Historic church battered anew

A look at the damaged church.

A look at the damaged church.

BELLEVILLE –

A landmark church in Belleville dating from the 19th century that was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 has been dealt another blow by the weather.

Last week, strong winds punctured an already fragile steeple of the old Dutch Reformed Church – now owned by La Senda Antigua Church – ripping off sections of wood and hurling them down onto Rutgers St.

Police said they were alerted to the safety hazard by a caller at 4:44 p.m. Thursday who reported that debris was falling off the roof of the church.

(Wind gusts were measured at 51 mph at Red Bull Arena in Harrison last Wednesday and averaged 25 to 30 mph on Thursday, reported Tony Mondero of the Harrison Weather Center.)

Police responded to the potential danger by blocking vehicles from entering a turning lane that runs alongside the church, leading from Rutgers onto Main St., and placed yellow tape around the Rutgers side of the church. They also notified the owners about the building’s condition.

On Friday morning, people were seen working inside the steeple attempting to better secure the structure but there were loose boards of wood clearly visible on the roof.

Frank De Lorenzo, the township construction official, could not be reached Friday but the church pastor, the Rev. Miguel Ortiz, told The Observer that, “a big chunk [from the steeple] fell so we’re stabilizing it.”

But Ortiz conceded that at best, the repairs will only be a temporary fix because, given the worsening condition of the church building – which, according to the New Jersey Historic Trust (NJHT), dates from the 1850s – “is coming down, little by little.”

Michael Perrone, newly elected president of the Belleville Historical Society (BHS), said there have been at least three iterations of the Reformed Church, a reflection of the early Dutch presence in the New World. Adjacent to the church is a cemetery containing the graves of at least 60 Revolutionary War soldiers and other notables from the period.

The first Reformed Church was built in 1725, the second in 1809 and the third – “and last that we know of” – in 1853, Perrone said. One of the early structures was destroyed after being hit by a tornado, he added.

Ortiz said the church has received donations totaling $23,000 for the rehabilitation of the building – a job he said will cost several hundred thousand dollars.

In late 2012, after the onslaught of Sandy, the township granted the church an emergency loan of $40,000 to install bracing inside the steeple and to secure the still dangling cross at the steeple’s peak.

Then, a year later, came what was thought to be encouraging news: the NJHT awarded the church a Sandy Disaster Relief Grant for Historic Properties of $250,000 to pay for the “emergency steeple stabilization … more exhaustive restoration of the steeple and tower including masonry repointing, structural heavy timber repair, new copper cladding and roofing, exterior wood repair around windows and exterior painting.”

One estimate placed the cost for the overall project at between $300,000 and $400,000.

Problem is, according to the BHS’s Perrone, that the church cannot touch any of the grant money until it has completed the improvements. Only then can it can use the funding to reimburse itself.

As for the loan from the township, Ortiz said that the church “has paid off a little more than half.”

Perrone said he spent some time at the church Thursday afternoon and saw some of the repair work. He was concerned. “Somebody is going to have to come in to remove the pieces of wood laying on the roof. Another gust will send them crashing into a car or person,” he said. “Perhaps someone can get a 40-foot ladder to reach the roof and get those boards off.”

Meanwhile, the pastor and his congregation are praying for calm weather. “If we get hit with another big storm, it could be disaster for us,” Ortiz said.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.