venerable tradition, a Communion Breakfast, returned to Saint Peter Parish during this time. Under the auspices of the Belleville Irish American Association, the breakfast was held after the 8:30 AM Mass, attended by the membership and guests.

Saint Peter Parish has always been an integral part of the universal church community. As participants in the Time, Treasure and Talent Stewardship Program of the Archdiocese of Newark, many parishioners are involved in the myriad programs of the parish. Each year the parish has exceeded its goal for the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, and participated in the self-study of the parish’s strengths and weaknesses, monitored by the Archdiocese. Saint Michael Parish in Newark is our partner parish through this program.

In 2009, Father Girone’s term as pastor came to an end. He was granted a sabbatical: six months of study in Rome, and six months of missionary work in Central America. In 2010, he was appointed pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Harrison, New Jersey, with administration of Saint Anthony Parish in East Newark, New Jersey.

In July of 2009, the parishioners of Saint Peter Parish welcomed their twenty-sixth spiritual leader, Father Ivan Sciberras. His installation as pastor was celebrated on September 19, 2009. Bishop Edgar M. DaCunha, SDV, Regional Bishop of Essex County and Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Newark, was the main celebrant. A parish reception was held in the school auditorium following the Mass.

Father Sciberras was born and raised in Malta. At the age of 22, he came to the United States to enter Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary in Kearny, New Jersey. After receiving his Master’s in Divinity from Seton Hall University, he was ordained by Archbishop (now Cardinal) Theodore E. McCarrick on May 29, 1999. Prior to his assignment here, Father Sciberras was parochial vicar at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Ridgewood, New Jersey, and served the Archdiocese of Agana, in the Mariana Islands, as Vice-Rector of the Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary of Guam.

Father Sciberras’ emphasis to date has been focused on liturgy, in all of its expressions. Being himself a product of Catholic education, Father Sciberras sees the growth of Saint Peter’s School as one of the parish’s main priorities. As Saint Peter Parish continues to grow spiritually, culturally, and educationally, there will be, undoubtedly, many challenges to face. The town of Belleville has undergone an amazing ethnic shift since the beginning of the new millennium. Saint Peter Parish continues to be a beacon of hope for all the different ethnic groups.

Just as our nation’s history is retold in the context of our presidents, so parish histories are told within the framework of the pastors who have molded and served the parish. The parochial Vicars (or curates, as they were once called) that served Saint Peter Parish along with our pastors are many. One also needs to take note of the sterling service offered by our two permanent deacons: Guillermo Valladares (ordained in 1976) and Julio Roig (ordained in 1998). Space does not allow for all their achievements and contributions to be listed, but to them and the thousands of parishioners who devoted their time, talent and treasure to the good works of our parish over the nearly 175 years of parish history, our debt and gratitude is enormous. Our parish looks forward to the celebration of its 175th Anniversary in 2013 and the centennial of our church building (2014).

Compiled from the published histories of the parish in 1938 and 1988, from the Archives of the parish, from interviews with parishioners, and from internet research. Dated: March 2011 (K. Masker)