By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Right Rev. George Councell has carried a particular piece of advice with him throughout his career delivering Masses in New Jersey: Say each as if it were your first, say it as if it were your last, say it as if it were your only Mass.
That outlook gave Councell, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, something of an emotional advantage over the rank-and-file parishioners of Fair Haven’s Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion on Saturday. That was the day Councell came to preside over the congregation’s last-ever Mass.
After 125 years of service, from marriages to Masses, food drives to funerals, the church’s mission in Fair Haven is complete, Councell said. The towering River Road landmark was closed for good following the afternoon service.
“Something precious and wonderful is dying today,” Councell said to the people who filled the pews and spilled out into the benches of the church’s perimeters. “It is an awesome thing to recognize this as the last Mass here at the Church of Holy Communion here in Fair Haven.”
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Saturday’s service means different things for different people.
For Annette Allen, it means finding a job. She’s been the sexton at the church for 15 years, and a parishioner for 30. She said that, considering it has been difficult to attract churchgoers and volunteers, she understands why the church leadership decided to make the move. Several nearby churches have been making for a difficult competition to remain sustainable, she noted.
“We didn’t have enough people. With few people to do everything, you get burned out,” she said.
“We tried a lot of innovative things, but there’s not enough people here,” said Brother Richard Biernacki, former church organist. “It’s a very sad time.”
Though attendance and donations slid, Holy Communion’s reach spread beyond Fair Haven. Several past parishioners who now live in other parts of the state came out Saturday to pay their final respects to a once-familiar place. For some it was more painful than others.
Barbara Wallenstein, now a Toms River resident, squinted and quivered to keep herself from coming undone when talking about how sad it was to accept that a mainstay of 40 years would no longer be there for her.
It has been more than just a place of worship for her. It has been a cornerstone through the different seasons of life. Her five sons were baptized and confirmed there. Four were married there. Her other son’s ashes, like her mother, father and husband’s, are held at the church’s memorial garden. Some of Wallenstein’s 11 grandchildren were baptized there and just a few weeks ago, so was a great-grandchild.
“It hurts so bad,” she said.
Councell did his best to console the folks who felt that same pain on Saturday.
“You have reached a courageous decision and a faithful decision. You could go on in depletion, frustration. You have not done that,” he said. “There are some things worse than death. One of them is denial. Resurrection follows death, not denial.”
The church and two buildings on the property are owned by the diocese, and will likely be put on the market, according to a earlier interview with Councell.