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Our Lady of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church
120 Sussex Street
Paulus Hook Historic District

 

Detail of the 1873 Hopkins Atlas of Hudson County NJ showing the outline of St. Matthew's P.E. Church.

Credits: New York Society of Model Engineer's Library, Rich Taylor Collection and
Historical Maps of New Jersey site of Rutgers University

 

Detail from 1928 Plat Book of Jersey City showing the outline of Our Lady of Czestochowa R.C. Church.

Credits: New York Society of Model Engineer's Library, Rich Taylor Collection
and
Historical Maps of New Jersey site of Rutgers University

On April 26, 1911, Our Lady of Czestochowa Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City, NJ was officially incorporated as a new parish. One hundred years later, the parish celebrated the centennial anniversary of its birth with a year long series of special events. The City Council of Jersey City passed a special proclamation recognizing the ways in which the parish has enriched the life of the surrounding community. The part Sussex Street between Washington and Warren Streets was renamed "Our Lady of Czestochowa Way".

Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish was originally founded to minister to the Polish immigrant families who settled in large numbers in the Paulus Hook section of Jersey City.  Many dedicated Roman Catholic priests, religious sisters, and lay men and women have faithfully ministered to the sacramental, spiritual and educational needs of the parish. In recent years, Our Lady of Czestochowa has evolved into a broader and more inclusive community serving the ever-changing and international population of the revitalized neighborhoods, historic districts and new developments along the Jersey City waterfront.

A local landmark, Our Lady of Czestochowa’s church building is one of the oldest continuous sites of worship in Hudson County. Its granite stone walls date back to the original construction in 1831.  The influx of new parishioners and increased level of financial support for the parish enabled some of the aging infrastructure stabilized and restored. In 2009, the parish’s impressive achievements were recognized by the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy.

The story of this historic church building actually predates the establishment of Our Lady of Czestochowa parish. The church is located in Paulus Hook, one of the oldest sections of Jersey City, which was settled by European colonists as early as the 17th century.  Cornelius Van Vorst, descended from the original Dutch settlers, sold the Paulus Hook property in 1804 to Anthony Dey, a member of the Associates of the Jersey Company. The Associates were a group of New York City merchants and lawyers intent on transforming the farms and marshlands of Paulus Hook into a new metropolis.

To promote the growth of their new community, the Associates donated property to religious denominations who agreed to construct church buildings on the lots. St. Matthew’s Protestant Episcopal Church, organized in 1808 and the oldest religious congregation in the city, was the first to take advantage of the Associates’ offer. St. Matthew’s was originally constructed in 1831 but had to be rebuilt in 1870 following a serious fire that had destroyed most of the building except for its heavy stone walls.

Throughout its long history, many different ethnic groups have chosen to make Jersey City their home. During the early years of the twentieth century, Polish immigration to Jersey City was extensive and the Paulus Hook area became one of the city’s most recognizably Polish neighborhoods. Heavy industry had expanded into its residential streets and many single family brick row houses were converted into multi-family tenement apartments. The once prestigious addresses on Sussex Street were absorbed into the gritty industrial neighborhood Paulus Hook became more commonly known by the derogatory name of Gammontown.

Between 1884 and 1905, St. Anthony of Padua Church on Monmouth and Sixth Streets, the first Polish national parish established in New Jersey, was the only such parish in Jersey City. When St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church was closed in 1905 due to declining membership, the Reverend Boleslaus Kwiatkowski, pastor of St. Anthony’s, purchased the building from them. He intended to use the edifice as a mission church in an effort to provide a more convenient location for the Polish immigrants of the Gammontown district to attend Mass.

The old St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church was remodeled for the Roman Catholic liturgy in less than six months under the supervision of notable church architect and Jersey City resident Louis H. Giele. The mission church was named in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title as Our Lady of Czestochowa, the protector and patroness of Poland. Dedication ceremonies were performed on November 19, 1905 by then Bishop John J. O’Connor of Newark. Our Lady of Czestochowa remained a mission church for over five years, administered and operated as part of St. Anthony’s parish. A copy of the holy icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa has been enshrined high above the altar since the earliest days of the church.

On April 26, 1911 the mission church became an independent parish. The congregation had grown to almost a thousand families, and the Rev. Constantine Ferdyn, himself a recent arrival from Poland, was appointed as its first full time pastor. Rev. Ferdyn laid the foundations of the parish by purchasing nearby buildings on Sussex Street, one of which served as a rectory and the other as a combination school and convent. In the summer of 1914, following the premature death of the 34 year old priest, Our Lady of Czestochowa suddenly needed a new pastor. Rev. Ignatius P. Szudrowicz, founder and pastor of St. Ann’s Church on Tonnele Ave, Jersey City’s third Polish national parish, was appointed to take charge of Our Lady of Czestochowa.

A great builder and fundraiser, Rev. Szudrowicz made numerous additions and improvements to the parish properties during his twenty years as pastor. On December 28, 1918, he purchased the Elks Hall on Henderson (now Marin Boulevard) and York Streets which had been originally constructed in 1863 by the First Congregationalist Church of Jersey City and was once commonly known as the Old Tabernacle. The newer 1905 clubhouse (now Victory Hall) around the corner on Grand Street was also included in the sale and both properties were remodeled for use by the tuition-free parish school.

Not long afterwards, Rev. Szudrowicz acquired a large brownstone at 210 Washington Street as a new convent for the Felician sisters who taught in the school.  By 1926, the church had a new roof, two new steeples with bells, as well as a brand new organ. The Elks Hall (Old Tabernacle) building was later demolished and a brand new elementary school building, still in use today, was erected on the site in 1929. Parish celebrations and social functions took place in Victory Hall.

Rev. Szudrowicz was elevated to the rank of Monsignor in 1931, but left Our Lady of Czestochowa parish three years later to replace the recently deceased, long time pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church, Rev. Boleslaw Kwiatkowski. Monsignor Szudrowicz accomplished a great deal during his lifetime and he achieved the unique honor of having served as pastor at all three of the Polish national churches of Jersey City. He died in 1946 at the age of 66 years.

Our Lady of Czestochowa parish came into existence at the height of the Polish emigration to the United States which peaked during the first two decades of the twentieth century. However, by 1924 federal immigration laws were changed to drastically reduce the number of new arrivals from foreign countries. Popular fears of radical politics and labor unrest fueled harsh anti-immigrant sentiment in spite of the fact that most immigrants, including the Poles, assimilated readily and demonstrated great pride in their new American identity.

Following the hiatus in immigration, a distinct Roman Catholic sub-culture emerged in Jersey City. Religious faith offered people comfort and meaning in the face of the poverty and untold suffering that accompanied the Great Depression and two World Wars. The city’s three Polish national churches, including Our Lady of Czestochowa, flourished in this environment, lovingly observing their time-honored traditions and preserving the language, culture, and folkways of Poland in the carefully defined arena of religious devotions and parish social life.

Rev. James P. Czarnogorski, who took over from Monsignor Szudrowicz in May of 1934, attended especially to the spiritual needs of his congregation. Membership in parish associations such as the Holy Name Society, Saint Cecilia’s Choir, the Rosary Society, and the Third Order of St. Francis expanded and helped forge a strong sense of community and parish identity.

Rev. Czarnogorski converted the lower level of the church into a chapel and installed new flooring and pews in the main church.  He also added the special mechanisms and musical chimes which highlighted the exposition and illumination of the icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa at the beginning and end of each Mass. Although he died unexpectedly in May 1949 at the age of 64, Rev. Czarnogorski lived to see the dedication of the new Felician convent that was built on Grand Street close to the school.

Rev. Martin A. Piasecki, who had previously served the parish from 1919 to 1926 as an assistant to Rev. Szudrowicz, returned to Our Lady of Czestochowa in June 1949 as its new pastor. Rev. Piasecki enlarged the rectory by purchasing the adjacent building at 122 Sussex Street and he bought a large open field across the street from the school for recreation. He renovated and upgraded many of the parish facilities. Rev. Piasecki retired in 1968 but stayed on in the parish for a number of years as Pastor Emeritus. He was elevated to the rank of Monsignor in 1981.

Rev. Piasecki had presided over the unusually prosperous decades that followed the end of the Second World War. The parish continued to grow under his leadership reaching almost 1,200 families even as some upwardly-mobile parishioners began to leave the old Gammontown neighborhood. Some families remained active in the parish moving to nearby neighborhoods like Greenville, West Side, or the Heights. Others relocated to suburban towns, returning to their home parish only occasionally for special celebrations, holidays, weddings, or funerals.

I n November 1968, Rev. Walter Niedzwiecki became the sixth pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa church following Rev. Zbigniew Szymanski’s brief three month tenure. Rev. Niedzwiecki, a Jersey City native, was the son of Polish immigrants and he and his siblings had grown up in the parish. Following his ordination in 1942, Rev. Niedzwiecki served the Polish national parish of St. Anthony of Padua in Jersey City for many years before returning to Our Lady of Czestochowa as pastor.

Few could have anticipated the broad scope of changes about to occur over the next twenty years. As American society became more materialistic and outwardly secular, church attendance, financial contributions, and parochial school enrollments declined in many Jersey City parishes. The introduction of liturgical reforms and the reduction in vocations to the religious life following the Second Vatican Council weakened the the Roman Catholic sub-culture that had once been so strong in Jersey City. Federal immigration laws changed once again in the 1960’s and new Catholic immigrants from all over the world brought their own diverse languages, customs, and traditions to the city’s churches and parochial schools.

Many Roman Catholic parishes throughout Jersey City had to face difficult decisions as long time parishioners continued to move out of town. With diminished financial resources, it was hard to keep open the extensive infrastructure of churches, schools, convents, and rectories that had been erected in prior years. On December 3, 1974, St. Ann’s Lithuanian Church on Manning Street became the first Roman Catholic parish in Jersey City to officially close its doors as its few remaining parishioners could not afford to keep the parish open on their own. In 1982, an historic merger of All Saints and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Slovak) parishes took place, and the 1906 edifice of the former was sold to the congregation of the Cornerstone Church of Christ. In 1986 the popular shrine of St. Jude Thaddeus was moved to nearby St. Michael’s Church as its long time home, St. Lucy’s Church on Grove Street, became the third Roman Catholic Church in the city to shut down.

Ironically, even as the city's neighborhoods continued to decline, discerning eyes perceived the potential value of its waterfront. Conveniently located close to New York City via the nearby PATH train stations, Paulus Hook began to experience a steady but gradual increase of new residents moving in to the neighborhood. Preparations leading up to the American Bicentennial celebrations of 1976 had kindled a renewed interest in local history and historic preservation among many Jersey City residents.  Successful grassroots efforts created Liberty State Park,  saved the 1910 Hudson County Court House from demolition, and demonstrated the power of activism and civic involvement. The Historic Paulus Hook Association was formed on September 24, 1974 to give a voice to the neighborhood’s concerns.  Other historic districts were mapped out and protected by law to preserve the unique architectural character of Jersey City’s 19th century brick and brownstone row houses. Large properties once occupied by the railroads and other heavy industries were filled in by redevelopment projects such as Newport and Portside which sprang up along the waterfront taking full advantage of the New York City skyline views.

On October 11, 1986, as Our Lady of Czestochowa parish celebrated its 75th anniversary Mass, it was apparent that the Paulus Hook area was looking towards a brighter and a more prosperous future. In August 1989, Rev. Niedzwiecki retired as pastor after twenty years of service and Rev. Eugene Kasper arrived in October to take his place. Rev. Kasper had been ordained in 1959 and since that time he had served Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bayonne, one of the largest Polish national parishes in the country for thirty years of his priesthood.

Between 1980 and 1989, during the years of the Solidarity Movement, there was a noticeable increase in Polish emigration to the United States as individuals sought political asylum and relief from the harsh economic conditions of Communist Poland. Unlike their predecessors, only a relative few of the new Polish immigrants settled in Paulus Hook, as many preferred to live in affordable suburban towns like Garfield and Wallington which already had substantial Polish communities.

In early March 1992, Our Lady of Czestochowa parish and all three of its still living pastors reunited to mark the occasion of Monsignor Piasecki’s 100th birthday. A special Mass was celebrated in the church, followed by a traditional reception in Victory Hall. At the time, Monsignor Piasecki held the distinction of being the oldest living priest in the Archdiocese of Newark.  Sadly, within the span of a few short years, both former pastors would be deceased. Rev. Niedzwiecki died on February 19, 1994 at the age of 79, and Monsignor Piasecki died on March 22, 1995 at the age of 103.  Rev. Kasper left Our Lady of Czestochowa in June of 1995 to become pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Rahway, but he had to retire shortly thereafter due to ill health. He died on October 27, 2008 at the age of 75.

On July 1, 1995 Rev. Thomas Iwanowski began his service as the eighth pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa.  Rev. Iwanowski was head of the Archdiocesan Liturgy Office and continued his work there for several years in addition to performing his pastoral duties in Jersey City. He hired professional musicians and introduced a more contemporary feel to the liturgy. Knowing that the parish had to grow if it were going to survive, “Fr. Tom”, as he preferred to be called,  decided to invite the newer residents of Paulus Hook to come and see what Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish had to offer. By developing appealing activities, special events, and creating a welcoming atmosphere, Fr. Tom increased regular church attendance and significantly improved the financial condition of the parish.

To increase awareness of parish life, Fr. Tom created a parish website and published a regular newsletter which was mailed to all the residents of the neighborhood. Annual events, such as Spring on Sussex Street and the Festival of Christmas Song, were organized, where both new and old parishioners could become better acquainted with each other. Other efforts such as the Lights of Paulus Hook lecture series, the Victory Hall Cultural Arts Center, and the Downtown Harvest community supported agriculture initiative served Our Lady of Czestochowa parishioners as well as the residents of other nearby neighborhoods in Jersey City. The excellence of OLC’s talented music ministry continues to attract worshippers to the parish.

In 2002 the Archdiocese of Newark began to develop its New Energies Parish Initiative which addressed plans for the future of the Church in light of the dwindling congregations and limited financial resources of many of its parishes. While recent years have witnessed the sad closing and consolidation of many neighboring Roman Catholic parishes, Our Lady of Czestochowa Church and school has continued to flourish.  In 2006, as part of the New Energies Initiative, Our Lady of Czestochowa entered into a formal partnership with Saints Peter and Paul Church in nearby Hoboken, another waterfront-oriented parish that had once served a primarily German immigrant congregation.

Throughout most of its history, most of the teachers at Our Lady of Czestochowa Elementary School have been religious sisters, members of the Felician community of Lodi, NJ. In its heyday, enrollment sometimes exceeded 1,200 students. Enrollment hit a low point during the early 1980’s when there were only about one hundred students in attendance. Since then, slowly but surely, the number of students has been increasing. Today, lay principals and teachers provide leadership and instruction at the OLC School.

In September 1993, an experienced educator and administrator, Rosemarie Viciconti, accepted the position as principal on an interim basis until a new permanent administrator could be found. Sacrificing her retirement years, Viciconti remained at the helm of the school for eight more years, increasing enrollment and adding programs in arts enrichment to the curriculum.

Following the death of Ms. Viciconti in August of 2001, Mary D. Baier was hired as the principal of Our Lady of Czestochowa School and continued to make improvements, adding an Early Childhood Montessori program in 2004 called the Little Harbor Academy. This program became so successful that in 2007 it needed more space and had to expand into Victory Hall. In June of 2009, Mary Baier decided to accept a new position with the Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Paterson. Bringing thirty five years of experience in education, Mrs. Anna Mae Stefanelli became the third lay principal of OLC School in September 2009 .

After fourteen years of service to OLC, Fr. Tom Iwanowski went on sabbatical leave and at a special installation Mass on July 19, 2009, the parish welcomed Rev. Thomas Ciba, another “Fr. Tom,” as its ninth pastor.  Of Polish-American extraction, Rev. Ciba was born and raised in Jersey City and has friends and relatives in the parish. Following his ordination in 1974, Rev. Ciba served at Our Lady of Mercy parish in the Greenville section, as well as in parishes in Bayonne and Elizabeth. Most recently, Rev. Ciba served as pastor of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Nutley.

Transitions are rarely easy, but Fr. Tom Ciba faced an unusual situation barely one month after becoming pastor. Following the sudden closure of St. Peter’s Church, Parish of the Resurrection, on July 25, 2009, many former members of that parish came to Our Lady of Czestochowa, geographically the next closest Roman Catholic Church, on the following Sunday for Mass. Fr. Tom and the parish community reached out to these newcomers to make them feel welcome and at home in Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish.

Originally organized in 1831 by the Irish immigrants of Paulus Hook, St. Peter’s was the first Roman Catholic parish established in Jersey City. Purchased in 2001 by St. Peter’s Preparatory High School for Boys, the contemporary church building at Van Vorst and Grand Streets was constructed in 1961 and belies the historical significance of St. Peter’s, the parent parish of all later Roman Catholic churches in Jersey City. At the time of its closing in 2009, St. Peter’s Church was officially part of the consolidated Parish of the Resurrection, a 1997 merger of five once independent parishes.

The History of The Icon

The icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa that hangs in the front altar of our church is a copy of the icon in the Jasna Gora monastery in Czestochowa, Poland. Even the slash marks made on the face of the Virgin Mary are faithfully reproduced in our copy of the famous painting. A decorative gold covering inlaid with jewels protects most of the surface of the actual painting, revealing only the faces of the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus. Letters along the bottom of the gold covering read: "Pod Twoją Obronę Uciekamy Się" which translates as "Under the Recourse to Your Protection” Curiously, the "N" in the word "Obronę" is turned backwards as if it were written in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Sometime during the pastorate of Rev. James Czarnogorski a special feature was added to our icon which signaled the beginning and ending of each Mass at Our Lady of Czestochowa church.  A mechanical cover decorated with a painting of the Holy Family was installed which could be automatically lowered to expose the icon underneath.  Musical chimes would play a special hymn to the Blessed Mother as the cover was raised or lowered and the icon itself would be illuminated. Sometime during the late 1980’s, the mechanism failed and attempts to repair it have been unsuccessful. The operation of a similar device can still be seen during the Masses at St. Anthony of Padua church on Monmouth Street.

Parish tradition recalls how in 1905 the icon was symbolically carried through the streets in a solemn religious procession from its original home in St. Anthony of Padua Church on Monmouth Street to the newly opened mission church of Our Lady of Czestochowa on Sussex Street. The tradition indicates that our icon was a treasured possession of St. Anthony’s parish for many years. Transferring the namesake icon to the new mission symbolized the bond between the two churches.

Throughout 1905, the Evening Journal, the original name of the Jersey Journal newspaper, published numerous articles documenting the closing of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and the sale of the property to the Polish Catholics of St. Anthony’s. Two of the articles described in great detail the renovation of the church and the preparations for the November 19, 1905 dedication of Our Lady of Czestochowa Church.

Apparently, a colorful array of Polish national organizations, military groups, and religious associations greeted Bishop O’Connor upon his arrival at the Hoboken train station that morning. The assembly accompanied him southwards through the streets of Jersey City marching in a parade until they arrived in front of the Sussex Street church for the dedication ceremonies. Recounting the transformation of the building from an Episcopalian to a Roman Catholic Church, the articles describe how  the central niche high above the altar was planned as a special shrine to display the parish’s icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa.

According to the newspaper article our copy of the icon was commissioned and painted by an artist in Warsaw in 1905. It had not arrived in time for the November 19th dedication ceremony, delayed by the political turbulence of the 1905 Russian Revolution. Large parts of Poland, including Warsaw, were under Russian control at the time and the strikes, riots, and political repression disrupted normal transportation and shipping routes. It was expected that the icon would be shipped to Jersey City as soon as possible.

Perhaps the icon eventually arrived safely at its intended destination after the Russian Revolution ended in 1906 and 1907.  The long anticipated arrival of the icon from Poland may have been marked by the special procession and celebration remembered in parish tradition. Perhaps, if the originally commissioned painting was lost in the chaos and never arrived in Jersey City at all, St. Anthony’s may have offered their older icon to the new mission church as a replacement. 

References:

Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish, Jersey City, NJ 1911-2011. Centennial Anniversary Publication. Jersey City, NJ. (2011).
Our Lady of Czestochowa Parish: A Brief History of the Church Serving the Waterfront. New York (1997).

By: Carmela Karnoutsos
Project Administrator: Patrick Shalhoub