By taking advantage of free resources available to all New Jersey houses of worship, St. Elizabeth’s, Ridgewood obtained a $100K grant that covered most of the cost of substantial security upgrades to their property. With that project now reaching completion, they are sharing what they learned in the process.
St. Elizabeth’s started the project shortly after Bishop Hughes, prompted by an increase in criminal incidents at houses of worship around the country, wrote a letter to all parishes in November 2019 inviting them to evaluate their buildings and create security and evacuation plans. While the crime rate in Ridgewood is fairly low, they did have some reasons for concern.
“That fall, there had been a few minor incidents of vandalism at St. Elizabeth’s, and that December the Most Blessed Sacrament Church in Franklin Lakes was burned to the ground by an arsonist,” says Peter Angelica, Senior Warden at St. Elizabeth’s.
Another consideration was that St. Elizabeth’s is a supporter of the Muslim Society of Ridgewood, and at one time Muslims had used St. Elizabeth’s for worship, with the imam issuing the call to prayer from their bell tower.
St. Elizabeth's serves as the designated emergency refuge for the grammar school immediately next door. "I thought, we need to really upgrade our processes so that we can actually offer something which is pretty close to the experience at their schools," says Angelica.
A December 2019 meeting of vestry and parishioners led to their inviting Lieutenant Peter Bolten of the Ridgewood Police Department to do a walk-through and make safety recommendations, which he did in January 2020. “More importantly,” Angelica says, “he connected us with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office to have them review our property for security purposes. This is a free service provided by the county to evaluate public spaces such as schools, houses of worship, hospitals, etc.”
In March 2020, William Stallone of the BCPO did a walk-through of St. Elizabeth’s buildings and recommended that they apply for a grant from the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security (NJOHS) to help cover the improvements needed. A few days after the walk-through, Stallone sent a comprehensive report with further observations and recommendations.
“This report was vital to our grant application, as it allowed it to be very specific as to what was needed,” says Angelica.
On July 1, 2020, St. Elizabeth’s was notified it was being granted the maximum amount of $100,000. The grant terminated after three years and required progress reports throughout that period. Every vendor and contractor had to be approved by the agency. Each invoice had to be submitted for approval before reimbursement could be made – a process that took weeks. “Grace Arscott, our Financial Administrator at the time, did all of this work, for which we are most grateful,” Angelica says.
A group of eight parishioners worked on the project with Angelica, Arscott, and the Rev. Andy Olivo, Rector of St. Elizabeth’s, breaking into subgroups to focus on different aspects.
St. Elizabeth’s security improvements include:
- Ensuring all windows are secure by adding missing latches and correcting improperly installed ones; covering all first floor and basement windows with shatterproof film; and installing Plexiglas covers over stained-glass windows that did not have them.
- Ensuring all doors are secure by changing the locks – “An unknown number of people had keys to the building,” says Angelica – and converting most to a key-fob system which allows them to schedule when doors are locked and unlocked, as well as to lock the building down quickly in case of an emergency. Doors remain locked on weekdays, with staff using the new electronic system to “buzz in” visitors. The same system also allows doors to be locked or unlocked remotely using a phone app.
- Ensuring the buildings’ perimeters are secure by installing closed-circuit cameras to survey the exterior of the church and Parish House, which can also be viewed using the phone app (no cameras are in the interior); installing gates at the top of exterior door wells; adding or replacing grates over window wells; adding or updating exterior lighting; and removing an old coal chute and some windows, which were replaced with masonry to match the church.
- Ensuring detection of a break-in by installing motion and sound detectors throughout the church and the Parish House, monitored by an outside firm.
The grant also paid for five years of cloud-hosted service for the doors and three years of alarm monitoring. After that, St. Elizabeth’s will have to carry those costs.
St. Elizabeth’s received the final reimbursement on September 3, 2023, utilizing the entire $100,000 grant. The NJOHS retains the right to review the invoices, competitive bids, and inspect the premises for the next 10 years.
Angelica says he’s happy to offer advice to churches looking to copy St. Elizabeth’s process, although, laughing, he adds, “I’m not interested in actually doing this again – it’s no walk in the park” due to the level of detail required to keep up with the grant requirements.
In a recent parish newsletter, Olivo wrote, “While St. Elizabeth’s will always be the warm, welcoming place that we are known for, I’m also very mindful that shootings and acts of violence at houses of worship are now commonplace in our country. It’s for that reason we will do all we can to keep our staff and parishioners safe.”