ATLANTIC CITY — An effort to restore the interior of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church in Atlantic City, a goal set more than 20 years ago, is finally underway with the first portion of the project scheduled to be completed by the new year.

The church, built in 1905 on the corner of Pacific and Tennessee avenues, is being restored after experiencing damage mostly due to moisture and dirt settling in over the years, causing plaster, paint and artwork to chip and peel. Over the last couple of years, the congregation at the church has been busy raising money.

Rev. Jon Thomas of The Parish of Saint Monica, which includes Our Lady Star of the Sea, St. Nicholas and St. Michael churches in Atlantic City, said Mon. William Hodge, who was the pastor of St. Nicholas from 1997 to 2015, talked about restoring the church for years.

“He did restore the outside,” Thomas said. “He put on a new roof and had all the masonry work repointed.”

Repointing masonry involves removing damaged mortar joints and renewing them.

Some water damage is also visible on the walls and windows. After two main fundraising events and a capital campaign, pre-restoration efforts began two weeks ago in the transepts, or arms, of the church.

Scaffolding was up on the left transept of the church Wednesday as a foreman with the restoration company, EverGreene Architectural Arts, surveyed the damage.

Mass will continue on the weekends during the restoration but will not be held Mondays through Fridays due to construction.

A new roof was installed in 2009 and cost more than $1 million, he said. Two years later, the church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Once Thomas came into the parish in 2015, he didn’t want the goal of restoring the interior to be lost. To move the project forward, a group called The Friends of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, an independent nonprofit, was formed in 2018 to raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of the church.

The transepts make up about 30% of the building. The church plans to restore the remaining 70% once the funds are raised. Altogether, it will take about $1.3 million to restore the interior. Almost $300,000 of that is being used to restore the transepts.

Jeanne Eisele, a member of the Friends group, said it has raised about $150,000 for the project so far. The group also wants to raise additional funds for a new floor, but the restoration comes first.

“There were issues with decay and mold that we have to tackle first,” she said. “The floor is fine for now.”

The Friends group recently had a Hard Hat Party where, for $100, attendees were treated to hors d’oeuvres and drinks at the church as well as a detailed tour explaining four sections of the church that are typically closed to the public.

The event brought out just over 125 people, according to Thomas. The funds collected from the party went toward furthering the restoration project.

The money for the pilot phase — the restoration of the transepts — was raised by three sources, a capital campaign conducted by the Parish of St. Monica in 2018, the Friends group fundraisers and a $50,000 donation from a Philadelphia-based couple that vacations in Atlantic City, Thomas said.

Walls, columns, artwork and decorative details within the transepts will be restored.

“They will scrape down all the plaster to a hard surface,” he said. “A lot of the plaster received moisture over the years and is soft, meaning it’s begun to chip, flake and peel. You can see some stains as well. Once they get to a hard surface, they will replaster and repaint in a brighter color.”

The four morals within the two transepts will also be restored as they’ve experienced peeling and cracking in certain places. They will also be cleaned of the dirt and soot that settled onto them.

The project also includes restoration to window frames that suffered water damage. Arches in the church will be repaired and restenciled, and marble columns will be cleaned and glossed over “to make them pop.”

The project will be completed by Christmas, and Thomas anticipates a grand reopening to coincide with Christmas Eve Mass.

The last time work was done inside the church was the 1980s, when the current floor and pews were installed, Thomas said. A beautification project that included repainting the walls, ceiling and columns was completed in 1977. Some original artwork was also painted over.

“You could actually say that the 1977 campaign unrestored it because they painted over some artwork,” he said. “They gave us this, to me, an attractive clay color that really makes the church interior look dark.”

He said he believes some artwork was painted over because the church did not have the necessary funding to hire an artisan to properly restore it.

Thomas is excited about the project because he believes it will attract more people to the church and, after seeing the restored space, will hopefully encourage them to help fund the remaining restoration.

“It’s long overdue,” Eisele said of the restoration. “Beautiful facilities like this have to be maintained. Religion is one thing, but the building is one thing itself. It’s one of the last big buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in the city.”

After the restoration is completed, the priest said, a wish list of future upgrades would include an update to the church’s electrical system and a new floor.

When people walk into the church, Thomas said, the comment they usually make is that it’s magnificent, not unlike a church typically seen in Europe or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

“People have that great impression when they first walk in, but as they spend more time in here they begin to see the damage,” he said. “So what’s exciting for me is that these two transepts are going to pop when people come in now. They are going to be amazed when they first walk in and see the whole picture.”

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