If St. Michael’s Monastery and Church could talk!

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Every morning I awake from my bed, look out the window and see the former St. Michael’s Church before my eyes. As one might expect such a view sets the stage for much reflection. On the one hand it is an historian’s dream. Before my eyes stands a legacy of a Passionist presence in the area since 1861. The cornerstone of the Monastery church was dedicated in 1869. Countless Passionists prayed in the church. Thousands of lay people made the novena. The spires and dome still dominate the skyline. On the other hand, while there are always some Passionists who lived and ministered from the monastery-church, as at any foundation, who might have found their days long, it is also true that time provides a sense of recollection and identification. When someone said “the monastery,” without a doubt that meant “the Passionists.” In 1981 the Passionist Monastery and Church closed. By the mid-1980s the Korean Presbyterian Church bought the Monastery Church. By the late 1990s, after a 1994 fire, two housing units had replaced the Monastery. Today few Passionists drive to Union City. Where the grave yard, now moved to North Arlington, New Jersey and the Stations of the Cross once stood, now exists an athletic field. Truly, it does not take much to let the memories flood to the surface when one speaks of the Passionists in Union City.

At the same time, my assignment as historian and director of the province archives here at the former Sign Magazine building is educational outreach. With this in mind, on October 15, 2001 I was able to arrange a tour of St. Michael’s Monastery Church for Professor James T. Fisher’s American Catholic History class from St. Peter’s College. Professor Fisher is the Will and Ariel Durant Chair of Humanities at St. Peter’s. With the gracious consent of Pastor Peter Kim of the Korean Presbyterian Church I was able to conduct a forty-five minute tour. Admittedly, it was emotional. I was a deacon at St. Michael’s in 1977. I first started working in the cigar drenched archives under the provincial wing directed by Father John Poole, C.P. When the last group of Passionists left I happened to be visiting. Yes, the memories can flood back quickly. During the tour I spoke to Professor Fisher, his class of about nine students, Pastor Kim, and Anita Lewis, the Passionist Archives Associate, about the vibrant ritual, architecture, and realities of the monastery and church. This church was a place of healing for many. It was also a place where, in the final years of the Passionist presence, the water pressure and heat were continual concerns. Historians have an obligation to be honest. I did my best. Teaching a part of history one has lived is never easy. Overall, the tour went well. Included below are five reflections from the students who made the tour. Please read them with an open mind and heart. In conclusion, this Sesquicentennial reflection offers a perspective on our one hundred and fifty years that demands creative attention. How do we judge success or failure of ministries. Because a foundation has closed is it lost from our language for the future? Dunkirk, Des Moines, St. Paul, Kansas, Nevada, and other foundations attest to our venturesome spirit. Sometimes the spirit moves. Does that mean the spirit dies? History keeps such questions of value before us as we celebrate the sesquicentennial.

It is worth noting that the Korean Presbyterians have an active summer school. The local high school band practices every Thursday on the athletic field. Korean hymns can be heard on Sunday morning from the church and people still walk down the street, pause, and make the Sign of the Cross. A sense of the sacred remains in Union City. Please read the reflections below aware of how a new generation interprets the sense of the sacred.

Reflection 1

As we look through history books, the changes that occur with the progression of time are obvious. Buildings are destroyed, sold, or modernized because of the economic difficulties or to better fit the needs of a community. Such has been the case of St. Michael’s Monastery after it was sold by the Passionist order to the Koreans Today, the church and its vast territory stands tall across the Jersey skyline. The tallness, the dark stones, and it’s architecture give away it’s significant historical importance. While on a Sunday drive or a simple stroll across town, one must wonder what exactly occurs or what occurred many years ago. Personally, these are questions that entered my mind.

When Professor Fischer announced the visit to St. Michael’s Monastery in Union City, part of my question was answered. That grand building was once a Catholic Church withholding a monastery. Immediately, I thought of the importance of the presence of a religious order in such a populated area. Having heard so often about the evangelization, I knew that St. Michael’s Monastery played an essential role where it was located and it certainly played a role in the process of evangelization.

The day soon arrived, when our class made it’s way to St. Michael’s. As I viewed the building from the parking lot it provided a feeling of strength and faith as the rough stones stretched up high. But as the Passionist priest who guided us described the manner in which they had lost the property, as a young Catholic I was saddened. Our entrance into the building made the emotion deeper as it was obvious that newcomers had made many changes. The beautiful, saintly statues that fill up a Catholic Church were missing, the size of the church was being decreased, the dome was covered. The chapel and other rooms that made up the magnificent structure seemed cold and dark. I gazed at the ceilings or at the floors and saw destroyed wood and peeling paint. I wondered how it would look if things were different and the Passionist Fathers continue to use the area for their formation and service of Christians. I knew it would be quite different.

When we walked across the street to where the archives were located, we were confronted with a beautiful, clean and modern building. I glanced over at the church with its missing statues and cross. I felt the loss the Passionists must have experienced as well as the local community. The difference of religion that had undergone was evident.

Reflection 2

Our visit to Saint Michael’s Church was most astonishing. To my surprise, the interior of the church was very beautiful. The stained glass windows reflected the sun in a beautiful and colorful way. The sculptures inside the church were designed with much effort and care. I was unaware that the church went below ground level. While walking throughout the church, I had a feeling of loneliness and a feeling that something was missing. This feeling probably comes from the fact that this church no longer is dedicated to the Catholic community.

Reflection 3

Based on my visit to St.Michael’s, there were two main reactions I had. These two reactions, however, are based on one factor, that the church faced over the many years: change. They are a feeling of being eclectic and a feeling of loss.

Because this church has so much history with diocesan Catholics and the Passionists, coupled with the highly diverse culture of Union City, this church has acted as a representation of that diversity. Now that the Presbyterian Koreans have taken over the Church, that culture and representation of faith can only add to the Church’s character and eclectic nature. The church itself shows this eclectic sense. We see the history of European architecture in the church itself, the stained glass windows of the basement dedicated to the active parishoners of the mid 1900s, and even now, the cultural significance of the Koreans. It is a huge symbol of inter-cultural activity and integration.

On the other hand, I was shocked to see the physical state of the church. It was difficult to appreciate the church in its entirety when many parts are sealed, i.e., parts of the nave, altar, and dome. The church should look like a cross (a human being). We were told that it was expensive to keep everything going smoothly in the church so I suppose that is why some parts are no longer in use, but it is a great misfortune and hindering feeling that this beautiful church had to be cut off.

Reflection 4

It was such a pleasure to be able to tour St. Michael’s Monastery last week. The literature you had given pertaining to the history of the parish was very interesting and extremely helpful. I can see how difficult it was to maintain such a parish when there were little priests and not enough funding. Losing something that shapes the community itself is often hard to accept. Unfortunately, these issues dominate the church even today. As a Catholic, I feel I have a connection to what embodies my parish. History is so important to the vitality of the parish community. St. Michael’s did indeed serve its purpose and was an exemplified disciple for all of those that called it “home.” I have a deep pride and admiration for St. Michael’s and will pray for a possible re-birth. Thank you again for such a lovely tour.

Reflection 5

The visit to St. Michael’s monastery was very interesting. I especially liked that they have preserved the historical features of the church. Furthermore, I liked the fact that the church continues to offer services for the community. For example, it has catechism for children and has a hall downstairs for social events.

Moreover, I find it amazing that St. Michael’s has survived two major fires. The architecture of the church remains beautiful. Finally, I enjoyed the tour of the church given by Rev. Rob Carbonneau so much. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in seeing the church and eager to know a little history.

Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Historian and Director of The Passionist Historical Archives.
November 19, 2001
Please contact me at [email protected] if you have any comments.

Copyright Passionist Historical Archives 2001. All rights reserved. Permission of Archives needed for publication.