SEA ISLE CITY — For the faithful at St. Joseph Church, this Sunday was a long time coming for the narrow old church where yellow, green and purple sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows.
For decades, parishioners in this seaside city have waited for a larger place of worship but did not want their circa 1884 church on Landis Avenue torn down.
And as other parishes in other towns merged, the prospect of a new church may have faded to those of little faith.
But on Sunday afternoon, the Diocese of Camden will break ground on the construction of a $7 million, 1,300-seat church being built alongside — and connected to — the existing 225-seat St. Joseph Church.
“It’s something that’s been talked about for a very long time,” said David Farina, 65, a local Realtor born and raised in Sea Isle City. “It’s going to address the needs of the crowds of people who come here in the summertime. Any given Mass on Sunday at our church, there are literally people outside on the steps.”
A Friday morning daily Mass brought about 75 people to church, a large number for a morning Mass in April. In years past, the church has used three different locations — including a converted trolley barn called the Townsends Inlet Civic Center — to hold Masses in the summer. The multiple Masses and locations strained the number of available priests.
“It shows we are a strong Catholic community and continue to be,” said Tom Henry, who first began attending church here in 1945 and who married his wife in the church.
As parishes began to consolidate several years ago, including ones on Seven Mile Island (Stone Harbor and Avalon) and the Wildwoods, St. Joseph was deemed a stand-alone parish. At that point, the prospect of a new church became a reality, church officials said.
The church, which is affluent because of contributions from longtime residents, summer vacationers and the older transplants who have made Sea Isle City their home within the past decade or two, was able to raise more than $2 million to get construction started. A loan from the diocese will also be used.
Joe Koch, a retired teacher and principal from Runnemede, Camden County, moved full time to Sea Isle City about a decade ago, got involved in St. Joseph through the Knights of Columbus and became an usher.
“You kind of inherit that down here. If you go to a certain Mass all the time they see you and they grab you,” said Koch, whose wife Anne plays the organ for the choir.
Like other year-round parishioners here, Koch sees firsthand the Masses during the winter, when there are fewer people in the city, and the busy times, when the Masses are packed and need to be expanded to an auditorium or other facility.
“When they have the Polar Bear Plunge (in February), they have to open the auditorium up because it gets so crowded,” he said. “The church just couldn’t hold them.”
“I think it’ll be a good thing for the city,” Koch said. “Parking is going to be a problem, but parking is always a problem in the city.”
Mayor Leonard Desiderio said he and parishioners were happy the construction was adding to the existing church, not demolishing it.
“There are many strong ties to the current church,” said Desiderio, who married his wife, Carmela, there in 1996 and whose daughter was baptized there. “There’s a lot of history.”
Meanwhile, this will be the largest single construction project in Sea Isle City in many years, Desiderio said.
Katherine Custer, who serves on the Parish Council and Capital Campaign Committee, is originally from the Philadelphia area and moved to Sea Isle City year-round about 20 years ago.
“Personally, back in the ’80s, I saw the need as well simply because it is such a large congregation,” she said. “When we have funerals in the off-season, I’ve been to numerous funerals where it’s standing room only. That’s the telltale sign.”
St. Joseph Church has 983 registered families, which is more parishioners than others, including Maris Stella in Avalon and St. Paul in Stone Harbor, which were identified for mergers in 2008, the Diocese of Camden said.
In the diocese, one of the only other construction projects in recent years was the Church of the Assumption in Galloway Township, which dedicated a new 1,500-seat church in September 2008, tripling the size of the old church.
St. Joseph Church was dedicated July 20, 1884, and in 1903 was moved a short distance to its present location on 44th Street and Landis Avenue, Custer said.
Construction of the church in 1884, including furnishings and the dedication, cost $4,342, she said.
Officials hope for construction to be completed by Memorial Day 2011, Custer said.
“It’s the dawn of a new time for us here,” she said.
If you go
St. Joseph Church in Sea Isle City will break ground Sunday on a $7 million, 1,300-seat church built alongside the existing church.
Diocese of Camden Bishop Joseph Galante will serve as celebrant during the 11:30 a.m. Mass. The groundbreaking will take place at about 12:30 p.m. at 44th Street and Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City.
Some announced church parish mergers
St. Teresa of Avila in Bridgeton, Immaculate Conception in Bridgeton, St. Michael Church in Cedarville and St. Mary Church in Rosenhayn
St. Francis of Assisi in Vineland with Immaculate Heart of Mary in Vineland
St. Mary Magdalen in Millville with St. Anthony Mission in Port Norris (Commercial Township) and St. John Bosco in Millville
St. Isidore in Vineland and Sacred Heart in Vineland
Blessed Sacrament in Margate with St. James in Ventnor and Epiphany in Longport
St. Bernadette in Northfield and St. Peter in Pleasantville will become St. Gianna Beretta Molla. The St. Peter building is slated to be used for senior citizen housing.
Assumption in Galloway Township with St. Nicholas in Egg Harbor City
St. Joseph in Hammonton with St. Martin de Porres in Hammonton and St. Anthony in Hammonton
Queen of Angels in Landisville (Buena) with St. Rose of Lima in Newfield, Our Lady of the Lakes in Collings Lake (Buena Vista Township) and St. Mary in Malaga (Franklin Township)
Cape May County
St. Augustine in Ocean City with St. Frances Cabrini in Ocean City and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Ocean City
Maris Stella in Avalon with St. Paul in Stone Harbor
St. Ann in Wildwood and Assumption in Wildwood Crest
St. John of God in North Cape May (Lower Township) with St. Raymond in Villas (Lower Township)
Resurrection in Upper Township with St. Casimir in Woodbine and its St. Elizabeth mission in Middle Township
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