Sunday, July 25, 2010

Elizabeth carpenters offer free services to fix financially-strapped church

Carmen Juri/The Star-Ledger

ELIZABETH — Warm weather means congregants at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Elizabeth worship at the impressive sanctuary during Sunday services. (9 photos)

But when the cold hits, services have to be held in a small parish hall because the financially-strapped church cannot afford to dole out $900 each week to heat the massive, 55-foot-high ceiling sanctuary.

Last year, the church was in such dire straits, it was forced to sell three of its 100-year-old stained-glass windows for $500,000. Two more are currently for sale.

No funds were available to bring the building up to fire code — something that Rev. Joseph Parrishhad been trying for years to accomplish.

"An inspector looked at it and told us all the things we had to do," Parrish said. "It could be condemned. We would not have a certificate of occupancy."

An open staircase in the parish hall had to be enclosed and the walls sheetrocked, Parrish said. In addition, five doors needed to be replaced with fire doors.
So when a group of carpenters from a local union offered to do the job for free, Parrish felt a burden had been lifted. Members of the New Jersey Regional Council of Carpenters, Union County Local 155, gave up several Saturdays to get the job done.

"People have families. I’m proud of those guys. It’s a sacrifice to tell your kids can’t put up the pool that day due to the fact that you have to go out there and volunteer," said Manny Ortega, a union officer.

It all grew out of another philanthropic act. Two years ago, Ortega was looking to donate leftover food from his union’s weekly meetings. In his search, he met Parrish, who told him the church sometimes feeds close to 100 people on Sundays.

"With all the people going hungry and driving through urban areas seeing, basically, kids struggling, I thought it’s terrible to see so much food perish," Ortega said.

One day, Parrish told Ortega about his church’s struggles and the much-needed repairs.
"I did a walk-through," said Ortega. "I told him, ‘I can’t promise anything, but let me reach out at one of our meetings and get volunteers."

Some 15 workers rotated weekends, working eight hours on a Saturday.

"It’s a pretty decent size project. You’re talking a good $10 to $15,000 minimum," said carpenter Ron Hazen, who chairs the union’s volunteer organizing committee.

Among other things, the carpenters enclosed the stairwell so that in case of a fire, the blaze would be contained.

"Fire is fed by oxygen. If there’s an open stairwell, it sucks it up to other areas. This limits the fire and slows down the spread of the fire," Ortega said. "Instead of perishing the building, something can be savable."

Materials for the job cost $6,800 and a grant from the Hyde and Watson Foundation paid for $5,000 of it, Parrish said.

St. John’s Church, situated on Broad Street between City Hall and the Union County Courthouse, has been at the center of life in Elizabeth for 304 years. The cornerstone of the church was laid June 24, 1706.

It served as a place of worship for Jonathan Dayton, the youngest signer of the Constitution, and hosted the wedding of the parents of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the only American saint.

The church has a seating capacity of 750, though the parish fills up only once or twice a year for a funeral or ethnic feast day celebration, said Parrish, who has headed the church since 1989.

During the American Revolution, the British took over the church, melted the organ pipes for musket balls and burned all the pews for firewood, leaving the building decrepit, Parrish said. In 1859, with the City of Elizabeth growing, the church was torn down and a new one rebuilt a year later. The parish hall was constructed in 1926. In the 1950s, senior executives from major companies such as Exxon, Singer and Thomas & Betz helped support the church. After their deaths, these members left large endowments that enabled the church to continue to operate for years, Parrish said.

The riots of the 1960s, followed by changing economics has depleted the church of funds in recent years.

"The rich people kind of died off," Parrish said.

Today, 50 of its 104 members commit to paying $70,000 a year, but the church’s budget is over $150,000, Parrish said.

"We’re always short," he said.

Parrish said his church still needs work on the four 10-foot doors leading to the parish hall. Two need to be replaced and two need to be turned around in order in order to conform to code.

"The city gives churches a long time, but ultimately, you want to be safe," Parrish said. "If you have a fire, you want to make sure people get out safe and sound."

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