ATLANTIC CITY — For Gwen Franklin, the 124-year-old historic Church of the Ascension always brought back memories.
Now, thinking of it brings discomfort.
What was once the site of the church is now a pile of rubble at Kentucky and Pacific avenues. Bricks, dust and debris replaced the structure when it was torn down this month. And it will be an empty lot until its fate is decided.
“I’ve refused to go past there,” said Franklin, 84, the former senior warden of the church. “The last time I went past, the front of the church was still there. It was just traumatizing.”
The church was closed in January 2015 by the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey after it was determined to be structurally unsound, and the building was tough to sustain for its small congregation, according to Canon Phyllis Jones, chief operating officer of the diocese.
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The worship house was listed in 1986 on the National Register of Historic Places. But following several assessments of the building and its safety, it was prepped for demolition several months ago and pieces began coming down this month, Jones said. The demolition completed last week.
But Franklin, a city resident, said she wasn’t aware of the demolition until the day it happened. Some former members of the church think the diocese was wrong to tear down a historic building, or to close it in the first place.
“A lot of people are angry,” she said. “It’s not just how I feel, it’s how a lot of people feel about it.”
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While the building was listed as historic, it is still privately owned by the diocese and its owners are free to make decisions on a property as they see fit.
According to the city Department of Licensing and Inspections, the city did not have a role in its demolition.
A diocesan inspection identified asbestos, which had to be contained and removed before demolition, Jones said. The hole created by the demolition will be filled and the lot will be leveled, but no decision has been made regarding what to do with the space yet.
Jones said the diocese tried to come up with solutions on how to save the building, but it was “beyond our capacity to really do anything else.”
“For us, this was not an easy decision to make,” Jones said. “We were really struggling.”
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Many of the former church members were homeless but were supportive when they could be, Franklin said. She had previously expressed fear that the homeless population had something to do with the closure, but Jones said otherwise.
Now, the emptiness of the lot is a larger concern. Franklin said some members of the church asked for artifacts from it before and if it were to be torn down, and she hasn’t been able to find out where any of the church’s features went.
“I don’t know what’s happening now,” Franklin said. “It’s frustrating.”
Leading up to to the demolition, Jones said other churches in the diocese were asked whether they were interested in any artifacts from the church, although most were not in Atlantic County.
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Things like vestments, altar furnishings, pews and books have been sent to other churches. The stained glass windows were sent to a convent. Other larger items, such as the large crucifix that sat in the building, were taken by church supply companies that collect items to ensure they go to a proper place, Jones said.
Leonard Aronowitz, 79, who lives a few blocks from where the church used to be, wants to know exactly where the crucifix went, even though he didn’t belong to the church.
Aronowitz, who has lived in the city for more than 60 years, said he has expressed concern to several people about the closing, and then the possible demolition, and is now more concerned that it’s gone. But he said he hasn’t gotten any answers or explanations.
He would always walk past the church on Pacific Avenue, he said, and he hopes to see a solution or for something new to come to the area for people who want to worship.
“I was stunned to see it torn down,” Aronowitz said. “I hope to see something good come of all of this.”