Baha'i News -- Outside Our Windows: Divine Design

Outside Our Windows: Divine Design

Wednesday, May 15, 2002


The following is the fourth in a series on architecture; this article examines the diversity of Montclair’s religious structures.

Each time Liz Donald enters First Congregational Church on South Fullerton Avenue, she is surrounded by art and overcome by the sense of history.

“You feel the age of the church, it’s impossible to ignore it,” said Donald, a Montclair resident and a longtime member of one of the oldest congregations in town, formed in 1870.

“For me, there are echoes from the worshippers of the past, and what it meant to them, and all the things that they did as a congregation through the years.”

After 14 years of worshipping in the Gothic structure — rebuilt after a fire in 1916 — its soaring steeple and its majestic carvings and stained glass windows still engulf Donald with awe.

“In worship it’s good to feel a little bit insignificant, to reorient yourself with your God,” Donald said. “And that space can make you feel insignificant. You are not the one in charge.”

One does not need to be a Christian or even a believer in God to appreciate the remarkable history and architecture of dozens of such religious structures in town.

Montclair has a proud reputation as a small town where you can find practitioners of many religions, from members of the Baha’i Faith, which originated in Iran, to Muslims and Jews. But the actual religious structures — be it a comfortable-looking brick Friends Meetinghouse on Park Street where Quakers have been meeting since 1932, or the powerful Gothic Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair, on Norwood Avenue, built in 1906 — give evidence that Montclair was quarters to an eclectic mix of religious institutions long before “diversity” became a hot word in the United States.

Today, the township lays claim to about 50 religious institutions. Most of those organizations own the structures where they worship, though a few of them still meet in private homes. According to Assistant Township Planner Donald Sammet, 10 of Montclair’s religious structures are on either the State or the Na-tional Register of Historic Places.

Some of those buildings are architectural gems. Others are simple structures on the outside, but their interiors tell stories going back 100 years.

Many styles, many stories

On the corner of Chestnut Street and Montclair Avenue, St. John’s Episcopal Church projects warmth and familiarity. The rough, native stonework of its main structure, the wide eaves coming low to the ground, a very inviting front porch and the low scale of the building invoke an air of humility. In contrast, Union Congregational Church on Cooper Avenue features a grand, almost overwhelming, tower reminiscent of a medieval fortress.

Christ Church on Church Street also impresses with its magnificence — yet in a gentler, more romantic way. According to Jonathan Perlstein, a Montclair architect, the Romanesque style is used in this church, as in some others in town, to “strike a balance between the rugged, local feel of the St. John’s Episcopal Church building and the soaring majestic feeling of the First Congregational Church building.”

These architectural treasures are scattered throughout Montclair.

“Montclair has more churches per square foot than any other town I know,” said Dennis Mylan, a Verona architect who does design work throughout Bergen and Essex counties.

There are many other New Jersey suburbs, such as Newark, Jersey City and South Orange, that have a number of beautiful, historic churches. But Montclair is unique in not only its high concentration of churches, but also in its variety of sizes and styles, Mylan said.

“The Romanesque and the Gothic are kind of dominant styles, even though there are others,” he said. “But there is such variety within those styles. You look at St. Luke’s and you look at the First United Methodist Church [on North and South Fullerton avenues, respectively], and you see that their general style is the same, but the layout where the elements are placed is different.”

According to this architect, who designed additions and did renovation work for several Montclair churches, the way the accessory structures are used also varies from church to church. “In some instances, they have large meeting halls, and others don’t have anything of that sort,” he explained. “They all feel they have a different mission, or had one when the buildings were built.”

The modern St. Cassian Church on Bellevue Avenue, which was completely rebuilt in 1996, is filled with triangular shapes and stained glass windows depicting many saints and figures from New Jersey, particularly the northern part of the state. The residential-looking design of Bnai Keshet, a synagogue on South Fullerton Avenue, projects an image of egalitarianism — and also, as Perlstein has observed, assimilation, “a key issue in American Jewish life.” The extravagant Church of Immaculate Conception on North Fullerton Avenue makes a spectacular impact with its elaborate columns and a Renaissance Revival tower projecting a breathtaking sense of height.

“There are rugged stone churches and some brick ones,” Perlstein said. “But I think there is no historical style that they strictly generate from. A lot of those structures you couldn’t necessarily pin down and say, ‘That was definitely influenced by the Gothic Period or the Romanesque Period.’ They all seem to be very unique.”

Each one of those structures is interesting in its own way. But the architecture is only part of the story that these churches tell local residents about their town.

Shaping their community

Across the street from Christ Church stands a Shingles-style building with elements of the Craftsman era and a Prairie-style addition designed by a prominent California architect. Visually, the building is very simple, but rich history lives within its walls. The Unitarian Church, formed in 1897, was one of many religious organizations that made Montclair the town that it is today.

“In the past the churches in Montclair probably figured more largely in the life of the community,” said Royal Shepard, the township historian. “Some of the churches were quite influential in motivating the town to improve itself in certain ways.”

The Unitarian Church, for example, housed the first preschool in Montclair, according to Shepard.

One of the church’s most prominent ministers, the Rev. Edgar Swan Wiers, had a strong interest in culture and the arts. Wiers helped establish the first movie theater in Montclair and promoted sex education in schools — both radical concepts in the 1920s. He founded many community and arts programs, helping Montclair gain its reputation as a culturally interesting town.

Another active congregation, Union Congregational Church, organized a yearly townwide Christmas celebration. Once a truly elaborate affair, and a significant Montclair ritual, the tradition continues to this day with the township’s annual tree lighting ceremonies, now sponsored by the municipal government.

A number of local pastors are credited with helping to shape the development of Montclair in the early 1900s. The Rev. Amory Howe Bradford of First Congregational Church was one of the most prominent local preachers.

“He was sort of behind everything that happened,” Shepard said. “He didn’t necessarily organize things, but he motivated people. For example, he talked about how shabby and ill kept some of our streets were and he mentioned the need for more trees. Bradford saw the need for a literary society and he got one started. He was also influential in motivating people to start Mountainside Hospital.”

Many well-known religious figures got their start in Montclair churches.

According to John Way, an architect for the Montclair Historical Society, the Rev. Emerson Fosdick, who preached for the First Baptist Church, housed in the Masonic Temple on South Fullerton Avenue in the early 1900s, later became famous throughout the United States.

“He was known for his literal interpretation of the Bible, and his sermons were covered through the whole country on the radio,” Way said. “He was the Billy Graham of his day.

“This just shows the importance of the town in those years,” Way added.

The roots of diversity

The religious diversity in Montclair that impresses so many people today was created by the early immigrants from different parts of the world in the late 1800s and the early 20th century.

“I grew up in a town in the South, where basically there were the Catholic churches, and they were considered the most important. The Episcopal Church was sort of side-stepped, and all you had was the Bible-Belt Baptists,” Way said. “In Montclair, you have everything from the Christian Science Church [First Church of Christ Scientist on Hillside Avenue] to a Swedish congregation [Evangelical Covenant Church on Valley Road.]”

“Many people came here from a variety of places not only in the colonial era, but even after that,” Shepard said. “They brought their religious traditions with them. And they tended to organize their lives around their religious lives.”

In addition to the Swedish congregation, which was organized around 1890, Montclair has an Italian church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Pine Street, built in 1907. Trinity Episcopal Church on North Willow Street was organized in 1906 by immigrants from the Caribbean, Jamaica and Barbados.

African-Americans also came to Montclair in relatively large numbers from the Southern states.

According to Marc Booker, a trustee of the Montclair Historical Society, they first migrated to Montclair in 1870. Gradually, several predominantly black churches sprung up in town. St. Mark’s United Methodist Church on Elm Street, built in 1880, was the first such institution, according to Booker. Today, Montclair has at least 10 African-American churches, he said.

“During the Reconstruction period most African-Americans lived in the South, but many came here to Montclair, for an opportunity to make money,” Booker said. “They were very ambitious people, who really wanted to make it here. Most of them found work as servants. That’s pretty much how it all started.”

Rev. George Abooki Kaswara is one of the more recent migrants. He came here from Uganda two years ago. Last year Kaswara became a preacher at the Trinity Episcopal Church. The feeling of worshipping in a smaller, simpler brick building that barely resembles a church is different from the sense of awe that takes over in a grand edifice such as the First Congregational Church, Kaswara said.

But he likes it that way.

“It is beautiful, when you walk inside,” Kaswara said. “There is a sense of wholesomeness. When we come into the church we just feel like we are a family, brought together in a small space.”

©Copyright 2002, The Montclair Times

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