By Ron Leir
A local landmark church that was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is getting government aid for a major fix. In fact, it received slightly more than double the amount it requested.
The New Jersey Historic Trust has awarded La Senda Antigua Church, which owns and occupies the former Dutch Reformed Church of the Second River in Belleville, awarded the church a Sandy Disaster Relief Grant for Historic Properties of $250,000.
Although there is a $150,000 cap placed on historic-related grants to religious facilities – and that’s the amount for which the church applied – Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Dept. of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Trust, said that the state issued a “waiver.”
“It was felt by our reviewers that it wasn’t reasonable to expect that the local congregation could raise the balance of the money needed to facilitate the repairs,” Hajna said.
“We want to thank God — it’s a miracle,” said the Rev. Miguel Ortiz, the church’s pastor. “Everybody kept closing the doors on us until now. We hope that with the restoration, this will bring a good feeling to the community.”
A cross at the top of the church steeple was loosened from its perch by Sandy’s gusts and while it continues to dangle, it was secured there, thanks to a $40,000 emergency repair job financed by the township in the aftermath of the storm.
“We want to fix the steeple and, below that, several floors, all the way down to the basement, are damaged – beams and flooring,” Ortiz said.
But, the pastor noted, the interior and exterior structure has been compromised not only by Sandy but in past years, from water infiltration from rain and snow conditions.
As outlined by a summary furnished by the state, “Hurricane Sandy’s high winds and driving rain ripped the steeple and bell tower apart, literally. The metal cross at the pinnacle of the steeple was displaced, the steeple’s copper cladding was torn and peeled back and windows in the masonry tower were blown in.”
A report by state reviewer Jennifer Stark said the grant “will fund emergency steeple stabilization completed immediately after Hurricane Sandy and 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.”
The structure, Stark reported, dates from 1853 and was designed by William H. Kirk of the Newark architectural firm Kirk & Kirkpatrick “and is the only Gothic Revival style religious building in Belleville. The church is a good example of early Gothic architecture constructed by a master builder.
“Never seriously altered, the church maintains its orginal architectural integrity.”
And it was one of about a dozen such churches in New Jersey employing primarily the Greek Revival form designed by the Kirk & Kirkpatrick firm between 1839 and 1858, Stark noted.
Because the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 21, 1978, and on the State Register on July 12, 1978, (and dedicated as a local landmark by the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission on July 4), the owner must comply with certain architectural guidelines during the restoration process.
This the owner is apparently prepared to do, as noted by Stark, in her comments that, “The owner has had an engineer with historical project experience survey the church and evaluate the condition. It is recommended that this professional continue to further document the current conditions, identify and prioritize preservation and repair phases, and costs, for future planning and fundraising efforts. The scale … and complexity of the work also warrant the services of this professional to provide construction documents for the brick and mortar project ….”
Stark estimated that the project could run “between $300,000 and $400,000.”
Ortiz said he’s exploring whether the church can apply any of the grant money towards repayment of the $40,000 lien placed on the property by the township. “So far, we’ve been paying it off at the rate of $500 a month,” he said.
Asked how soon the repair work could begin, Ortiz said that probably won’t happen until around March, due to the obstacles presented by the winter weather conditions.