St. Mary’s in Hackettstown Marks 100th anniversary

 

by

Elsie Walker

 

Its name is Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but most people in Hackettstown know it as “St. Mary’s”.  This year, the church at 302 High Street marks the 100th anniversary of the laying of its cornerstone.   Recently, town historian and lifelong parishioner of the church, Raymond Lemasters, shared some history he’s gathered on the church’s early days and the church’s Administrator, Father Leo Salvania, talked about the church today.

Lemasters would tell you that history shows the origin of the church can be traced back to potatoes.  In 1845, a potato famine in Ireland caused many to immigrate to the United States. (Potatoes were a food staple in Ireland).  Many of the Irish families coming to New Jersey settled in Hackettstown to work for the railroad. (Lemasters noted that at one point in its history, there were so many families of Irish descent on what is now Liberty Street near the railroad that the Hackettstown Directory simply listed the area as “Dublin”.)  A Catholic congregation formed, and the first Mass was celebrated by Father McMahon in the home of one of the Hackettstown parishioners.  However, Lemasters has shared that, “To serve a growing congregation, The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary was officially incorporated on September 7, 1864.  A church was soon built at 142 Liberty Street.”  (That building is now the Knights of Columbus Hall.)  The congregation continued to grow and there was need for a new church. 

On September 24, 1922, the blessing and laying of the cornerstone of the current church on High Street took place.  The pastor at this time was Father Joseph A. McGrath.   An article on the groundbreaking of the church in the Hackettstown Gazette, reported that nearly 500 people attended that ceremony and that it was officiated over by Bishop Thomas J. Walsh.  Lemasters noted, “Several visiting clergymen participated including Father Baldwin of Mt. St. Mary’s College, Plainfield, Father Foley of Oxford, Father Haggerty of Hampton, Father Harding of Phillipsburg, Father Schwartz of New Brunswick, Father Strensky of South Amboy and Father Waldron of Scotch Plains.” Lemasters also noted that “the foundation for the new church was hand-dug by several men of the parish.  They each received a heartfelt thanks from the parishioners plus a small souvenir jar of dirt from the excavation.

Since that day, the church has seen many milestones.  A few of them from Lemasters’ historical account include the following: 

 

On June 10, 1923, the Joyce Kilmer Council of the Knights of Columbus was founded. It was named for poet Joyce Kilmer, a New Jersey native who was killed in action during World War I.  Lemasters explained what the Knights of Columbus is: “[it] is a Catholic men’s fraternal benefit society that was formed to provide financial aid to members and their families. Mutual aid and assistance are offered to sick, disabled and needy members and their families. Social and intellectual fellowship is promoted among members and their families through educational, charitable, religious, social welfare, war relief and public relief works.”

 

June 17, 1923 saw St. Mary’s, the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, dedicated by the Most Reverend Thomas J. Walsh, Bishop of Trenton.  A High Mass was celebrated with a sermon by Monsignor John W. Norris.  Later, on December 20, 1923,  Father Joseph P. Sergel arrived in Hackettstown to assume the duties of pastor, a role he would have for almost 40 years. 

 

Another milestone was the church’s addition of a parochial school which Lemasters shared he attended.  The idea for the school was conceived  in the late 1940s by Father Sergel.  By the early 1950’s, the school was open for grades K-4. (Classes were taught by nuns from the order of Sisters of Christian Charity of Mendham for whom a nearby residence had been purchased to serve as a convent). The school grew, and in 1956, the first eighth grade class graduated.  However, decades later, the school closed after the 2012-2013 school year due to dwindling enrollment.  

 

While the church has seen many changes over the years, one thing that is a constant is its dedication to supporting the spiritual growth of the Catholic community of Hackettstown and serving others.

Father Leo Salvania was appointed Administrator on August 1, 2022.  He noted that what the congregation does comes from the mass and the Eucharist, they  “take [it] to heart, putting [it] into action, to better serve the community.”   St. Mary’s serves many poor families through its food pantry which is open on Tuesday and Saturdays.  It has an altar rosary, Knights of Columbus, gives out Thanksgiving baskets to those at need for the holiday, and has a giving tree ministry at Christmas.  There is the ministry of prayer where people pray for the needs of the church at a certain time every day.

Salvania shared that St. Mary’s is “key in the faith formation of the Catholic community of Hackettstown.”

 

 

 

 

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