Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church at 94 Pine St.
FILE PHOTO

By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA and LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
bartesaghi@montclairlocal.news
hochman@montclairlocal.news

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church will reopen its doors Nov. 27 — a milestone some congregants feared would never come, and that parish officials say was only possible after extensive and costly repairs to an unsafe building. 

With repairs complete, “it’s on to God’s work of repairing hearts,” the Rev. Amilcar Benito Prado — popularly known as “Father Benny” — told Montclair Local in an email Tuesday. 

The church, on Pine Street between Claremont and Glenridge avenues, will celebrate Mass at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 27, he said. The weekend marks the first Sunday of Advent. Weekend Masses will continue from there.

The news follows what Prado said was extensive work to OLMC. It also comes after years of activism from parishioners, heightened during the church’s merger with Immaculate Conception Church  in 2016 into the joint St. Teresa Parish — when many parishioners, fearing OLMC would close altogether, took their concerns to a protest outside the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the seat of the Newark Archdiocese.

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The activism centered around the Save Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church organization, which is closely connected to a community outreach program made up of parishioners, but not formally recognized by the parish. It continued as members complained on the group’s Facebook page and elsewhere about what they saw as years-long neglect of the building issues, and of cutbacks to events such as the church’s annual summertime feast.

Prado, in his email, attributed parish building issues to several factors: “The shifting populations that formerly attended church in Montclair and beyond reflected fewer people, collections were shrinking drastically, and the adverse reaction of the people to the merger of OLMC and Immaculate Conception all contributed to a severe lack of maintenance for the buildings, many of which are more than 100 years old.” 

Raffaele Marzullo, a member of the executive board of the community outreach program and a member of Save Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, told Montclair Local the church closed around the summer of 2019, after an air conditioner broke, though posts to his group’s Facebook page later that year seemed to describe a cut-back schedule of Masses and roped-off sections of the church because of structural issues. Montclair Local has left Prado a message seeking clarification on the timeline but had not received a response by press time.

In 2020, all churches shut down in-person services as the coronavirus pandemic hit. When the archdiocese allowed buildings to reopen in the summer as state restrictions loosened, Prado chose not to reopen OLMC, he said, because of the continuing building issues.

That prompted Save Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church to send multiple letters over the next many months to the archdiocese, and then later to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy and its Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, seeking to appeal the decision, Marzullo said. Earlier this year, they got a letter from the Vatican saying there had been no formal decree to close the church, and therefore nothing to appeal.

Marzullo, for his part, said he wanted to focus on the positive news of the reopening — thanking canon lawyers in Rome who helped the community groups through the process. And “we want to thank Cardinal Joseph Tobin because without his direction and without his influence, we don’t think Mount Carmel would be reopened,” Marzullo said. He said he was encouraged that work seemed to pick up sometime after the letters to the Vatican. 

Prado described the reopening as the latest step in a lengthy journey. He wrote in his email that when he was assigned to the parish in 2017, “I quickly discovered a community of faith, actually two communities, that were fractured, disillusioned and some, even angry.”

“The broken condition of many of the parish buildings was reflective of the broken hearts of many of the faithful parishioners,” he wrote. 

Prado said OLMC was in “particularly bad shape,” with engineers finding its roof was in immediate need of repair, and with leaks reappearing even after some work was done. Plaster fell from the ceilings, leaving dust in the pews, and sections of the church were closed for safety reasons, he said. Water infiltrated the basement through damaged pipes.

In 2019, the boiler and then later an HVAC unit died, Prado said. The boiler was replaced in the winter, but the HVAC replacement had to be put off due to cost, he said. 

In the pandemic closures, Prado said, he met with archdiocesan representatives “and explained the worsening conditions of our parish buildings and the growing anxiety and frustration of our people.”

“We focused our attention primarily on the structural issues at OLMC, in order to make the repairs needed to maintain the structural integrity of this beautiful and historic building,” he said.

Prado said since then there has been work on the roof, to damaged snow pipes, to drain pipes and the interior. 

Marialena Marzullo, Raffaele Marzullo’s sister as well as a member of both the community outreach and Save Our Lady of Mount Carmel groups, said the parishioners had been in touch with the leadership last year about repairs — “and they finally got around to doing the repairs, which is wonderful.”

Prado said the ceiling of the church has been repaired and painted, “and it no longer bears the scars of the roof leaks that existed for many, many years.”

Raffaele Marzullo said the community outreach program had offered to donate a new sound system to the church, but Prado declined the offer. Prado, in his email to Montclair Local, said the offer was received weeks after the church had already purchased a new sound system on its own. Marzullo told Montclair Local the outreach program has offered to pay for that system, if the price is comparable to one it had researched. 

In the time the church has been closed, the community outreach program continued in what members say was the longstanding spirit of service among congregants. 

Last year, the Marzullos and program members delivered food, doughnuts and bread to the First Montclair House retirement community, to first responders at Mountainside hospital and to the Montclair police and fire departments, to support them in the pandemic. The program also distributes food to Toni’s Kitchen, the food ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. It provided ice cream to Mountainside hospital once a week during the summer.

“We provided every day to the Salvation Army breakfast items individually wrapped for our veterans and our homeless,” Marialena Marzullo said.

Prado, in his email, said as the work of “repairing hearts” continues after the repairs to the building, “I pray that I will have the support and cooperation of all in our community to accomplish the same success.”