Double vision: Redevelopment of historic church preserves touches of its former glory | Legends & Landmarks – NJ.com

St. Bridget's Church redevelopment
Editor’s note: This is the third article in “Hope in Preservation,” an ongoing Jersey Journal series about centuries-old buildings that are currently being adaptively reused in considerate and creative ways and which stand as symbols of hope for historic preservation in Jersey City and Hudson County — an area increasingly driven and defined by 21st-century development projects that threaten to erase our cultural and architectural heritage.
VISIONS AT THE CORNERSTONE
There’s something about a cornerstone — carved crucible of megalithic masonry, etched and encrypted with Latin numbers, years, letters, words.
Diminutive chamber for small copper boxes imbued with contents meant never to be unsealed, read, released again.
Resting treasures within of municipal apotheoses, destined for dust as outside centuries wane.
Such were my thoughts on a windy morning just two months ago as I looked at St. Bridget’s thicket-covered cornerstone at the northeast corner of Montgomery and Brunswick streets — the westernmost edge of Jersey City’s increasingly gentrified Van Vorst Park Historic District — as I anticipated meeting Reena Rose Sibayan, the award-winning Jersey Journal photographer. We were to be let inside the landmarked church building — erected 1886-1889 for the thriving parish of St. Bridget Roman Catholic Church and closed, with a final Mass, in 2015 — as it nears a complete transformation from a heritage house of worship to a modern-day luxury living environment.
As I waited for Reena at the busy bus stop intersection, I climbed over steps and railings and moved as close as I could to the veined and crannied cornerstone, carefully pulling away thorny vines and branches obscuring its faded inscription — “A.D.✝1886″ — and thinking, all at once, of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats, whose 1919 poem “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” is set at the Rock of Cashel, Ireland’s most famous Christian heritage site and a world monument of medieval architecture.
On the grey rock of Cashel the mind’s eye
Has called up the cold spirits that are born
When the old moon is vanished from the sky
And the new still hides her horn.
“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes” unfolds from there across several stanzas filled with searing sounds and thundering images of religious deities, cosmological chaos, and the cathedral ruins of Cashel where, ironically, tranquility, peace, beauty and innocence are all powerfully present.
Incredibly, St. Bridget’s — one of the city and county’s most physically imposing church buildings — is directly linked to Yeats’s earth-shattering poem in that its cornerstone was quarried raw from Cashel itself as a gift to St. Bridget’s and its pastor, the Rev. James Hanly, who in 1885 led his parish in raising funds toward the erection of Queenstown Cathedral (now The Cathedral Church of St. Colmanin) in Ireland, where the priest had been born. The slab of Cashel limestone, weighing an extraordinary 1,100 pounds, was shipped transatlantically to the Jersey City seaport where contractors received the mammoth cargo and transported it to a local stone yard for hand cutting, chiseling, shaping, fitting and dressing into a solid cornerstone cuboid. Bequeathed with this corporeal fragment in that pivotal year of 1886, Father Hanly found in its visceral form and gantry-tipping weight a symbol of architectural transcendence and immigrant-powered congregational resoluteness, and when it was dedicated by mitre-and-crosier-donning pastoral dignitaries before a crowd of over 10,000 people — precisely 7,000 of whom were recorded members of the parish — it was a reverberant moment of pride for the Catholic-dominant city.
And like Yeats’s great poem, where the Sphinx and the Buddha are split-imaged from a single fount, St. Bridget’s is half of a vision created by its young master architect, Sheridan Manners (1854-1921), eldest son of former Jersey City Mayor David S. Manners (1808-1884; ninth mayor of Jersey City, 1852-1857). For Sheridan, educated at New York University and residing in the family brownstone on Barrow Street, drew the plans for two Catholic churches at the same exact time: St. Bridget’s, in Jersey City, bounded by Montgomery, Mercer, and Brunswick streets, and St. Francis Roman Catholic Church in Hoboken, at Third and Jefferson streets. Both Gothic-derivative buildings are woven of the same Croton-on-Hudson machine-pressed orange brick and beige-tinged Ohio bluestone, with St. Francis being the smaller structure, canto-like, and St. Bridget, with its ocular breadth and presence in what used to be a factory-rich neighborhood, being a stanzaic symphony for the eyes.
These revolving apparitions from the disparate tables of Yeats and Manners — both memorable poets of their respective and hugely honorable creative disciplines — transfixed me that morning as I stood in front of the inscription, but Reena’s sudden arrival signaled that the doors to the interior of the church could now be opened.
From historic church to residential units
TOUCHING VAULTS
SBJC LLC and Platinum Developers, the respective owners and developers of the site, had graciously permitted Reena and me to walk through St. Bridget’s depths and mazes — cellars, staircases, vestibules, hallways, corridors, rooms, lofts, roofs, towers — as a major, mostly under-the-radar adaptive reuse project edges closer to completion. This was our only chance to see the large-scale transformation of St. Bridget’s for ourselves and capture, up close, in photographs and words, what might never be accessible to us again.
We first entered the LWDMR Architects-designed addition at the site’s north end, at Mercer and Brunswick streets where not long ago parochial schoolchildren played during recess, and studied how the new construction — three stories of spacious luxury residences facing Brunswick Street and James J. Ferris High School — makes seamless contact with the rear of St. Bridget’s 5-foot-thick brick walls. With her wide-lensed camera pressed against her face, Reena triggered and released her shutter at every turn, every careful squeeze and shimmy through areas abuzz with construction trades workers fashioning once-spiritual spaces into 44 J. Goldman/Beam Group-designed studio, duplex, and triplex residential units, with not one alike in layout and square footage.
The strong smell of freshly sawed wood and still-soft concrete pours followed us as we exited the addition and eagerly entered what was, until recently, the deep chancel of St. Bridget’s. We knew that an immense high altar, dedicated to founding parish rectors in 1901, had already been removed by the Newark Archdiocese, as were memorial stained-glass windows, statuary, plaques, and pews, but what we were not prepared to see, especially inside ultra-modern, amenity-stocked units, were original vaulted-rib ceilings, pointed arches and spandrel spans, octagonal granite columns, ornate capitals, cherub-capped bosses, and window tracery all being repaired and repainted as part of the project’s conservation and interior design program.
We were amazed to see these architectural elements being incorporated into the engineeringly complex conversion and how they were actually guiding the configuration of newly inserted loft levels and landings, master bedrooms, baths, and kitchens. While Reena ascended each unit’s new 14-foot-high steel spiral staircase to look across and down at rose window openings, clerestory galleries, and remnants of aisle and nave transverses, I wandered into exclusive, multi-tiered apartments and, in a single glance, took in wide wall expanses adorned with religious murals. The cries I let out on seeing these oil-on-canvas paintings sized for the arches and vaults of shrines must have echoed outward and pulled Reena from her perches, for suddenly she caught up to me and started snapping pictures as I looked up at St. Bridget herself, patron saint of the former parish and soon to be a spectacular backdrop in a future occupant’s living quarters.
As we worked our way further south through all the units, up and down five stories of steps and through newly shaped corridors, we were cognizant that the original nave — the essence of the St. Bridget community, where untold baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings, and funerals took place — was no more, that soon people would be living literally within the upper cathedral voids and thresholds toward which parishioners had once canted their heads in prayer, recitation, rest, meditation. I thought about all this in the silence of that section of the site, where buses on Montgomery Street were so loud they seemed as if they were pulling up to the front doors.
Reena, now ahead of me, was probing the two bell towers that define the exterior of the Montgomery Street side of the building. I followed her seemingly returning voice to a silhouetted figure standing against archeological brick walls and under crisscrossing wooden ladders that ascend — in a sort of dust-swirl of light disturbed by footsteps — into terraces of vertical labyrinths leading to louvered bell chambers. I could sense, strongly, Reena’s immersion in these elevating spaces — immersions that in truth only photographers are able to accomplish — that will one day soon be spotlights in what will indisputably be the city’s most magnificent apartment.
MYRRH AND MOLD
Reena and I were overwhelmed by what we had just seen and what we had just felt, but there was a front crypt-conjuring basement we had to delve into before our meeting that morning was to conclude.
We descended into the basement through a side door. A mixture of myrrh and mold hovered inside the vast shadow-snared empyrean exosphere. Light from unblocked windows came in as shaft-lengths that sent currents through construction debris dropped on the floor from the demolished nave aisles above. Like barrier reefs and sand and shoal banks, these crushed stone-shapes we walked over with extended arms for stability — corralled shards of marble, granite, plaster, tesserae, cinder block — will, we were told, remain in perpetuity to help mitigate future climate change-triggered flooding.
We plumbed the stillness, all the while hearing, again, shrilling buses, though more muffled in the subterranean underpinning. Suddenly, we were standing before an arched wrought-iron gate, its portal dimensioned by pitch and perhaps a single flick of light.
From studying St. Bridget’s 19th-century archives, I discerned, at that moment, that we had found a basement chapel erected in 1894 for private Eucharistic services. The gate was not locked, so we pushed it open and climbed through — rubble was everywhere — into a small cell that had once held, perhaps until 2015, an ancient altar rail relocated from the circa-1830 stone edifice of St. Peter’s, Hudson County’s mother Catholic church, which had stood at Grand and Van Vorst streets in the Paulus Hook section of the Downtown area.
Like the upper floor units of St. Bridget’s, the basement, though a purposeful room of ruins, moved us profoundly, made us wonder what it must have been like to witness services being held below the vast sanctuary inside a candelabra-dripping room adorned with liturgical relics and antiquities.
This chapel, we learned, will be left alone as part of the front basement’s debris-filled artificial reef, a solitary niche in lasting darkness.
St. Bridget's Church Final Mass, Feb. 1, 2015
THE PARCHMENT
Left alone — Reena had already hurried off to another photo shoot — I cut through the church’s side alley and under its cloistered bridge and walked back around to the front of the building.
It was now late-morning. The sun was high in the sky above, with no waterfront skyscrapers obscuring its circling rays. Standing again at St. Bridget’s cornerstone — no doubt shrouded in verdurous secrecy for decades — I imagined yet another image, which seemed to emerge from the imported Cashel rock itself: a parchment of paper, coarsened and fragile, if not reduced to ash, placed inside of an alloyed box that rests firmly in an inner crevice cored rectangularly at the center from the top.
From the same precious archives I had been lately studying, I was aware of what had been scribed in ink, in the distant year of 1886, upon the surface of the translucent vellum within the stone — the long-lost names of parish priests, Archdiocesan eminences, national and municipal officials, architects, masons.
Intact and presumed to still contain its precious time capsule, St. Bridget’s solid cantle from the Rock of Cashel thus becomes the foundation-point for the new residential development. It will remain and, on the most magical of days, speak to future occupants of St. Bridget’s reimagined shell, unleashing multitudes of visions made real by the poets of time.
John Gomez is the founder of the non-profit Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy and holds a master of science in historic preservation from Columbia University. He can be reached at [email protected].
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