I Love to Tell the Story: A Profile of Christ Church, New Brunswick, New Jersey
I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
Seem hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
‘Twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.
“I Love to Tell the Story,” Lyrics by Arabella Katherine Hankey (1866)
Gospel hymn in the public domain
The history of New Jersey is a story of a people ever in search of their identity: from
Dutch colony to sole proprietorships; from royal colony to independent state; from an
overwhelmingly agricultural economy to an overwhelmingly industrial one; from the last
northern state to outlaw slavery to one of the most multiracial, multiethnic areas in the nation.
The story of New Jersey reflects the story of Christ Church, as it struggled to understand what
God was at work doing around them.
What is now the State of New Jersey was once the home of the Lenni-Lenape Indians but
came under Dutch control as part of New Netherlands (the boundaries of which once extended
from Albany, New York down to what is today the State of Delaware). The area came under
English control in 1664 when the Dutch surrendered their domain to the invading forces of the
British military and had the area renamed New York (after James, Duke of York, later King James
II of England). From 1674 to 1701, the area below Manhattan was divided in two (known as
West and East Jersey) and given as a grant to two proprietors, Lord Berkeley and George
Carteret. Both provinces were merged into the royal colony of New Jersey in 1702.
With English control came English settlers, who in the old country had been member of
the Church of England. The laity may have claimed a religious identity as Anglicans, but more
as an idea than as regular practice. In 1701 English minister Thomas Bray formed the Society
for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) to minister to these new settlers. It is to the SPG that Christ Church owes its existence.
In 1711 a group of Anglicans were holding service in an old broken down townhouse in
Piscataway they shared with Baptists. Under the influence of William Skinner, an SPG minister, in 1717 a timber frame church was built, which was completed in 1724. St. James Parish in
Piscataway continued to grow, including members from higher up the Raritan River in New
Brunswick. The demand was such that a group gathered in 1742 to construct another church, to
be called Christ Church, on the New Brunswick side of the River.
Although construction began in 1742, title to the land was not obtained until 1745. This
was because one of the original church planners was Philip French, who was the largest land
owner in New Brunswick. French did not believe in selling land, but for public buildings that
would benefit the community he did provide land leases at nominal rates. For the land to build
Christ Church, he charged a yearly rent of “one peppercorn a year, only if asked.” The lease for
the land is still on display in the Rector’s office at Christ Church. Throughout the early years,
Christ Church remained a mission parish. It would not receive a royal charter as an independent parish until 1761.
For the past several years, members of Christ Church have celebrated the third public
reading of the Declaration of Independence (which occurred in New Brunswick, July 8, 1776, in
the shadow of the church tower, which was only five years old at the time). While we like to
think the parish was fully behind such efforts, the reality is that during the Revolution the
parish was quite conflicted. Figures such as Col. John Nielson, and Brigadier General Anthony
White did, in fact, fight on behalf of the Patriots. But the church also contained its share of
Loyalists, such as John Antill, who fought with the 2nd Battalion of the New Jersey Volunteers (a Loyalist force).
One figure caught in the middle was the Rector, the Rev. Abraham Beach. Beach
sympathized with the Patriots aims, but could not support rebellion as a means to the end.
Moreover as an Anglican cleric, he had taken oaths to support the Crown, and the liturgy
included prayers for the King. One morning as he was preparing for service he was threatened
with death if he offered such prayers, as a result of which he decided to close the church for the duration of the war. Being a faithful cleric and a moderate at heart, he continued his ministry even during the war, worshiping in the homes of sympathetic parishioners, and often deleting the prayers for the King if he thought such would offend delicate sensibilities.
Following the war, the political energies of the newly independent states were focused
on forming “a more perfect union,” first in the Articles of Confederation, later in the
Constitution of the United States of America. The newly independent daughter churches of the
Church of England also sought “a more perfect union,” and foremost in the leadership was the
same Abraham Beach. In the winter of 1783/84 he corresponded with William White (later the
first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church) and other clergy in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York soliciting a gathering to “consider the state of the church.” He extended an invitation to meet at Christ Church May 11, 1784. The outgrowth of that meeting was a call for another meeting in October 1784 with representatives from all thirteen states to consider a general convention to manage the affairs of the newly independent church. The First General
Convention met in September 1785, leading to the current shape of the church we now know:
with equal voice and vote for bishops, clergy and laity, the beginnings of an American Book of
Common Prayer, and our own national Constitution and Canons.
Although he left Christ Church in June 1784, Beach was also influential in the first state
convention of the clergy of New Jersey, held July 6, 1785. Although the Diocese of New Jersey
traces its origin to this meeting, the delegates did not use the word “Diocese” and did not see
themselves as forming such. There was as yet no bishop in New Jersey, and one could not have a diocese without a bishop. Due to the weak financial state of the new church in New Jersey, there would be no bishop in New Jersey for 30 years following the first 1785 gathering.
That changed with the election of John Croes as the first Bishop of the Diocese of New
Jersey in 1815. The son of a Polish father and a German mother, Croes had fought in the
Revolution in Washington’s army, rising to the rank of sergeant major. A self-educated man,
following ordination he was made pastor of a former Lutheran church in Swedesboro, New
Jersey, reviving its fortunes. He did the same for Christ Church (which for most of the half
century before he became rector had a rapid turnover in ministers, most staying no more than 3 years). It is a testimony to Croes’ leadership that he placed the parish on sufficient footing that it would never go through such rapid turnover again. In fact Croes’ second successor, Alfred Stubbs, served the longest pastorate in the history of the church, 42 years (1840-1882). The church was so comfortable financially that in 1852 the parish tore down its 100 year old structure and enlarged it, using (in part) many of the stones from the first building. Stubbs was also instrumental in the founding of other area parishes, including St. John the Evangelist (New Brunswick), St. John’s in Somerville, and St. Paul’s in Bound Brook.
It is to Stubbs’ successor, Elisha Brooks Joyce, that we owe a distinguishing feature of
parish life still active today – the parish choir. Organ music has been part of parish life almost
from the beginning, as was a parish choir, although from available records the quality of the
early music program was not high. It is said that shortly after he became rector, Elisha Brooks
Joyce received complaints about the quality of the music, so that he appointed George Wilmot,
the parish’s first professional chorister. A decade later Wilmot was appointed the first music
director and in 1893 he established a formally vested men’s and boys’ choir, which first
performed for the Easter Service in 1894. The present Christ Church music program inherits the legacy established by Wilmot.
Joyce also supervised the construction of the Parish House on Paterson Street, still in use
today. But the construction placed the parish deeply in debt, a debt passed on to his successor, Herbert Parrish. Father Parrish was a man of substantial financial acumen. During Joyce’s final illness, Parrish served as supply clergy. Parish records indicate even during the interim, he admonished parish leaders as to how the church’s finances were handled. After his election as rector, he worked with William Hopkins Leupp and James Parsons to establish an “endowment fund” for the parish. By the time he left after his 13 year pastorate, the previously debt-ridden parish had an investment fund totaling $250,000, a fund that enabled the parish to survive the Depression far more easily than more financially strapped churches.
Parrish also was committed to Sunday Schools as essential to faith development. This is
most clearly seen in the establishment of the Highland Park Sunday School in 1921 (supported
by funding from the will of William Leupp), which in time led to the founding of All Saints
Episcopal Church in Highland Park. He was also instrumental in the development of still
another Episcopal parish in New Brunswick, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. We will hear more
about the founding of that parish later, when we discuss the issue of race in the church.
Finally, it needs to be noted about Parrish that he was a committed ecumenist, at a time
when not many Christian sought to build bridges with their Christian brothers and sisters. In
1918, less than a decade after the Edinburgh Missionary Conference which began the modern
ecumenical movement, Herbert Parrish organized a trial four-church united worship service
over a four week period. He then tried to get the three local judicatories associated with those
churches (the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church, and the Episcopal Church) to permit intercommunion and recognition of each other’s orders. Conversations with local officials took place, but the conversations went nowhere.
Parrish’s successor, Walter Stowe, served the second longest pastorate in the church’s
history, 37 years (1929-1966). It could also be argued that it was the second most tumultuous
period (after the American Revolution). During his pastorate Stowe had to contend with the
Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the beginnings of the Viet Nam War, the Civil
Rights Movement, and the beginning of white flight to the suburbs. Due to Fr. Parrish’s
investment fund, the parish weathered the Depression relatively easily, but the Second World
War was harder to avoid. The memorials around the building testify to the impact of the war on the parish. From all available evidence, at least 120 young men served in the war, of whom 10 never returned.
Following the war Stowe was instrumental in establishing the Episcopal chaplaincy at
Rutgers. In 1949 two Episcopal members of the Rutgers’ community, Clarence A. Lambelet
(Professor of Engineering) and Jane Conlin (a senior at Douglass College, the Rutgers’ College
for women) set out to organize a Canterbury Club for 400 Episcopal students at Rutgers. They
approached Stowe with the idea. The rector gave his backing to the plan and approached the
Procter Foundation for financial support. With such support Clarence W. Sickles, a new curate,
was hired for Christ Church, who began his service to both the church and the Episcopal
ministry in September 1951. Please note, Clarence A. Lambelet himself was later ordained as a
priest, and subsequently served as Rutgers’ Episcopal Chaplain. The Episcopal Chaplain at
Rutgers, Fr. Greg Bezilla, is still a parish associate of Christ Church as of this writing (2012).
Stowe’s immediate successor, Charles Gomph Newbery, came to Christ Church from All
Saints Church in Princeton, but only remained three years (1966-1969). Reflecting the liturgical
changes that were occurring elsewhere in the church, Fr. Newbery instituted a number of
changes in the worship space. A free standing altar was installed and the semi-circular choir
stalls were built in the chancel. The Clarke Chapel was established, and the old altar moved
there. The sacristy was also added. The current shape of the church is attributable to him.
Given the social upheavals of the day, he also established an outreach to the neighborhood,
beginning an English as a Second Language program.
Frank Van Hise Carthy, was a man rooted in the social outreach of the church. In his
previous position Carthy served as Rector of All Saints, Indianapolis and Canon Almoner of the
Diocese of Indiana. As such he was responsible for the charity and social service programs of
the diocese. He served as: Executive Director of the Department of Christian Relations;
President of the Indianapolis Mental Health Association; served on the Board, and was Vice
President of, the National Mental Health Association; and served as Chair of Province V of the
national church. He also served as Executive Director of Episcopal Community Services,
providing chaplaincy services in hospitals and public institutions, directing diocesan social
welfare and referrals services, and providing pastoral counseling for individual and family
Carthy came to Christ Church in 1970, where he continued his involvement in the social
issues in the community. He became President of the Visiting Nurse Association of Middlesex
County, Secretary of the Human Relations Council of Middlesex County, President of the “Needy Cases Fund” of the New Brunswick Home News newspaper, and President of the Hall Education Foundation. It has been said about Fr. Carthy that he “spent almost as much time at City Council meetings as he did at Vestry meetings,” and that he had more involvement in
transforming New Brunswick from a deteriorating city to the renewed city it became than any
rector before him. He retired from Christ Church in 1986, but continued to serve as Vicar of All
Saints Church in Highland Park (a mission of Christ Church) until shortly before his death.
The period between Carthy’s departure and the 1991 arrival of the next long-term
rector, Joan Fleming, was a period of instability for the parish, as Christ Church was served by
four rectors or interim rectors in five years. The Rev. Robert Magnus served as Interim Rector
from February to September 1986. He is best remembered for his every member visitations and his guitar renditions at weekly bible studies in parishioners’ homes. From January to August 1987 the parish was led by Interim Rector Canon Thomas McElligott who provided the
McGilligot was succeeded by William Edwin Arnold, rector from 1987 to 1989, the most
significant figure during this difficult period between Carthy and Joan Fleming. During his
period of service the parish was faced with the construction of the new parking deck that now
abuts the church yard. Construction of the parking deck threatened the graveyard and the
memorial wall, and he led the parish effort to protect the integrity of each. In 1989 with the
Vestry he led efforts to protect the architectural integrity of the church. The first phase included reinforcement of the tower beams, church roof repairs, storm drain installations, concrete work, window repairs, renovation of the heating systems, electrical upgrades, and installation of fire systems. He was also responsible for the installation of the tile floor in the church, during which the nearly 70 year old rood screen in the chancel was removed. Also, in cooperation with the pastors of two other New Brunswick churches (St. John the Evangelist and Emanuel Lutheran Church), he founded Elijah’s Promise. The ministry evolved from the preexisting meal services offered by the three parishes. Today the ministry is still an ecumenical ministry, operating a community soup kitchen, a catering business, and trains previously unskilled workers (including ex-convicts) for careers in the food service industry.
Following Fr. Arnold, the church was briefly served by Interim Rector Rev. David Adams,
who was best known for his scholarly bible classes. He continued oversight for the restoration
and renovation efforts; however he was only here for two years, 1989 to 1991.
In 1991 Joan Fleming arrived as Interim Rector, and two years later she was elected as
the permanent rector. As such she was the first woman called as rector of Christ Church. Born
in London, England, Joan received her undergraduate degree from Oxford University (1960), her Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary (1979), and her Master of
Theology degree from the same institution in 1991. She was ordained deacon in 1986 and
priest the following year. Following ordination she served as Associate at St. Paul’s Church in
Bound Brook from 1986 to 1991.In the latter year she came to Christ Church to serve as Interim Rector. Although contrary to normal practice, given the instability the church had known in the preceding years, the search committee petitioned Bishop George Belshaw to allow her to stay as the new rector. Episcopal consent being received, Joan became the new rector in 1993 and continued to serve until 2004.
Joan’s was arguably the most momentous ministry since that of Abraham Beach. In
terms of parish infrastructure, it was during her administration that the new Richards, Fowkes
and Company organ was installed. She also built on her predecessors’ architectural efforts by
initiating a long-term planning effort to preserve the church’s historic buildings. The parish
retained Historic Building Architects of Trenton to survey the condition of its buildings and
make recommendations for their long-term restoration and maintenance. The 15-year plan
that was developed has guided activities since. Phase 1 was completed in 2005 at a cost of $1.3 million. Phase 2 was completed in 2011, at a cost to the parish of $1.2 million.
During her pastorate the parish also grew substantially; most notably due to her
welcome of people of color (mostly Blacks from Africa and the Caribbean, now living in the
greater New Brunswick area). We will hear more of that below. She established the parish Black Heritage Committee (whose Celebration of Black Heritage has become a well-attended annual gathering in the twenty years since). She also initiated a Diocesan-led conversation on
institutionalized racism, “Unlearning Racism.” She also engaged the parish in outreach
ministries, including the beginnings of the Food Pantry; the interfaith Homeless Shelter, as well support for English as a Second Language program.
Following Joan’s departure, the Rev. Robert Shearer was appointed Interim Rector. Unlike
the previous interim’s, Fr. Shearer’s interim was more successful. During his time among us, he was instrumental in honoring Joan Fleming as Rector Emerita and arranging for the hanging of her portrait in the Nicholas Room. He worked closely with the Vestry and Property Committee in setting goals for the interim period, and facilitated communication with the parish via a “town meeting” and “Rector’s forum.” Because of his successful work among us, the next rector called was a good fit.
That rector was Deborah Meister. Born in New York City, Mother Deborah graduated
from Harvard University (1990), and UCLA (where she earned a Ph.D. in English Literature in
1999). Born of a Jewish family, she was baptized at UCLA and later attended Yale Divinity
School, from which she graduated in 2002.
Upon ordination she served as parish associate at St. Luke’s Church in Birmingham,
Alabama. During her tenure there, the parish went through turmoil surrounding the House of
Bishops’ decision to agree to the consecration of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in
the Episcopal Church. Her rector tried to lead the parish out of the national church, and the
bishop deposed him. Although continuing as associate she had a high level of responsibility for keeping the parish going during the interim until a new rector was chosen. It was said that the parish very much wanted to keep her as their permanent rector, but the bishop declined to approve such a move, and so Deborah was forced to seek a new appointment.
Deborah came to Christ Church in 2006. While here she conducted the Living Stones
Campaign, which continued Joan Fleming’s 15-year historic restoration project, providing
necessary repairs to the building and its surroundings: addressing drainage problems around
the cloister and the church; putting on a new roof; and undertaking new electrical work and
new lighting for the sanctuary. She also helped the parish deal with the controversies
surrounding the national church and the Anglican Communion through the Windsor Report
She also supervised the first transition in the music program in 17 years. Mark Trautman
came as Director of Music in 1994, and left at the end of 2010. His tenure was the third longest
in the history of Christ Church. A parish search committee was formed, and in September 2011 his successor was named. Dr. John Sheridan has a BA in Music from Whitworth College (1974), a Master of Music degree at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, specializing in Vocal Accompanying (1983), an MA degree in Musicology from the Eastman School of Music (1997) and a Doctor of Music Arts degree, also from the Eastman School, specializing in Organ
Performance and Literature (1998). Deborah left in 2011 for family reasons. Today she is the
rector of St. Alban’s Church in Washington, DC.
Reflections on Similarities and Differences across History
The 270-year history of the parish identifies several continuities through time, as well
as several discontinuities. The more obvious traits can be found in the attention given to
worshiping “the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” This is seen most notably in the care with
which the liturgy is celebrated, but also in the quality of our music. Organ music has been part
of parish life almost from the beginning, as was a parish choir, although from available records the quality of the early music program was not high. Since the establishment of a formally vested men’s and boys’ choir in 1893, Christ Church has been noted for the high quality of its choral program. More information on the present state of the parish music program will be found elsewhere in this profile.
Another major inheritance from the past is the focus on Christian education. The earliest
Sunday School program dates back to 1828, when Bishop John Croes was rector. Later in the
19th century a separate building was established for just such a purpose. Today several different programs for the younger members of the parish are available, and in recent years more attention has been given to adult education programs. And of course, Christ Church is
connected to the Rutgers Campus Ministry through its parish associate, Episcopal Chaplain
Greg Bezilla. The commitment to education should not surprise anyone, as the present parish
membership includes a large number of teachers, academics, librarians, and other education
Still another is the commitment to ecumenism. From Fr. Parrish’s short-lived experiment
with ecumenical dialogue, the parish engages in ecumenical cooperation with many of its
outreach ministries, most especially in the Interfaith Homeless Shelter. In addition, regular
Thanksgiving services are held with our Roman Catholic, Jewish and Protestant neighbors each
year. A guest preacher from another tradition is common during our annual Black Heritage
Celebration each year, and joint services with Emanuel Lutheran Church are also common. Our ecumenical relationships are strong.
Several discontinuities clearly present themselves for those with eyes to see. One
concerns the role of women. It is clear that in the early life of the church the contributions of
women were not at its center. This is seen most clearly in the creation of the Women’s Guild (an “auxiliary” organization in which women exercised leadership at a time when they were not permitted to participate in Vestry or ordained leadership). As of this writing it is not clear
exactly when the Women’s Guild was created, but it likely was in the early 20th century because mention of it is not found in 19th century records. In 1939, the Women’s Guild was renamed the Louise Deshler Ross Guild, and the room where they met was renamed the Ross Room in her honor. This timeline also appears to accord with Marion B. Devoe’s selection in 1934 as head of the Altar Guild (created as another parish organization as a vehicle for women’s contributions). But over the years women’s full incorporation into parish life was changing. In 1970 the Episcopal Church General Convention authorized the election of women to vestries and as deputies to General Convention, and in 1976 General Convention authorized the ordination of women. Both had profound impact on the parish as Christ Church women assumed leadership on vestry, as wardens, as curates, and finally in 1993 the election of Joan Fleming as the first rector of Christ Church, to be succeeded by Deborah Meister. Today women assume leadership roles in all aspects of the corporate life at Christ Church.
Another significant difference is in the socio-economic makeup of the parish. For most
of the 19th and the early 20th centuries Christ Church was an establishment church. It could be described truthfully as the “Johnson and Johnson Church.” Among its members were James
Wood Johnson (co-founder of Johnson and Johnson), Frederick Kilmer (father of poet Joyce
Kilmer and research chemist for Johnson and Johnson), and Walter Williams (the President of
Johnson and Johnson International). Other members were part of the economic and political
elite (such as Nicholas Gouveneur Rutgers, President of the New Brunswick Savings Bank, Grace Wells, founder of what is now Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and Fred Devoe, former Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly). The present parish is less politically connected and more solidly middle class.
Given the earlier socio-economic make-up the parish, explicit outreach, particularly that
connected with the social outreach to the poor and marginalized, was not foremost on the
horizon. Farsighted pastors, such as Frank Carthy and Joan Fleming, awakened the parish to the reality that it could not ignore the changes in the city that brought suffering to many. Ministries that they founded or supported, such as Elijah’s Promise, the Food Pantry, the Interfaith Homeless Shelter, and other efforts to teach English as a second language, as well as to counsel those with immigration issues through the Boaz Community Corporation (no longer extant) attest to the parish’s increasing awareness that it needs to be more attentive to the needs of its neighborhood.
Christ Church and Race
Arguably the biggest break with Christ Church’s past is the present racial makeup of the
parish. For much of its history Christ Church saw itself as a White church. In its earliest days,
Black slaves were evangelized, but baptism did nothing to emancipate them. Existing parish
records include 26 baptisms of known slaves, owned by parish members (including two rectors, Abraham Beach and John Croes). There may, of course, have been others of whom we have no records.
Blacks were members of the church but they were not seated with the Whites. In the 19th
and early 20th centuries, blacks were seated in the gallery, along with those who could not
afford pew rents. When pew rents were abolished in the early 1920s, the decision was made to relocate the organ from the chancel to the gallery, displacing the Black members of the church. Taking that as an indication they were not particularly welcome, the displaced African American members formed their own parish, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, a
predominantly Afro-Anglican mission which still exists.
The racial nature of the parish did not change much for half a century, but beginning in
the mid-1970s, the composition of the church would be transformed. Blacks who moved into
the city from other areas (including many from the Caribbean and Africa) joined the church. The church during this period has been described as not particularly welcoming to newcomers, but this was especially so for persons of color. Some parish members would not shake their hands during the peace, and all but told them their place was at St. Alban’s.
Two persons in particular helped to change this dynamic. One was Father Martin Gutwein, a curate under Fr. Frank Carthy, who had served in the Peace Corps and knew the family members of some of the new members and made them feel welcome. With his acceptance, some of the veteran members of the parish invited more and more of the newcomers into existing parish ministries.
The most significant person, however, was arguably Joan Fleming, who decided to tackle
the racial tension in the church head on. She exercised a regular ministry of parish visitation,
and deliberately extended invitations to all, White and Black alike. She created programming to address the heritage of all, Italian Night, International Night and a Celebration of Black Heritage (the latter one being an ongoing parish event 20 years later). Her diocesan initiative,
“Unlearning Racism,” was first offered at Christ Church. Strides were also made in the liturgy,
as music from Lift Every Voice and Sing II was incorporated alongside the classical repertoire
that had been a part of Christ Church’s life during the interim rectorship of Robert Shearer.
Also, under Mother Deborah Meister, a Jazz Vespers service was occasionally offered.
In 1953, a full year before the famous Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka,
Kansas decision by the Supreme Court (which came down against segregation in public
schools), Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted as saying, “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the
most segregated hour in America.” While we still don’t live in a multicultural paradise, Black and White members alike report the church is “more welcoming and more diverse” than at any time in its history. They have described it as “the best church in the diocese.” There is an openness and camaraderie among the people of Christ Church (regardless of color) that was not there forty years ago. We like to think Christ Church in 2012 is an Episcopal Church of which Martin Luther King would be proud.