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NEW JERSEY: Church doors closing

Church doors closing

Sstaff Writer
New Jersey News
May 27, 2005

It was once the town's elite church, a quaint, hilltop chapel overlooking crowded streets and humming textile mills.

But now the red velvet seat cushions are flat and faded, the choir robes are moldy and the guest book hasn't had a new signature in more than a year.

St. Mary's Memorial Episcopal Church, the oldest church in Haledon and once the parish of choice for prosperous 19th century families, will close its doors for good Sunday after 139 years.

"I haven't accepted it." said Mildred Dowd, 83, a member for 50 years. "And I won't until the last day comes and I realize we will not be coming back."

St. Mary's decline from its 1960s peak of 200 families to the current congregation of 18 isn't unusual. A similar saga is unfolding in many mainline Protestant churches in North Jersey and nationwide, prompting painful soul-searching among church leaders.

"We, as Episcopalians, never learned how to be evangelists," said R. Carter Echols, a canon with the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. "We are much more comfortable telling somebody they should see a movie than telling them they should go to church on Sunday morning."

Indeed, one-third of the 114 parishes in the diocese - which covers seven counties in northern New Jersey - are struggling to survive, Bishop John P. Croneberger has said. Thirteen of those parishes have begun discussions with other congregations that could lead to mergers or the sharing of clergy. More parishes are likely to take similar steps, Echols said.

Other venerable denominations - including the Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed churches - are struggling with similar problems.

In Bergen County, as many as 12 Lutheran churches are discussing ways they can share their ministries while remaining independent. Two Lutheran congregations, one in Fort Lee and another in Ridgefield Park, closed last year. The average Sunday attendance for the Bergen parishes has been about 54, a church official said.

"As some of our congregations have become small, and as resources seemingly grow tighter, we need to be very prudent," said the Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, an assistant to the bishop in the New Jersey synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "You may see some streamlining, but in some cases you may see us make investments in vital ministries."

None of the above

The struggling denominations face competition from evangelical churches, which preach a conservative brand of Christianity but provide a modern worship experience that favors casual dress, upbeat music and easy-to-follow services.

There's also a new trend contributing to the decline: those who choose "none of the above." The number of American adults identifying with no religion jumped to 14 percent from 8 percent during the 1990s, according to a 2001 study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Episcopal priests in North Jersey, meanwhile, are telling parishioners that they can't simply sit back and expect their congregations to survive.

"It's not like a church in the 1950s, where it was, 'Here we are, and people will come,'Ÿ" said the Rev. Mark Waldon, rector of Christ Church in Totowa, which draws 40 to 50 people to two Sunday services. "Seeing parishes like St. Mary's close has awakened us. We can't just wait for people to walk in the door."

A Bergen County priest, whose parish had dwindled to 12 Sunday churchgoers a few years ago, said the congregation experienced a slight improvement only after making a philosophical change that placed the focus on making the church more welcoming.

"We're re-looking at everything we do Sunday morning with the view of what the newcomer or outsider is experiencing," said the Rev. David Hermanson of St. Thomas' Church in Lyndhurst. "The key question is: Are we communicating the Gospel and its joy and the love of God in what we are saying and doing?"

Forces converge

St. Mary's closing wasn't precipitated by a crisis. The congregation simply succumbed to a convergence of forces: a shake-up in American churchgoing habits, as well as population shifts in North Jersey.

As its parishioners aged, their children left Haledon, and the parish was unable to attract new members in the changing town.

Elizabeth Fouchaux, who at 99 is the oldest parishioner, grew up on a North Haledon chicken farm and raised two children in the church.

"The church was my life," she said. "I loved it."

But her daughter converted to Judaism, and her son joined the Unitarians.

"We went our own ways," said Robert Fouchaux, the son. "Now, my own children, who were brought up as Unitarians, don't go to the Unitarian church."

Indeed, the willingness of the younger generation to break with the faith of its elders is a staple of American religious life, giving rise to a new breed of "seeker-sensitive" churches.

"People are not as concerned so much with the brand anymore," said Todd M. Johnson, a research fellow at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. "It's the experience that becomes important over denominational affiliation."

That lesson isn't lost on an Episcopal priest at a small parish in Little Falls who said one area he's mulling over is music.

"As much as I love the old hymns and the choral music, I look at our teenagers, and it's not there for them," said the Rev. Dwight L. Neglia of St. Agnes Church.

Throes of change

In Haledon, however, the problem had as much to do with what was happening outside the church as inside.

The community of 8,200 bordering Paterson has drawn an influx of Muslim and Catholic immigrants with little interest in Anglican traditions. Some of the town's old homes were converted to apartments, creating a more transient community and one less likely to join a church, said the Rev. Raymond Harbort, rector at St. Mary's during the 1990s.

Sensing the community was in the throes of change, parishioners at St. Mary's several years ago threw a sit-down dinner for the town's Circassian immigrants, who are Muslim.

"We told them about Christianity, and they told us about Islam," Harbort said. "It was an effort to respond to the situation, to help Haledon continue to be a community."

The dinner generated goodwill, but didn't stop the parish's slide.

Indeed, it soon could no longer afford a permanent rector and began hiring temporary priests.

It also dismissed its custodian, but had to pick up the tab for snowplowing and landscaping. And that ran as high as $18,000 per year.

"It wasn't like church anymore," said Roy Van De Voort , the parish warden. "It was like running a struggling business."

At a meeting several months ago, the parish vestry, or board, agreed to close.

"We finally looked at the money that was left and the money that was coming in," Van De Voort said. "We decided we would close down before we were completely broke."

The closing, however, creates a new problem for some of the elderly members. They yearn to find a new church, but they also need to line up rides.

"I don't drive," said Margaret Campbell, 95. "So I have to go where someone can take me."

Meanwhile, some have hope for the denomination's future. Echols said the Episcopal Church's key strength is its liberal message of inclusion for women and homosexuals.

"People are definitely out there looking for spirituality and wanting to have conversations of deep meaning," she said. "We have this wonderful message, but we have to find new ways to communicate it."


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