Among the remains of 45 congregants lying beneath a tree in the memorial garden at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in Fair Haven are those of Ann Dupree’s late husband. She interred them there after his death three years ago.
What to do with his ashes is one of more wrenching decisions to be made by the three dozen or so surviving parishoners of the River Road church as it nears its final mass, on October 24, before the doors are locked and the property goes on the market.
But it is just one element of a winding-down that has left congregants depressed, somewhat lost and more than a little angry, they admit.
“I was married here,” said Dupree, a senior citizen and member of the vestry who’s been attending Holy Communion for some 40 years. “I thought I’d be buried here.”
Pastor Nancy Speck reads from an 1885 entry in the church registry, left; the original church, which was demolished in 1967 because of a termite infestation; and the interior of the present church on the same site. (Click to enlarge)
The shutdown, decreed last month by the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey, came about largely as a result of too much competition. Nine Episcopal churches, most of them descendants of St. George’s By the River in Rumson, now vie for the attention of the same pool of potential congregants from Highlands to Eatontown, said Rev. Nancy Speck, who came in as pastor of Holy Communion 18 months ago.
But while difficulty bringing in new blood to the 125-year-old congregation may have signaled an inevitable end, some parishoners harbor lingering resentment toward the borough, and particularly toward Mayor Mike Halfacre, over the way the church’s final months have played out. They say he stood in the way of a plan that might have saved the parish, and is now trying to help save a daycare center on the property that is being forced out by the closing.
The plan was to allow working homeless families to stay overnight in the church for up to one week a month. A residence on the property would have been used to offer daytime social services counseling center to those families.
The program was to have been run under the auspices of Family Promise of Monmouth County, which would transport clients to and from the site by van, backers say. The church would have collected rent from the program, which “was going to give the church a badly needed injection of funds” in the form of rent on the house, said Lindsay Lutz, a Brick Township attorney with ties to Family Promise.
St. George’s By the River works with Family Promise in that way without controversy, said Lutz, who said he interceded with Halfacre on behalf of Holy Communion. But Halfacre was adamantly opposed to the idea from the moment church officials informed him of their plans about a year ago, Lutz said.
“He got his back up and said, ‘Never, never, never. I don’t want it,'” Lutz said of a phone conversation he had with Halfacre. “I said, ‘You don’t even know what the program is.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to know.'”
In an interview with redbankgreen yesterday, Speck was beginning to detail what had happened to derail the plan when she got a phone call from a church official telling her not to say anything more to a reporter.
“I was in and out of that place from November until June,” Speck said, referring to borough hall, before getting the call. “I gave up.”
Halfacre, who lives on Church Street not far from the church, acknowledges that he was personally opposed to the plan, because, he said, it would have meant putting up to 17 people 15 clients and two social services employees in the small house that was once the church parsonage and in recent years has been rented out as a residence.
“It’s a 1940s Cape Cod dwelling,” he said. “The use they proposed is just too intense. But I knew as mayor that we’re not allowed to stop them.”
Halfacre said he never stood in the way of the church’s plan, noting a federal law that allows churches to use their properties as they see fit as long as they comply with safety and zoning rules. He said he told Speck and other church representatives that they would have to submit plans to the zoning board for a review of compliance with fire, handicapped visitor access, parking and other rules, and make changes if required. But, he said, no such application was ever made.
“The church was failing. It’s been failing for years,” Halfacre said. “But somehow I am the guy who put the nail in the coffin.”
As an added wrinkle, church members also expressed disappointment toward Trudy Wojciehowski, who rents a second building on the property for her Rumson Fair Haven Academy preschool. They say she has been on a month-to-month lease for over a year and knew that her school was facing possible relocation, yet is now making the church look like an uncaring landlord trying to evict her, they believe.
Adding to their anger, church members say that Wojciehowski has told them that Halfacre is her private attorney. Halfacre, though, said he represented Wojciehowski and her husband in the closing on their home, and wrote a letter to the diocese in his capacity as mayor asking that the school be given an extension on its lease, but is neither her attorney or the school’s.
But all those are side issues to the church’s closing, which brings an end to a one aspect of Fair Haven’s history, say church members.
“You have to understand,” said Lydia Brenner, another member of the vestry. “We’re just so very, very sad that we’re losing our church.”
She recalled a 90-year-old parishoner who recently moved out of state. “I’m just relieved she isn’t here to see this,” Brenner said.
The church was founded in 1883, and according to one of the registers displayed under glass in the vestibule, baptized its first child two years later.
The original wood church on the site had to be torn down in the late 1960s because of termite infestation, said Speck. But the pastor at the time was a passionate woodworker who designed its replacement, featuring a dramatic exposed wood interior roof. Church congregants and other members of the community, including the volunteer fire department, erected the church themselves in 1967, Speck said.
The church’s records will go to the diocese for archiving, said Speck.