Fire Guts Reminder Of Passionist Presence

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by Michael Wojcik
[From The Catholic Advocate, November 2, 1994]

The locals sometime talk about the five separate fires that have ravaged St. Michael’s Monastery property during the past century.

But Father Kilian McGowan likes to remember the Passionist Fathers and Brothers’ Union City monastery as a “friend” he knew for the final 50 years of its 130-year existence.

In its final chapter, the now-abandoned monastery on Aug. 19 lost its battle against a three-alarm blaze that destroyed the structure and threatened to spread to nearby buildings.

Nevertheless, Father McGowan, the Passionists’ social concerns director, recalls the monastery with fond words in a recent history of the building.

“It had been a holy place, rich in history and achievements…,” he wrote, adding that it played a part “in helping me achieve my own personal destiny.”

Although the Passionists sold the building in 1984, many residents had fond memories as they watched it burn in August, Father McGowan said.

“…Many watchers of the conflagration mentioned, some with tears in their eyes, what the monastery had meant to them and their families over the years,” he wrote.

The three-story monastery became a much-loved center of activity and was considered Hudson County’s “Mother Church” earlier this century, he said.

In 1851, the Passionists arrived in what was then West Hoboken, purchased property and completed the monastery in 1864, according to the order’s historical records.

It served as the Passionists’ seat of leadership for the Northeast and, along with other regional monasteries, trained men for the priesthood and priests and brothers for missionary work abroad.

“It was the focus of our communal life,” Provincial Archivist Father Morgan Hanlon said of the monastery.

Throughout the 20th century, Passionists have given witness to Christ in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia and the Philippines.

Religious life at the monastery centered around prayer. Often, neighbors could hear religious chanting float from the chapel at 2 a.m.

In 1869, the Passionists built the monastery church which, at the time, was the largest monastic church in the East, historical documents state.

Around the turn of the century, the monastery sustained its first fire but the incident caused little property damage.

The early 1900s saw a broad expansion of the monastery with the addition of a south wing in 1919 and a northern wing in 1929 which contained a new chapel, library and kitchen.

With its popular Monday devotions, the monastery broke local attendance records in the 1920s by attracting more than 35,000 faithful in a single day.

During the Great Depression, the Passionists cared for Union City needy by mortgaging the property and lending money to residents whose homes were threatened with foreclosure.

Most of these loans were never repaid, according to the Passionist history.

Then, tragedy struck on May 31, 1934, when a blaze leveled the monastic church and drove to tears many who visited the devastation the following day.

Despite the loss, the order rebuilt the church in 1936 and also added a two-story provincial wing to the monastery years later in 1944.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, about 100 priests, brothers and seminarians lived there, while the Passionist magazine The Sign was thriving and contributing greatly to the city’s economy.

However, the order moved from the monastery to The Sign headquarters across the street in 1982 and closed the 51-year-old magazine later that year.

In 1984, a Presbyterian congregation bought the church, and a local developer purchased the monastery and accompanying property.

Condominiums were erected on one side of the property, but, because of legal wranglings, the monastery and the remaining land currently stand idle.

The abandoned building sustained a fire in 1984, which damaged the roof and southeast wing, while another fire razed the condominiums in 1990.

Calling the vacant hulk of the monastery an “eyesore,” Father Hanlon said the building has been vandalized frequently and should be demolished.

Today, the Passionists continue to serve Hudson County from their headquarters in the former magazine offices on Monastery Place, Union City.

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