Dignity Restored To Historic Holmdel Church

March 31, 2018
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St. Catharine’s Church at 84 Stillwell Road in Holmdel was built in 1879, and is currently in the process of being restored by the Holmdel Historical Society. Its original rural neighborhood is now attracting large mansions. Photo by Chris Rotolo

By Chris Rotolo |

HOLMDEL – A once dilapidated link to the history of Holmdel and Monmouth County is being transformed from eyesore to attraction.

Located at 84 Stillwell Road near a luxury housing development on Palmetto Road, St. Catharine’s Church was constructed in 1879, becoming the first Catholic church in Holmdel, and the first Catholic church in the state of New Jersey to be dedicated to St. Catharine of Genoa, Italy.

Despite the history associated with the 25-by-75-foot church, according to Holmdel Historical Society treasurer Rhonda Beck-Edwards, the century-old building has been a talking point for nearby property owners, who over the years have witnessed its deterioration over the years.

“I’m sure there was a time when the people across the street in that development would have liked it torn down and cleared. And one of the reasons why someone would want it to go away is because of the land it’s built on,” Beck-Edwards said of the church’s quarter-acre corner plot.

“It’s a valuable piece of land to all neighboring properties, but when we began work on the church and gave it a little bit of a facelift, I can’t tell you the amount phone calls and positive feedback we received from the residents,” Beck-Edwards said. “People are genuinely happy about the way it looks and the progress being made. I think they just needed to see someone take the initiative and start the process.”

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In May 1975, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Trenton sold the St. Catharine’s Church property to the Holmdel Historical Society for $1, though only recently – in January 2017 – has the local organization taken steps to revitalize the property, in the wake of calls from developers and nearby home owners to remove the building.

When Beck-Edwards first took the reins of the project in 2016, she and her Historical Society colleagues were dismayed to find raccoons and other rodents had made a home in the house of worship.

After clearing the church of animal life, the group proceeded to organize the building’s contents and remove the sheetrock, revealing the original beaded woodwork in February 2017.

Seven months later, the church got a facelift when the organization had the exterior walls of St. Catharine’s sandblasted.

“We revealed the original wood last year and this year we’re going to be asking for volunteers to help us sand it down,” said Beck-Edwards. “And rather than painting the exterior, we’re going to stain the wood. I’m thankful that we do have the money to complete this next step in the process.”

According to Beck-Edwards, the Holmdel Historical Society has about $12,000 in a bank account dedicated to the restoration of St. Catharine’s, and though there are ample funds to complete the cosmetic work, the group is in search of donations to complete structural work.

“We’re currently looking for a structural engineer to provide us with a plan to fix the foundation,” Beck-Edwards said. “The foundation is the most important part of this process. There is some other maintenance and restoration that needs to be done, including the stained-glass windows, but if we don’t first deal with the foundation, then everything else really won’t matter.”

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When the Rev. Michael L. Glennon first began building St. Catharine’s Church in February 1879 – a construction he would complete just nine months later – the priest placed the physical structure atop a brick foundation, which has not stood the test of time, and in turn has caused the building to lean to the right.

“In 1879 they really weren’t educated on how to build proper foundations, so that’s why the church is tilted a bit,” Beck-Edwards said. “Our plan is to keep it simple and have a basic foundation set before moving on to anything else.”

The process has been slow-moving for Beck-Edwards – who works full time as an agent with Gloria Nilson & Co. Real Estate – but she has remained positive about the progress made by the Holmdel Historical Society.

“If you know anything about Holmdel, you know it’s a lovely place, but everything with any sort of historical meaning tends to get torn down and erased. It’s our mission not to allow that to happen with St. Catharine’s Church,” she said.

Beck-Edwards said the organization’s aim is to transform the church into a museum, a project she hopes they’ll have fully completed by 2025.

This article was first published in the March 22-29, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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