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An end and a new beginning for Holy Communion, Paterson

Bishop Beckwith officiates at the last Eucharist Mass at The Church of the Holy Communion in Paterson. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO
Kirk Petersen
Bishop Beckwith officiates at the last Eucharist Mass at The Church of the Holy Communion in Paterson. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO

With smiles and tears and remembrance of things past, two dozen people braved the frigid cold on Sunday, January 7 to attend one last Eucharist Mass at The Church of the Holy Communion in Paterson. It was a service of appreciation for more than a century and a half of sometimes-tumultuous Episcopal ministry.

The frigid cold was not just outside, but in the worship space as well. The church’s handful of remaining parishioners had closed the building after their last regular service at the end of October, and there was some trouble getting the furnace started again.

Sunday’s reopening was an opportunity for a final visitation by the Rt. Rev. Mark Beckwith, Bishop of Newark. “Today in many ways in this cold church, we are having a funeral,” said Bishop Beckwith in his homily. “And God is here, and heaven and earth have come together.”

While wearing a stole over his heavy winter coat, Bishop Beckwith celebrated all the lives the church has touched, through generations of marriages, baptisms, funerals and worship. The church will be honored again in a few weeks at the annual Diocesan Convention.

The faithful few from Holy Communion have already moved on, to continue their worship and ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, also in Paterson, less than half a mile away.

On the first Sunday in November, “they processed into the service carrying one of their sacred vessels, one of their chalices,” said the Rev. Deacon Erik Soldwedel, who is deacon in residence at St. Paul’s while it prepares for a rector search.

“We’ve been using that chalice ever since,” Soldwedel said, adding that St. Paul’s has made other changes in response to the high-church tradition of Holy Communion. One of Holy Communion’s baptismal fonts became a holy water font at the entrance to St. Paul’s, which began ringing bells during the singing of the Sanctus. Holy Communion’s lectern is in St. Paul’s chapel.

One key measure of a church’s stability is its average Sunday attendance. At St. Paul’s, after some lean years because of internal strife, the ASA has recovered to about 135, which places it among the largest churches in the diocese. In the final years at Holy Communion, there were about 10 people in the pews on Sundays.

The five-member vestry decided in early 2017 that Holy Communion must close, said Richard McDowell, one of the wardens. The wardens of the two churches began meeting to plan the transition.

“Dwindling numbers meant dwindling donations, and it was just too much for us to handle. The church insurance premiums alone each quarter were $3,000-plus,” McDowell said. “We had to put a lot of money into the structure itself, because we had water coming into the ceiling, our furnace went – none of those things were cheap.”

Some costs will continue even though the church is closed, but McDowell said Holy Communion still has about $250,000 in the Diocesan Investment Trust.

“The building is now in the hands of the Trustees” of the diocese, said the Rev. Greg Jacobs, canon to the ordinary, who also attended the final service Sunday. The Trustees will determine the ultimate disposition of the 1873 building, along with the rectory across the street. The Trustees, who meet four times a year, began considering the matter at their December meeting, after Holy Communion officially closed.

If you include a short-lived predecessor church, Holy Communion provided its members a nomadic spiritual home in various locations in Paterson for 161 years. The church’s fortunes waxed and waned along with the city itself, which at about 147,000 people ranks below only Newark and Jersey City as the third most populous city in the state.

It used to be a very Episcopal city, the home of as many as seven Episcopal churches. “All those churches have closed except for this church (St. Paul’s), which was the mother church,” Soldwedel said.

One of the now-closed churches was St. Aidan’s African American Protestant Episcopal Church, where McDowell was worshipping when it was absorbed by Holy Communion in 1971. St. Aidan’s in turn had welcomed the membership of St. Mark’s Protestant Episcopal Church when that church closed in 1954.

Holy Communion itself closed once before, just a few years after the church opened under the name St. John’s Free Church in 1856. It was the second Episcopal church in the city, and according to The Ecclesiastical History of Paterson, NJ, the new church “met with determined opposition from the incumbent rector of St. Paul’s.” The church was launched again in 1866, and soon renamed itself The Church of the Holy Communion.

The congregation built the current building on Carroll Street, and began holding services there in 1872. In its earlier years, one of the places Holy Communion held services was a historic former Congregational church, which was destroyed in a devastating 1902 fire that consumed more than 450 buildings.

During an excavation for a railway line in 1884, quicksand was discovered under the Carroll Street building, and the congregation had to meet in rented halls while a concrete foundation was built. After years of litigation that helped put a severe financial strain on the church, Holy Communion recovered a mere $7,000 from the railroad.

The congregation, which had been affluent enough to build the church in the 1870s, was evicted after a foreclosure in 1909. They still had means enough to purchase a lot and construct a small brick building, where they held services for nearly three decades.

In 1934, a new rector “infused new life into the congregation that had been so consistently dogged by misfortune,” according to the history book of Paterson’s churches. Despite the Great Depression, or perhaps because of it, they were able to repurchase their former home on Carroll Street.

But like many urban churches, Holy Communion came under financial pressure as affluent city dwellers moved to leafy suburbs. By the time of its closure, Holy Communion had not had a rector for more than a decade, and was served by supply priests, McDowell said.

McDowell looked back at the milestones in his own family’s life, as celebrated at Holy Communion. He and his wife were married there, and their son was baptized and confirmed there. His wife’s funeral was held there just a few months ago – “the last funeral at Holy Communion,” he said. He wonders what will happen to Holy Communion’s beautiful stained-glass windows, as St. Paul’s already has Tiffany stained-glass windows of its own.

At the end of Sunday’s service, the bishop asked McDowell, who had served behind the altar for many years as a lay subdeacon, to give the dismissal. “The Mass has ended, but our service now begins,” he proclaimed in a clear, strong voice. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, alleluia, alleluia!”

And then, as the congregation gave the familiar response – “Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia!” – McDowell dissolved in tears. Bishop Beckwith hugged him to give comfort.

Closing a historic church is a sad occasion, and there’s no way to sugar-coat that. Something beloved has died. The service was a funeral, as the bishop said, but in this case the departed had been an important part of generations of lives since shortly after the Civil War.

There will be more such funerals. Throughout the country, the relentless pressure of dwindling membership and large expensive buildings continues to grind away for every mainline denomination, and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark is no exception.

Jacobs said “maybe 10%” of the nearly 100 churches in the diocese are likely to face similar transitions in the coming years. The decisions must come from within the congregation – the diocese’s role is to “be with them as they go through their discernment” and “give honor to those who have worked for so long,” he said.

Jacobs and Soldwedel praised the laity of both Holy Communion and St. Paul’s for how they have handled the transition. “If you’re looking for a textbook end to a ministry, this has been what you’d want to have happen,” Soldwedel said.

A church is more than just a building. “I know we’re closing, but another way to look at it is, we’re just moving our worship from one location to another,” McDowell said. He’s grateful that the people of St. Paul’s have “welcomed us as members of the family right away.”

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