By Karen Zautyk
At the corner of Kearny and Laurel Aves., there stands the magnificent grey-stone edifice of St. Stephen’s R.C. Church, which this year is marking the 75th anniversary of its dedication.
When your correspondent mentioned that to some friends, the reaction was, “It’s only 75 years old? It looks so much older.”
It’s not that the church appears age-worn. Far from it. But the classic Gothic architecture calls to mind those centuries-old houses of worship found across Europe. The soaring structure is reminiscent of a medieval cathedral.
Of course, no one’s going to think a Kearny church dates to the Middle Ages, but what is its history?
The parish was founded in 1899 as a mission of St. Cecilia’s Church, Kearny. In 1900, St. Stephen’s Church began holding services in what had been a small Methodist church on Chestnut St. in the Arlington section. The Methodists had outgrown it and it was purchased by the Rev. James Mooney, pastor of St. Cecilia’s.
As the Catholic population in the north end of town continued to grow, a church and school were constructed on Midland Ave. at Chestnut. St. Stephen’s School remained in operation after the current church was dedicated in 1939.
We learned a lot we never knew about St. Stephen’s thanks to a program held last week. On the afternoon of Sunday, June 1, small tour groups were admitted every 10 minutes to be guided through the church by well-versed parish representatives, each of whom discussed a specific aspect of the building.
We had expected the tour to last about an hour, but our little group was still there 90 minutes later.
This was primarily because the attendees were completely engrossed, full of questions and eager to learn as much as they could.
The guides were positioned at 12 stations, starting in the Narthex (the official name for the vestibule) and ending at the South Transept. In between were stops in the Nave, the Old Baptistry, the Sanctuary, the Sacristy, the North and South Aisles, et al.
So much information and so many fascinating details were provided, we could never cover them all here. We can only hope that, sometime before this anniversary year is over, St. Stephen’s opts to hold another tour day.
If that happens, take advantage of it.
In lieu of a book-length article, we will simply note some of the details we found most intriguing, and that you (even if you are a parishioner) might be unaware.
• Over the main door leading into the Nave from the Narthex is an inscription handwritten in chalk: 20+C+M+B+14. This is the Epiphany “house blessing.” The letters stand for the Three Wise Men — Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar — and the numerals are the year. • Once you enter the Nave (which comes from the Latin “navis” or “ship”), look up at the ceiling. It resembles an upturned boat. There are 12 trusses, representing the 12 Apostles. It can also be considered a reminder of the Ark and, like the Ark, is constructed of pine covered in cypress.
• The magnificent, intricate wood carvings of roses, vines and branches under the choirloft were all done by hand, by two carvers who came to Kearny from Italy specifically for this task.
• Along the side aisles are the reconciliation rooms.
Instead of the former three-chamber confessional — confessor in the center, penitents on either side — there is now an actual room, where one can meet face-to-face with the priest. However, there is still a screen available for anyone who wishes to remain unseen.
• Also on the side are the small shrines to various saints where the faithful can light a candle and pray (not to the statue, as some non-Catholics unfortunately still think, but to the saint the statue represents). The newest shrine is for Pope John Paul II, who was just canonized April 27, 2014.
• If a saint is portrayed by a statue or in stained glass holding a palm branch, this signifies that he or she was a martyr.
• The statue of St. Stephen near the main altar shows him in red robes, also a symbol of martyrdom.
• The Stations of the Cross, limestone bas reliefs at St. Stephen’s, representing Christ’s journey to His place of crucifixion, were instituted by St. Francis of Assisi because the majority of faithful were unable to travel to the Holy Land and walk the original Via Dolorosa.
• To the left of the main altar (from the congregation’s view) is Mary’s altar. This is always on the left side, since the Mother of God stood to Jesus’ left while He was on the cross. (Again, this is from the point of view of the onlooker. She was literally to His right, as her altar is to the right when looking out from the main altar.)
• The Paschal candle at the main altar contains five grains of incense and five wax nails representing the five wounds of Christ.
• The wall behind the altar features the magnificent reredos, which is crowned by a crucifixion scene and filled with statues of 27 saints. (St. Stephen’s has printed a guide so you can identify each one.) This reredos was installed in 1953.
• In the Sacristy beyond the altar, there is a sink that drains directly into the earth. This ensures proper disposal of sacred substances — remnants of consecrated wine washed from a chalice or, at times, bits of a consecrated host. If consecrated wine is accidentally spilled, it is wiped up with towels and those are washed in the special sink.
• The church organ, installed in 1961, has 1,800 pipes on each side, ranging in size from 2 inches to 16 feet.
• The rose window over the main door honors Father John P. Washington and all service people. It was designed in 1944, a year after Washington died on the USAT Dorchester. When the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine in the North Atlantic, he and two Protestant ministers and a Jewish rabbi gave up their lifejackets, and their lives, to save sailors. There is also a plaque honoring Washington on the back wall and, on the front lawn, the new “Four Chaplains” monument.
That covers a few of the pages of notes we took during the tour. (And if we got anything wrong, please let us know.)
The actual 75th anniversary celebration of the church’s dedication will be on Sunday, Sept. 21.
Meanwhile, thanks are due to St. Stephen’s pastor, the Rev. Joseph (Father Joe) Mancini and all those who helped make the tour program such a success: coordinator Nancy Waller, tour guides Joanne Carratura, June Gimbel, Katherine Grusenski, Jim Hebson, Martha Lane, Angel Laporte, Chris Manley, John Manley, David McNamara, Patricia Millea, Michael Pego, Helen Thiele, Patricia White and Jim Waller, and assistants Cathy Buchanan, Deacon Herb Gimbel and Dan Lane.