by Elsie Walker
The history of faith in the Mt. Olive area actually dates back to before it was even a township. The oldest church, the United Methodist Church of Flanders was founded in 1789. The 18th century also saw people of other denominations, who had been travelling to Chester for church services, decide to have a building for worship closer to home. First, a log building seating 40 was used, which Mt. Olive Township Historian Thea Dunkle shared was like “a community center, used for pretty much everything” and later another structure was built on the same site which could seat 75, with the welcomed addition of a stove for heat. There, the roots of what today are the Mt. Olive Community Bible Church and the United Presbyterian Church, Flanders worshipped, with a preacher coming there on a periodic basis. While over the past 150 years, some houses of worship have disappeared from the Mt. Olive landscape, others have come to call it “home”. Many have come for the same reasons the early churches were started: to be in a more easily accessible location for worshippers. Using information supplied by church members and previously published church profiles, plus information supplied by the Mt. Olive Township Historian, this is a historical look at those houses of worship which make up the spiritual landscape of Mt. Olive Township today.
Flanders United Methodist Church can boast many historical significances. The church was founded 1789, the same year that the first governor of New Jersey was elected; however, that’s not the only first the church has witnessed. In an interview for a profile on the church, the church’s pastor, Rev. Meekyung Choi Kim, noted that the church is considered the “mother church” of its denomination in this region, as it was the first Methodist Church in the northern New Jersey area. Although its current building is not the original one, Dunkle noted that the current building is the oldest church building that is still standing and used as a church in Mt. Olive Township. The pastor noted that the current building “was built in 1857 at a cost of approximately $4,000. The fellowship room was added in 1898 and the classroom wing was constructed in 1959.”
In addition to the United Methodist Church, two other churches with early roots are The Mt. Olive Community Bible Church and the United Presbyterian Church, Flanders. Both have the same origin: sharing early community structures for worship. According to Dunkle’s records, the first structure, a log church, was built on land given for its use in 1768, and served four denominations (Anabaptists, the Church of England, the Congregationalist and the Presbyterians). The records also share that “This log church served the local residents for 40 years. In 1808 began building a better place of worship on the same site. This second church was built in 1809 but not totally completed until 1818.” At that point, it was primarily the Baptists and Presbyterians worshipping there. In a profile of Mt. Olive Community Bible Church (former Mt. Olive Baptist Church), its pastor, Rev. Neil Lines noted for those first two early shared structures, the church name denoted a location rather than a denomination: the Roxbury Church for the first and the Schooley Mountain Church for the second.
In the 1850s, the Baptist and Presbyterian congregations decided to build their own houses of worship. Dunkle said that they dismantled the building they were sharing and materials from it were sold off and the proceeds were split between the two denominations.
In a profile of his church, Lines notes that in 1855, the then Baptist congregation built a structure all its own. The new structure was built of stone drawn from the mountains by oxen on sledge and was located on Drakestown Road. In the late 1800s, the church changed its name from the Schooley Mountain Church to the Mt. Olive Baptist Church. That building is no longer used by the church, as a new one was built in the 20th century.
“In reference to our present church, it was built in the mid 70’s by our church as a Sunday School building. We allowed the public schools to use it during the week in the late 70’s. In the early 80’s, the town no longer needed the space. We subsequently renovated the inside to accommodate our need for a larger body of parishioners and moved in, making it our new and present church. We continued to use our old church until it was donated to the town,” Lines shared.
In 2003, the church changed its name to The Mount Olive Community Bible Church. “The reason the congregation chose a new name was to avoid being labeled as a certain denomination and to appeal to a wider spectrum of church seekers who may come from a variety of religious backgrounds,” said Lines.
Like the Mt. Olive Community Bible Church, the United Presbyterian Church – Flanders can trace its origins back to the early community structures, the second of which was dismantled with the Baptists and Presbyterians then each building its own house of worship. Dunkle shared the following information, “Prior to the agreement to separate, the Presbyterian services were still organized by the Chester Church and services were only held every two weeks or sometimes only once a month by the pastor coming from Chester for services. Earlier in 1834, 48 members of the Chester Church were granted certificates of membership and dismissed to form the Presbyterian Church of Mt. Olive. On September 30, 1852 the cornerstone was laid for this new church. The Presbyterians entered their new house of worship in 1854. Various ministers served this church until 1856, when the Mt Olive and Flanders Presbyterian Church united with one pastor for the next 10 years. From then until 1930, the church thrived and was very active. By 1930 enrollment had dropped, people moved away and economy was on the decline. The church was closed for two and a half years. Discussion began in 1957 to possibly merge the Mt Olive Church and the First Presbyterian Church of Flanders.”
In a profile of the church, Church Historian, Faithe Ludlow of Chester Township, had shared that the churches merged in 1959, becoming the United Presbyterian Church, Flanders. Ludlow noted that the new church occupied a church building on Main Street, Flanders. However, over time, the congregation grew and wanted more room. Land was purchased and building started. The result is the present building on Drakesdale Road, which the church moved into in 1983.
There’s one church which can trace its beginnings to the same year as the start of the township: the Budd Lake Chapel (once known as Budd Lake Union Chapel) at 54 Sandshore Road. Dunkle shared the history of this congregation and its church: “In 1871, Mrs. John Chipps helped to organize a Sunday School at the residence of John Budd. Mrs. Budd was delighted as they were accustomed to walking to and from Chester to attend the Chester Church. On August 14, 1872, John Budd deeded the land on which the Union Chapel stands to the trustees of the church. There were some stipulations in the deed. [The] Church was to be interdenominational. If the church abandoned the land, it reverted back to the Budd Family. The church had to build within two years. Groundbreaking was on October 15, 1873. The church was completed on August 7, 1874 and cost $3,500. The dedication was in August 1875. All requirements were met. Sunday School continued, and continued to grow in attendance. A small building was added to the chapel in 1960 and is known as Faith Hall.” Later, the church purchased some nearby property for church gatherings and events. The church refers to it as “the Lord’s oasis”.
While some churches can boast ties back to the 18th and 19th century, other churches are “youngsters” in comparison, making their appearance in Mt. Olive Township in the 20th century.
One of those is St. Jude Parish, which began as a mission of St Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Netcong. Dunkle shared information that “mass [was given] at the Budd Lake Pavilion for the summer residents’ convenience. Mass was then held at the Budd Lake Inn, which has changed owners and names through the years but is next to the Budd Lake Post. Later, members contributed money and services and fundraising events were held to build their own church. The church was constructed and completed before the end of 1946. Later, a parish hall and rectory were added. In November 1986, a decision was made to build a new parish church because of the growth of the parish. The new church was completed in May 1990.”
Coming onto the spiritual landscape at the end of the 1960s was The Mount Olive Jewish Center (Temple Hatikvah). Larry Leibowitz, President of Temple Hatikvah said, “The goal was to establish a Jewish Conservative congregation. The nearest Conservative temple was in Dover; the nearest temple (Temple Shalom) was, and [still] is Reform. Neither met the needs of the ‘founders’, who were younger under 40, for the most part, and wanted to establish our own presence.” In 1969, the temple’s incorporation papers established it as The Mount Olive Jewish Center, congregationally named Hatikvah. Leibowitz explained that “Hatikvah” is the Hebrew word for “Hope” and is also the national anthem of the State of Israel. “The names were used interchangeably over the first few years, with Hatikvah winning out. The building was constructed in 1977, with an addition in 1990. Between 1973 and 1977, we had been meeting in rented space in the Village Shopping Center,” said Leibowitz.
The migration of Scandinavian descendants into Mt. Olive Township, many of them Lutheran, prompted the start of one church in the 1970s. According to a church profile of Abiding Peace Lutheran Church in Budd Lake, the Division for Mission in North America, Lutheran Church in America, had started planning for a new congregation in the Morris, Sussex, and Warren area in the late 1960’s. The profile notes that “One of the reasons the Budd Lake site was selected was the growing number of Scandinavian descendants then moving to Vasa Park.” The congregation was formally organized on May 9, 1971 and met at a local school and in members’ homes until it had its own building, which was dedicated in June 1978.
In the 1980s, St. Elizabeth Seton Parish, Calvary Bible Chapel, and Mountaintop Church were added to Mt. Olive’s growing faith community. Calvary Bible Chapel, as shared in a church profile, began in 1983 when some Christians wanted to establish a church in Mt. Olive. For a little over a year, they met at the Tinc Elementary School, then they purchased the old Presbyterian church building on Main Street in Flanders, where Calvary Chapel is still located. As for the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, Dunkle shared that for many years, many Catholics in the Flanders area traveled to surrounding parishes to attend mass. In 1974, when the population grew in the Clover Hill area, St. Lawrence Church of Chester began Masses and Religious Education classes at Mt. View School. The seeds for a new parish were sown in those masses. On June 24, 1985, it became St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. The other house of worship to come on the scene is Mountaintop Church on Naughright Road. As noted in its church profile, “Mountaintop Church was founded in the 1980’s by Pastor Ken Young, a quadriplegic, and originally named Bethesda Christian Church. Young’s goal was to offer hope to the handicapped. However, by the 1990’s, the church’s name had been changed to Mountaintop Church and Young had developed health complications and could no longer pastor.” Pastor Matt Jones came to the church. When Jones arrived, the congregation only numbered about a dozen people and Jones thought he was coming to close the church. Instead, working with the determined congregation, the church grew. It is an Assemblies of God church.
The 1990s saw an Episcopal church come to Mt. Olive Township. In a church profile, church member, Raymond Bonker, of Byram, shared that, “Christ Episcopal Church was originally formed in 1865 and located in Stanhope. It served as a mission church within the Diocese of Newark until 1981, when it was upgraded to parish status, meaning that the church was self-supporting in terms of finances and clergy. The Stanhope church was sold and the congregation moved to its present location at the corner of Sandshore and Smithtown Roads in the Budd Lake section of Mt. Olive in 1993.”
The 21st century, has continued to see growth in Mt. Olive Township’s faith community. As a profile notes, “Around 1999, a group of seven – eight Muslim families came together in the Budd Lake area to worship and built ties. The Islamic Society of North Jersey (ISNJ) was formally established in 2006 with 75 members and now has over 200. Another house of worship, New Beginning Bible Church, in Flanders began in June 2007. First meeting in a member’s backyard, the church met a variety of places before finding a home at 104 Bartley Flanders Road.
The latest houses of worship to be added to Mt. Olive’s faith history are St. Thomas Orthodox Church and The Chabad Jewish Center; both came to Mt. Olive Township in 2019. After a 2018 fire made the St. Thomas Orthodox Church in Dover unusable, its congregation looked for another home. In what it has called “God’s divine intervention”, the congregation found that five days after the fire, the building of the Hope Baptist Church in Flanders went up for sale. St. Thomas Orthodox Church decided to buy the Flanders church and joined the Mt. Olive faith community. As for The Chabad Jewish Center, it was started in 2004 by Rabbi Yaacov and Fraida Shusterman. Serving the Jewish community in Chester, Mt. Olive, Washington, and Warren County, the Chabad, a Hasidic group, rented various spaces for high holy day services and other events. That changed on February 3, 2019 when the Chabad got a permanent home for its various offerings at 11 Deerfield Place, Flanders.
Mt. Olive Township has a rich faith history. It is home to a diverse religious population which has found Mt. Olive Township a convenient location for worshippers. From the early days of just a few churches, the number of Mt. Olive’s houses of worship has rapidly multiplied, especially in the past 50 years. No one can be sure what will happen in the future, but many will agree that Mt. Olive is a great place to live and a great place to worship.