Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Old Episcopal Church - Main Street

Over the years there have been a number of architectural gems built in our village, of such outstanding quality that, had they survived, our town would have been high on the list of tourist attractions in the State. One of the finest was the old Episcopal Church on Main Street. It's old world architecture was as elegant and picturesque as any you will find in Cotswold, Kent or Norfolk in the English countryside where such treasures can be viewed today.

The congregation of the Episcopal church had its beginnings when, in 1746, by royal proclamation, HRH King George II of England authorized the formation of the church. The charter specifically identified church groups in the separately recognized communities of Second River, Newark, New Barbados, and Acquackanonk Landing.

First services in Second River were held in 1751. For many years, services were held in such quarters as the congregation could secure. For a while, they were held at the Dutch Reformed Church, later in a grain storage room at an old mill on the river and still later at the Academy. Finally, the time came for the congregation to have a house of worship of their own and this would be done in grand style.

The cornerstone of the new structure was set in 1836. In 1837 it was completed. Later the same year, it burned to the ground. A reader of an earlier version of this article has drawn attention to the fact that the fire of 1837 was actually an act of arson. A bit of research has uncovered this information : "June 24 1837. On the night of this date the church in Belleville was destroyed by the wickedness of an incendiary. Isaac C. Baker the contractor was fully committed to take his trial for the foul deed. The contractor covered the building with insurance and then set fire to it. He served four months in prison but the insurance was not obtained."

Determination always succeeds. In 1839 a new structure was begun. While a new church was under construction, the congregation was permitted to use the Methodist church and occasional services were performed "in the upper room of Mr. Dow's Store on Main Street." Completed in 1841 with spectacular results, the new church was a sight to behold. The new structure was an outstanding example of early Georgian Gothic architecture with a Norman fortress tower on the East front capped with a stately bell tower. The bell was that one from the earlier, ill-fated church, which had been imported from England. The Bell had been damaged in the fire but was re-cast, along with the fire-melted brass and silver altar vessels, and set in the new tower. The tower held a stained glass rose window 5'-2' in diameter. It had been constructed of the finest brownstone as might be hewn from the renowned Belleville quarries. Lancet windows, 12'-6" tall at the arch spring line, were framed with hand-tooled sandstone and set with magnificent stained glass. This impressive structure served the congregation and graced the community for 50 years. In 1912 it was closed, replaced by a structure on Washington Avenue.

Still standing and in structurally sound condition in 1939, it was the subject of a WPA survey of historic American architecture. The old church was slated for refurbishing and additions in 1944 as part of the Belleville Foundation's plans for culture and recreation facilities throughout our town. The Foundation, funded principally by Walter Kidde, Wallace and Tiernan, and Eastwood Neally, intended that the church building serve the community as a music and art center for concerts, exhibitions and as a museum for Belleville's history. The Federal Recreation Survey in 1944 recommended that the building be additionally used for the training of recreation personnel for the community. These plans never reached completion and in 1958, the building was demolished. A pity, it was a proud and beautiful building. An altar, constructed of stones saved from the demolished church, was set in the churchyard at the site of the original altar.

The churchyard still exists and can be visited today. The display above is based on old postcard views, archival photos and engineering drawings from the Federal "Historic Architecture" survey.

We are still hopeful that the last of the great, historic buildings in our town, the old Dutch Reformed Church, can be saved.


This article has been updated and expanded since first published. A quantity of new information and photos, provided by the Belleville Public Library and Information Center's Chief Archivist, was added to that information in our own files allowing an enlarged presentation.


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