Story and photos by Rick Geffken
HOLMDEL – Old St. Catharine’s Church at 84 Stillwell Road, built in 1879, is going to get some TLC.
On Wednesday, Feb. 15, the 30 members of the newly revitalized Holmdel Historical Society will hold a Volunteer Cleanup Day from 12:30 to 2 p.m. in an effort to spruce up the building’s weathered appearance.
President Peter Maneri, Vice President Sylvia Allen, and Treasurer Rhonda Beck-Edwards are excited about restoring the long-neglected church. “It’s a lot more work than we thought it would be,” said Beck-Edwards, “but well worth preserving our history.”
Beck-Edwards and Maneri, both Holmdel residents who are agent partners for Gloria Nilson & Co. Real Estate, often finish each other’s sentences when they talk about the township’s first Roman Catholic Church.
After being empty of parishioners for years, the vacant building became infested with small rodents and other animals. The building’s century-and-a-half foundation sagged, and the vagaries of weather did the usual damage. Maneri says they’ll need to raise funds to raise the church before they put a new foundation under it, and a new “box beam” to strengthen it. The society hopes to have a special collection for their restoration efforts taken up at the successor St. Catharine’s Church nearby on Middletown Road in the near future.
“I personally like refurbishing old things,” says Maneri who has a background in home repairs. On Feb. 15, the society will be ready for volunteers with paint, hats, masks and gloves. “We just need people to help us prep the wall panels and paint them white for our spring events. We’ll provide pizza for the workers, and maybe a tent where we can sort through and organize everything.”
In 1879, Father Michael L. Glennon put up the 25 by 75 foot church in what was then known as the Morrisville section of Holmdel during just nine months in 1879. Ordained a priest just two years before, Fr. Glennon was living at St. James Parish in Red Bank while construction was underway, and as Beck-Edwards tells it “He would leave Red Bank on Sunday mornings, get on a horse named Sabbath, and ride to Holmdel in rain, snow, sleet, and ice. He never missed saying a Mass here.”
It’s unclear why this Irish immigrant cleric dedicated his church to St. Catharine of Genoa in Italy. The new wooden structure seated about 100 people under its slate roof which today remains mostly intact, with a few shingles falling off from time to time. The still well-preserved wooden altar rail was ornately carved, as was the marble altar. The altar adorned the sanctuary such that the officiating priests did not face the congregation during Mass. Most of the Old St. Catharine’s time as an active Catholic Church was before the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1959 when the old Latin rituals were still observed. In May of 1975, two years after the newer St. Catharine’s was dedicated at a location between Middletown Road and Crawfords Corner Road, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Trenton gave the church and property to the Holmdel Historical Society for a dollar.
Unique to a small church, Old St. Catharine’s has three large ornamental glass stars built into the tongue and groove bead board ceiling. The metal hooks for the chains of suspended gas chandeliers still protrude from the centers of those stars. The thirteen cracked stained glass windows were added in 1914. Though a few small panels are missing, given enough money, they’re perfectly restorable. The choir loft accommodated an organ and a dozen or so members. The loft will need some work as well.
The Holmdel Historical Society researches, preserves, and interprets the history and architectural history of the town, one of the oldest European settlement sites in Monmouth County. The society acquired a number of artifacts when longtime township resident Helen Maher passed away in 2010. Among its holdings are an ancient printing press (origin unknown), historic portraits of local residents (Dr. Cooke), signs of World War II vintage (“Defense Council Control Center”), and other bric-a-brac.
The restoration of St. Catharine’s is the society’s primary 2017 goal. Volunteers for the cleanup on Feb. 15, and potential new members can contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the group’s website at holmdelhistoricalsociety.org. Rhonda Beck-Edwards can be reached directly at 732-685-4450.
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