St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sea Isle City will embark next month on something unusual for a church in the region - an expansion project.
The Diocese of Camden said Wednesday it will break ground April 18 on a new building that will be more than four times larger than the existing St. Joseph church, which was built in 1884.
The move counters a trend of parish mergers and consolidation in New Jersey.
St. Joseph parishioners, who have tried for years for a larger place of worship, said the 126-year-old church, which has a 225-seating capacity, is too small. The parish sometimes needs three locations to hold Sunday Mass during the summer.
Helping their case for an expansion, parishioners said, was a strong, large and affluent Catholic community of full-time and seasonal residents able to raise donations to build a new church.
At 983 registered families, St. Joseph 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 in 2009.
"The decision of the diocese some time ago was Sea Isle City would not merge with any surrounding parishes and, in our language, would be a stand-alone parish," said St. Joseph's pastor, the Rev. Joseph Perreault. "Once that determination was made, the issue of a new worship facility or church was revisited. The needs have been historic - some of the folks here have been waiting 30 or 40 years for this."
The new 1,300-seat capacity facility will be erected alongside the church on Landis Avenue, and the buildings will be connected.
A Sea Isle City church fundraising committee is approaching $2.25 million in donations, the first benchmark for construction to begin, said Katherine Custer, a city spokeswoman who serves on the parish council and capital campaign committee.
The diocese would then offer a loan to help the parish reach its estimated $7 million goal, officials have said.
Church officials hope construction will be completed by Memorial Day 2011.
"My hope is it's a visible sign of the vitality of the community, both the parish community and the entire community of Sea Isle City," Perreault said. "I think it'll be a visible symbol of Sea Isle City in the 21st Century and the parish in the 21st Century."
Andrew Walton, spokesman for the Diocese of Camden, said that with the need to consolidate schools and parishes has been a process of expanding some facilities.
"It's quite noteworthy, especially in this economic time," Custer said. "It's quite a popular destination for Catholics, and in summertime when we're at full capacity, that's when the need is the greatest. I've attended some funerals in the old church during the winter, and sometimes the funeral itself was too big for our church."
Bishop Joseph Galante will preside over the April 18 groundbreaking.
"We want to make it very clear to the people the old church is not going anyway. It's such a beloved building and people would be heartbroken if it were torn down," Custer said.
Sea Isle City lost its Catholic elementary school - St. Joseph's Regional School - after Bishop McHugh opened in neighboring Dennis Township in 2000.
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About St. Joseph
•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 million.