SEA ISLE CITY - Catholics in the seashore city want a new place to kneel and more room to pray.
With the blessing of the Diocese of Camden, parishioners at St. Joseph's Catholic Church will begin raising money to build a new church connected to the small, 125-year-old house of worship at 44th Street and Landis Avenue. The new church would be about four times larger.
As parishes in the diocese merged over the past two years, St. Joseph's wanted to expand and put its congregation under one roof.
The parish has used a nearby school auditorium and a historic civic center to give weekly beachgoers, second-home owners and year-round residents their dose of religion, resulting in about a dozen small Masses each week and a demand for priests, who are already in short supply.
The church will start a capital campaign Sunday to raise $2.25 million over the next three years. The diocese would then offer a loan to help the parish reach its estimated $7.2 million goal, said Margaret Slawin, campaign director with Walsh and Associates, a Minnesota-based church consultant.
"This has been a growing concern for years. We've been experiencing summer Masses that have been filled to capacity for years," said Katherine Custer, who serves on the church's parish council.
Sunday Mass is celebrated about 12 times each summer weekend at two locations - the downtown church and the basketball gymnasium at the former St. Joseph's Regional School nearby. Mass also has been celebrated at the Townsends Inlet Civic Center, and visiting priests are often called in to help resident pastor the Rev. Joseph Perreault, parishioners said.
Parishioners wanted a new church for Sea Isle City's strong Catholic population and to address years of standing-room only, shoulder-to-shoulder church crowds, particularly when the population swells in the summer.
"The space problem is more compounded by the continuing decline of Catholic priests available as well as the consolidation of parishes and churches around us," Slawin said.
At 983 registered families, St. Joseph's has more parishioners than others identified for mergers in 2008, including Maris Stella in Avalon, St. Paul in Stone Harbor and Our Lady of Good Counsel in Ocean City, according to statistics provided by the Diocese of Camden.
The diocese approved St. Joseph's effort in December 2008, diocese spokesman Andrew Walton said. Planners looking at the makeup of parishes noted Sea Isle City's many Masses and a church with a 225-person capacity.
"The number of masses is so high because the seating capacity is small," Walton said. "You combine that with the decline in the number of priests available for ministry, you don't have the priests available to have that many masses."
Across the country, fewer men are turning toward the cloth. And priests are getting older and closer to retiring from ministry. The Diocese of Camden has fewer than half the priests available for ministry it had in the early 1970s, Walton said.
By 2015, the diocese predicts it will have 85 priests to minister to 124 parishes in Cape May, Atlantic, Cumberland, Salem, Gloucester and Camden counties.
The new church would connect to the existing one on Landis Avenue and would occupy land near where the rectory is located.
Sea Isle City is an affluent community, home to rows of second homes and summer homes. Parishioners have high hopes the church campaign can put its plan into action.
Parishioner Michael McHale, who is a Sea Isle City councilman, said he hopes construction can start next year. He said the church already has about $300,000 set aside in a capital reserve.
Volunteers will present the church's plans during an annual barbecue chicken dinner Sunday night but will not solicit gifts then, according to the church.
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St. Joseph's Catholic Church
Built in 1884.
Located at 44th Street and Landis Avenue in Sea Isle City.
Church capacity: 225.
Pastor: The Rev. Joseph Perreault.
Money sought for expansion: $7.2 million.