By Karen Zautyk
I’ve passed the site a thousand times, but I never went inside. I knew it had a place in local history, but not exactly why or of what import. Basically, what I knew is that it was old. And like many old things, it can be in danger of being ignored. Or worse, forgotten.
Now, however, thanks to the Belleville Historical Society, I have begun to educate myself on this local treasure. And last week, also thanks to the society, I spent one of the most meaningful Fourths of July ever.
Part of that was because of the ceremony renaming the Rutgers St./Belleville Pike Bridge in honor of Marine Cpl. Osbrany Montes De Oca. (See story P. 1)
But the day began with a tribute to other American veterans, those who won our nation its freedom in the first place.
As it does every July 4th, the Belleville Historical Society held its Independence Day Ceremony in the cemetery of the Dutch Reformed Church at Rutgers and Main Sts. In that graveyard are buried 66 soldiers who fought in the American Revolution.
There is a well-kept monument inscribed with their names, but time has taken its toll on the graveyard at large. The uneven earth makes walking treacherous; the stone-edged steps and iron fencing are wobbly. Some headstones are broken, and many are illegible, names and dates and sentiments worn away by the storms of more than two centuries.
But this is still the final resting place of heroes and the families who loved them. This is still sacred ground.
Last Thursday, about 100 people gathered in the cemetery at 10 a.m. to honor the dead and to celebrate the nation to which their courage helped give birth.
It was your typical small town ceremony, which is what made it so precious. Those attending, from children to senior citizens, were there for a singular purpose: Remembrance.
Members of Boy Scout Troop and Cub Scout Pack 350 formed an honor guard at the memorial and helped raise the Stars & Stripes – and then lower it to half-staff.
Wreaths were placed and the Pledge of Allegiance recited, as was the introduction to the Declaration of Independence. Aisha Polite-Hill, Belleville High School Class of 2013, sang “The Star -Spangled Banner” to the hushed listeners.
The Rev. Ivan Sciberras, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Belleville, offered the invocation, which included a prayer that “with every trial withstood and every danger overcome — for the sake of our children, our grandchildren and all who come after us — this great land will always be one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
And, to a (softly played) fife-and-drum rendition of “Yankee Doodle,” Belleville Deputy Mayor Michael Nicosia and Board of Education President John Rivera read the Roll Call of the Troops: the 66 names of the Revolutionary War veterans. (See Roll of Honor, p. 22.)
Then it was time for the 21-gun cannon salute — which was this year limited to only 11 firings because, we were told, “all the shops were out of ammo.” At least cannon ammo. Which may have been a good thing, since I couldn’t help wondering what nearby residents thought might be occurring in their town as “boom” after “boom” filled the morning air.
The event ended with “Taps,” played by Dan Jacoby, Nutley’s assistant director of Veteran Affairs.
“This really is a Belleville- Nutley event,” explained Nutley Commissioner Steve Rogers, who was also in attendance.
And then it was time to leave — on what would be the beginning of a journey of learning.
By next July 4, I hope to know more about the church itself, which is no longer Dutch Reformed but Pentacostal (La Senda Antigua) and which suffered severe damage in Hurricane Sandy.
I also want to know more about the Battle of Second River, described in the Historical Society’s program as “the only battle fought in Essex County during the American Revolution.”
Back in 1777, what is now the intersection of Rutgers and Main Sts. was part of the village of Second River. And on Sept. 12 of that year, a British force opened fire on it with two cannon in the hills of what would become North Arlington.
The Second Essex Regiment of the Continental Army set up a line of defense right along the riverbank in front of the church, a 1725 building that had replaced the 1697 original. (It was rebuilt again in 1807 and 1853.)
Alas, the British sent in a larger force the next day.
While there is a sign on Main St. noting that it was the Continental Army’s retreat route, I do not know if anything marks the actual site of the riverbank standoff. The fact that the riverbank is no longer fully visible from the church — the view blocked since the 1950s by Rt. 21 — is sad, but that’s “progress.”
If there is no historic marker, there should be.