Glimpses of the Past
From booklet for Centenary of St. Michael’s Church, Union City, 1975
” the charming village an arm’s length away … overlooking the majestic Hudson … with it’s many splendid estates, expansive farm lands and a scattering of small homes. Here the well to do of the city of New York would build their villas so as to retreat from the congestion of the city.”*
In these bucolic words, a nineteenth century chronicler described the village of West Hoboken, now known as Union City. It was into this peaceful setting that Father Anthony Cauvin would come in July of 1851 to undertake the establishment of the Church in what is now the area of Hudson and Bergen Counties. Until that time, the Catholics from Bergen Point to Fort Lee had to travel to New York City for Mass and the Sacraments on a regular basis. However, the arrival of Father Cauvin was the sign that the Church in New Jersey had come of age.
Father Cauvin wasted no time in beginning his ministry. Less than a month after his arrival, he would begin construction on the first church in the entire area. For a location, he chose the ‘charming village’ of West Hoboken, this being the most centrally located town in his vast territory. Through the generosity of the Kerrigan family and the other parishioners, the Church of Our Lady of Mercy was dedicated on November 23, 1851. Fr. Cauvin’s own devotion to Our Lady of Mercy and the handsome gift of a reproduction of the famous painting at Rimini, of Our Lady of Mercy, from Cardinal Brignole-Sale determined the name of that early church, though it came to be known simply as “St. Mary’s”.
For the next nine years, Fr. Cauvin would labor tirelessly in the area, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become one of the largest concentrations of Catholicism in the country.
The present St. Michael’s Parish is a development of the original St. Mary’s Parish of West Hoboken. The Church was a small frame structure at the corner of Clinton Ave. and High Street, erected on ground donated by the head of the well-known Kerrigan family. After having been in the charge of Fr. Cauvin for a number of years, the parish was entrusted to the spiritual care of the Passionist Fathers in the year 1861 by the Right Rev. James Roosevelt Bailey, bishop of Newark.
The Passionists took formal possession of St. Mary’s in a rather interesting ceremony on the morning of April 21, 1861. Father Cauvin in surplice and stole accompanied by his assistant, Fr. De Concilio, met Fr. John Dominic and three other Passionists at the door of the church. Handing the keys of the church and tabernacle to Fr. John Dominic, Fr. Cauvin took off his stole and placed it round the neck of Fr. John Dominic thus indicating the transfer of all authority and jurisdiction over the church and its missions. Fr. Cauvin then exhorted the congregation to receive the missionary Fathers with love and gratitude, as they would Jesus Christ Himself. Fr. John Dominic sang the Mass, and one of the other Passionists, Fr. Vincent Nagle, preached the installation sermon, which was described in a newspaper of the day as “very eloquent and highly satisfactory to the congregation.” With this ceremony, the Passionist Fathers took up their work at St. Mary’s, and became the first resident priests and pastors of North Hudson County.**
The Passionists of the Monastery would go forth to care for the people of the area, founding a large number of the parishes in towns we now know as Jersey City, Union Hill (now Union City), Guttenberg and many others. Their contribution to the Church in Hudson County is known in full only to God himself. But through it all, their pride and joy would be the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Combining the inspiration of the Passionists and the dedication of the people of St. Michael’s, a new Church was begun in 1869. It would be, in the words of an observer, “a colossal Church”. So massive was the undertaking that it would not be completed until six years later, in 1875. On July 4 of that year, Bishop Michael Corrigan, Bishop of what was by now the Diocese of Newark, would dedicate St. Michael’s amidst much regal celebration. It was indeed a “colossal Church”, topped by a magnificent dome rising 193 feet above the floor of the Church.
In the decades that followed, St. Michael’s was truly the “Mother Church” of Hudson County. The priests and people had embarked on a great undertaking and “the Monastery” would become known far and wide. Countless thousands would come from far and near to the Church on the hill. In the splendid Sanctuary many young men would be raised to the Priesthood and sent all over the nation to tend the needs of the rapidly growing Church in America.
St. Michael’s has not been an ordinary Parish Church. Because of its connection with the Monastery and the Passionist Fathers, it has been the scene of Episcopal Consecrations, receptions for Apostolic Delegates, Ordinations of several hundred Passionists. From the great Sanctuary, the first bands of Passionists would be sent to bring the Gospel to the interior of China, to the people of the Philippine Islands and the Island of Jamaica in the West Indies. The Church would become an institution, loved by many, the scene of untold thousands of Baptisms, Weddings and other celebrations. It would become famous not only for its architecture, rivaled in few places in America, but for the greatness of its people, the real strength of any great Church.
The years passed and many different Passionists would come and go. Probably the darkest day in the entire history of the parish was May 31, 1934. It was a Thursday, the Feast of Corpus Christi. That morning, the Church was the scene of a Solemn Mass and Procession in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Shortly before noon, billowing smoke and flames began pouring out of the windows of the dome. Whipped by a strong south wind, the flames spread rapidly. The Union City Fire Department arrived shortly and calls went out to neighboring fire departments for help. But in a short time, the fire had reached enormous proportions, visible from New York City across the river. Among those fighting the fire was Fr. Edward Banks, the immediate past pastor of St. Michael’s.
But the great quantity of men and equipment poured into the fire were all in vain. it raged all through the afternoon and night, with firemen pouring water on the smoldering embers until the following Sunday morning. The aftermath was a sad sight, only the massive walls remaining. At the height of the holocaust, the massive bell towers gave way, the huge bells falling with a crash heard for blocks. On that day, many men looked upon the ruins and wept openly. Even as the ruins smoldered, the decision was made to rebuild. As the legendary Phoenix, St. Michael’s would rise even more splendid from the ashes.
But as we said before, the strength of St. Michael’s lay not only in its thick walls, but also in the dedication, resolve and love of her people. Perhaps the most symbolic fact about the fire and the subsequent rebuilding of the. Church was the fact that the original bells were retrieved from the ashes and, though badly damaged, were returned to the foundry. There, broken and shattered, they would be melted down and recast. In May of 1935, almost on the anniversary of the fire, they would return to Union City, symbol to all of the determination of the people of St. Michael’s that fire could not permanently end the glorious history of “the Monastery”. On Sunday, June 3, Bishop Thomas McLaughlin, the Auxiliary Bishop of Newark, solemnly blessed the recast bells.
Then, 11 days later, on June 14, the workmen would hoist them to their place in the rebuilt towers. There, they would remind the faithful of the presence of the Church of St. Michael time and again. There they remain even until the present, unchanged except for the addition of an electrically operated ringing mechanism. Their tones are still heard all over. On Christmas Eve, 1971, they would once again bring fame to St. Michael’s as their full throated tones would inaugurate the nationwide broadcast of Midnight Mass over the NBC radio network. The bells that once lay broken and burned were heard from coast to coast.
With the assistance of the City Commissioners, the pastor Rev. Damian O’Rourke, C.P., began the erection of a large tent along side the ruins of the church to serve the parish until other plans could be made.
The architects for the restored Church were Maginnis and Walsh of Boston. Once the plans were made, they would coordinate the work of some 21 other builders. The response of people of St. Michael’s was well nigh overwhelming. They had been proud of “their Church” before the fire. In the following years, they would be proud again. Their dedication and self-sacrificing efforts would be rewarded. In the words of Charles D. Maginnis, the chief architect, St. Michael’s would be “architecturally of the grand manner”.
The great dome would rise again, towering 175 feet above the sidewalk. The “monumental silhouette” would once again be visible from New York and even Brooklyn.
The tears, the sadness of the fire would be wiped away on Sept. 29, 1936. On the feast of St. Michael, Bishop Walsh of Newark would rededicate the “new” St. Michael’s. That day brought an impressive gathering of Ecclesiastical dignitaries from all over the East Coast. But the most impressive part of the day was the people of St. Michael’s. They had come to rejoice at the realization of a dream, their dream. St. Michael’s stands as a monument to the cooperation and dedication of unknown hundreds and even thousands of people, their expression of praise to Almighty God for His blessings bestowed upon them.
For the past century, St. Michael’s has stood as a landmark, not only in the physical sense, but in a very real spiritual sense. “The Monastery” as it is known all over north Jersey has been something of a spiritual powerhouse for, literally, thousands of people. The Monday novena devotions drew crowds from all over the metropolitan area. Many older people recall the line for the devotions stretching all the way around the grounds, down the 21st Street side, nearly to Summit Avenue. Many people found spiritual help in the devotions to the Passionist saints. On several occasions, the help was well nigh miraculous.
From the beginning, the Passionists who staff St. Michael’s have sought to be leaders in the community at large. Civic events, celebrations and even tragedies have found them with the people they seek to serve, lending support, encouragement and leadership. Causes that would improve the lives of the people of the Parish have always attracted their interest and cooperation.
Recent years have found St. Michael’s showing the way in the effort to renew and adapt the Liturgy in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. In 1970, a small band of seven lay Lectors were the first members of the Laity to take their place in the celebration of the Liturgy. Their example obviously inspired others as the Lectors now number over forty, including men, women, young people and a large number of students of grammar school age. On Holy Thursday, April 11, 1974, Fr. Emmanuel Gardon, as Pastor, formally installed 13 members of the Parish as the first Lay Ministers of the Eucharist. They were among the first members of the Archdiocese mandated by Archbishop Boland at Sacred Heart Cathedral the previous Sunday to serve their fellow parishioners in this capacity.
St. Michael’s has always been noted for the quality of the music and the excellence of the Choir. The tradition of a long line of choirmasters is ably carried on now by Mr. Joseph Neglia, the present choirmaster. St. Michael’s Choir has brought much acclaim to the Church, both in the special programs and concerts presented in the Church and through the many outside appearances they are called on for each year.
St. Michael’s has endured for One Hundred Years. How has this been possible? Quite simply, God has abundantly blessed the Parish in that time in the person of many dedicated Passionists, Sisters of Charity who staff the school and, most importantly, many, many dedicated parishioners who have loved St. Michael’s dearly, expressing that love through their time, talents and efforts given for the glory of God through their Church.
We celebrate the Centennial with a Mass of Thanksgiving. Let us offer the Eucharist this day with hearts filled with gratitude to God for His abundant blessings. And may we all beseech Him to continue to bless the people of St. Michael’s with His choicest graces.
* “History of the Church in West Hoboken”
** We To You, Oct. 6, 1934