By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
The word “catholic” means universal. The liturgy is the same in every Catholic church in the world. At one time the Mass was always in Latin. It is now in the language of the country in which the church is located, but the words used are the same everywhere.
Yet not everyone feels at home in every church. In an oral interview compiled by Elizabeth Shepard, who was the local historian for the Montclair Public Library at the time, William Cannady, a longtime parishioner of St. Peter Claver Church, recalled a shameful period when African Americans at Immaculate Conception Church were not allowed to sit with the rest of the congregation.
They were forced to sit in the basement and listen to the liturgy over the PA system. Communion would be brought down to them after the Mass ended. Eight African American parishioners approached the Rev. Cornelius Ahern, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newark, who formed them into St. Peter Claver Mission in 1931.
Their numbers, mostly African Americans, quickly grew, and they rented a private house on Elm Street. The house was owned by St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, which was then located on Bloomfield Avenue. The Claver Mission tried to purchase the property on Elm Street.
The two parties could not reach an agreement, so, in 1939, the Claver Mission built a brand new church on Elmwood Avenue. As it turned out, St. Mark’s needed that property on Elm Street to build a new building when the church on Bloomfield Avenue burned to the ground in 1947.
The Claver Mission was able to raise the $53,000 needed to build the new building on Elmwood. Much of that money was donated by Newark banker William F. Hoffman, CEO of the United States Savings Bank. William’s son, Albert Hoffman, was chosen to design the interior of the new church. The exterior was designed by Paul C. Reilly, who partnered with Douglas Hall in the architectural firm Reilly and Hall.
The new edifice was modern. The design was simple and open, with artistic touches that made the space feel welcoming. Reilly and Hall were known for designing churches like the Church of Our Savior on Park Avenue in N.Y.C. and theaters like the Wellmont in Montclair.
The mission became a full-fledged parish in 1973 after 42 years as a mission associated with Our Lady Queen of Angels. The Rev. Charles McTague was the first administrator. The parish was not territorial. It drew parishioners from all over the greater Montclair area.
Father McTague wanted to reach out to the Haitian community and started offering Masses in French/Creole. Father John Holian became the first official pastor in 1978. In the 1970s St. Peter Claver added a Korean Mass for the Koreans in the vicinity.
One of the aforementioned artistic touches, and one of the first things you notice as you enter the church, are the large green bronze doors with images of the patron saint, Peter Claver, cast in relief on them.
St. Peter Claver was a Spanish priest who was sent to Colombia in 1610. Father Claver was appalled by the slavery that surrounded him in Cartagena, the center of the South American slave market. He spent the rest of his life ministering to slaves, comforting them and trying to heal them when they were sick. It is said that he baptized as many as 300,000 souls.
When he visited the plantations where the slaves were used he declined to stay in the grand houses. He stayed with his people in the slave quarters.
The doors were created by George Kratina, a member of an artistic family who came from Bohemia, in the former Czechoslovakia, by way of France. He was primarily a sculptor. One of his better-known works is the statue of St. Leonard at the St. Leonard Living Center in Centerville, Ohio.
Kratina began his career working for his father, Joseph Kratina, who had a studio in Brooklyn. Another person who worked for his father was Vincent Pacelli, who is credited for creating several things that now grace St. Peter Claver.
Montclair Times articles from the 1930s disagree on which items Vincent made, but there seems to be consensus that he carved and polychromed the altar frontispiece and that he painted the scenes on the lower portion of the stained-glass windows. The windows are made up of many multicolored pieces that overall shed a warm, welcoming, reddish/orange hue on the interior.
Another sign of welcome is the granite hand over the front doors. It is called the “Finger of God.” Perhaps the finger is beckoning all to come in.
St. Peter Claver was formed to serve the African American community, but its members have always gone out of their way to make everyone feel at home. It was one of the first churches in the archdiocese to offer Masses in Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines. In 2002 Pastor Jose Gamba, who was born in Colombia, introduced a Spanish Mass. Under the current pastor, the Rev. Zephyrin “Zeph” Katomaba, from Zaire, who speaks several languages, Mass is now celebrated in English, Spanish and French/Creole.
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history, written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.