SEA ISLE CITY — A rift between parishioners of St. Joseph Parish and its pastor, the Rev. Joseph Perreault, is beginning to develop over the possible demolition of the old church to make way for a new spiritual center.
The Landis Avenue church was built in 1844 and seats a little more than 200 people. It has a broken heating system and a malfunctioning air conditioner, and is outdated in terms of Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
As part of a report by a committee of 30 parishioners on the future of the parish, it was recommended the church be demolished in favor of a spiritual center that would be energy efficient, provide meeting space and be ADA compliant.
“While the old church has a rich history, unfortunately, it has significant issues that require attention to stand as it is,” the report states. “The building systems (plumbing, electrical and air conditioning) are in need of replacement and costly ongoing maintenance.”
Perreault said he does not know yet how much it will cost to demolish the old church. The plans are still preliminary, so parishioners should not expect to see the demolition any time soon.
“Nothing is imminent and we’re certainly not there yet,” Perreault said. “But we do have plans to build new facilities and a finite amount of space to work with.”
Other recommendations in the report included technology upgrades to the new church, which opened about seven years ago, so that Mass can be live-streamed on the internet, and infrastructure upgrades to the parish auditorium.
The goal is to have the initiatives paid for by the “Catholic Strong” capital campaign, which aims to improve facilities within the Diocese of Camden. St. Joseph Parish has a goal of raising $1,160,000 for the campaign. About $812,000 of that will be returned to the parish directly for facility upgrades.
All parishes in the diocese are participating and will receive 70 percent of all the money they raise for the campaign.
But the possible demolition of the old church has upset some longtime parishioners.
One of them, Michael McHale, a former mayor of Sea Isle and contributor to St. Joseph, said Monday parishioners were told 10 years ago the old church would remain standing even with the construction of a new one and that the parish would continue to host Masses and events there.
The new church seats more than 900 people and cost $6.3 million to build before the pews, stained glass and other additions were bought.
“Everyone agreed that we needed a new and bigger church,” McHale said. “But when we gave money for the new church, we were told that the old one would remain and be used. It’s baffling and sad that this is happening. Unless they know something we don’t, that church is in fine condition and should be used more.”
Perreault said that less than 10 events are held at the old church each year. Those include extra Masses on Memorial Day weekend and the weekend near Independence Day, as well as a few weddings.
“The study that we conducted was future-oriented. We looked at what we saw the parish being five to 10 years down the road and what its needs would be,” Perreault said. “It was an overwhelming recommendation by the committee that a lot of money should not be put into the old church because it’s not being used, and I agree with this. It just doesn’t make sense to do that.”
Andy Bednarek, a parishioner at St. Joseph’s since 1953, was an altar boy in the old church growing up, was married there, and had his children baptized there. He said that if the old church were demolished, it would be one of the worst decisions in the history of Sea Isle.
“It’s a historical and important place of worship for this community,” Bednarek said. “It would be more than a building being torn down … it’s a piece of history. I just think this whole thing is so misguided.”
Although the Catholic Strong campaign is being run by the Diocese of Camden, the diocese does not have a say on what individual parishes do with the money raised.