BY JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Empty pews due to COVID-19 have meant empty collection baskets for churches throughout the region. Our Lady of Mount Carmel might be the first casualty.
Since the merger of Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Immaculate Conception into one parish — St. Teresa of Calcutta — in 2016, the parish has worked to build one community but with two worship sites. Over the years Mount Carmel, located in the Fourth Ward, struggled with much-needed roof repairs and tried to raise funds for heating and cooling upgrades, holding fundraisers such as the well-attended feasts and tricky trays. Masses were held every day, and once on Saturdays and Sundays. Immaculate Conception, in the Third Ward, held four Masses on Sunday, in addition to daily Masses.
Then in March, the coronavirus hit, closing the doors of all churches. This week, when the governor increased the number of people permitted for indoor gatherings, allowing houses of worship to reopen, the Rev. Amilcar Benito Prado of St. Teresa announced that Immaculate Conception would reopen but Mount Carmel would not, “for the foreseeable future.”
Prado said that due to parts of the ceiling falling down throughout the church and the risk of injury from falling debris, church officials decided not to reopen.
“As many know, we have struggled with identifying, paying for, and completing the extensive repairs this building requires. It is a building that has not received any preventative maintenance or necessary repairs for many years. Most notably, the roof has leaked since before my arrival, and the air conditioning does not work,” Prado wrote to parishioners.
The church has spent more than $25,000 in the past three years attempting to stop the leaks, but has been unsuccessful. It has requested assistance from the archdiocese several times over the last few months, without response, Prado said.
“Sadly, given the treacherous state of the building, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church will continue to be closed for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, established in 1907 to serve the needs of newly arrived immigrants from Italy, is on the New Jersey and national historic registries. The first Mass was celebrated on Sunday, Sept. 8, 1907, in a wooden structure on the site. The current rectory and church were constructed during the Depression, in 1937, with the parishioners and the pastor determined to build the massive structure seen today.
In 2016, the New Energies program of the Archdiocese of Newark was initiated to better utilize archdiocesan resources – human, structural and financial. At the recommendation of this program’s experts after wide-ranging studies were conducted, the decision was made to merge Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Mount Carmel into one new parish. It was named after St. Teresa of Calcutta to coincide with her canonization on Sept. 4, 2016.
Lifetime parishioner Tom Russo, who grew up in the then-mostly Italian neighborhood surrounding the church and who has been working to save it, said he believes the closing of the building has been in the works for more than four years.
“The coronavirus was a blessing sent to them as an excuse to close us down,” Russo said.
Petrus Development, which helps Catholic ministries build sustainable development programs, held a virtual summit for churches to rethink their future fundraising strategies. During that summit Petrus owner and president Andrew Robison said parishes would be down 50 to 70 percent in collections per week until churches reopen. And when they do, at least 40 percent of their parishioners will be out of work or struggling to pay the bills.
In May, the Archdiocese of Newark announced plans to close 10 Catholic schools, in Newark, Cresskill, Fair Lawn, Caldwell, Irvington, East Orange, Springfield, New Providence, Union, and Elizabeth, due to low enrollment and costs.
In response to an inquiry from Montclair Local to the archdiocese about the future of the church and if they plan to sell it, Maria Margiotta, director of communications and public relations said: “We want to be supportive of the parish community and we are in ongoing talks to find the right solution. The safety of our parishioners, clergy, religious and staff remain our topmost priority.”
Raffaele Marzullo, who co-founded Mount Carmel’s Community Outreach Program, claims that the closure means 200 close-knit parishioners will now be displaced.
“We have never been a basket church, we have always been a community events church,” Marzullo said about the church committee, which has raised funds through feasts and tricky trays over the years.
Not only did the last feast in 2018 provide community-wide, affordable entertainment that thousands attended, but it raised $27,000 for the church. The feast was both festive and religious, including a Mass on Sunday morning, followed by a four-hour procession of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel statue through the streets around Pine Street.
A tricky tray held last year raised another $21,000, Marzullo said. He also noted the $5,000 a month that the church takes in for renting out its parking lot to Mountainside hospital.
Last year the feast was downgraded to a tailgate party, with the plan being to alternate years between a feast and a legacy dinner to honor parishioners. Trying to do both in the same year was too much, Prado said when the feast was downgraded.
Critics say that while the feast was accessible and affordable to the community, the dinner was not.
Marzullo claims the merger was never to “save Mount Carmel, it was to bury it.”
“We have tried to sit down with Father Benny, but nothing ever came of it,” he said.
Instead, Russo contends, the sale of the church will be used to pay off debts.
“This is a slap in the face to Montclair’s Italian immigrants who built this parish,” he said.
Prado would not comment further on the church’s closure.
Following the 2016 announcement that Mount Carmel would merge with Immaculate, rumors circulated that the century-old Pine Street church building would be shuttered, though they were denied by parish clergy. However, with the decision to not reopen the church and with the needed roof repairs and boiler and air-conditioning replacements, parishioners are questioning their standing within the archdiocese.