By Ron Leir
On Nov. 9, Grace Baptist Church of Belleville will celebrate a century-plus in the same building at Overlook Ave. and Bremond St.
But it wasn’t that long ago that the once-thriving congregation nearly foundered and it took a Bergen County-based Hispanic Baptist contingent to continue its legacy in the community.
This is a story about that transition and the church’s promising future.
Frank Chandler and his wife are credited with hosting a Sunday School for Baptist children in Belleville in their home at 18 Overlook Ave. from 1906 to 1909 and, eventually, they raised funds to buy the property at 89 Overlook for a church which still stands today.
The church, founded in 1911, retained the Rev. Henry A. Buzzell as its initial spiritual leader and, a year later, it brought in the Rev. B.A. Bowers as its first full-time pastor and the church took hold.
However, by 1991, the congregation had dwindled to five women elders who were desperate to find new blood to keep Grace Baptist alive.
Learning of the Belleville church’s dilemma, the Rev. Bernardino Martinez, the then-executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, reached out to a fledgling Hispanic Baptist mission in Ridgefield Park, based at the home of Angel and Milagros (Millie) Lugo.
The Lugos met the Rev. Carmen Miranda and her husband Evaristo while attending Baptist services in New York and, after learning that Carmen was helping New York Baptist missions, they persuaded the Mirandas to be their mission’s spiritual leaders. A bit later, the mission rented space at the First Baptist Church of Ridgefield Park for services twice a week, and the Rev. Martinez asked the group to consider Belleville as a new home.
Grace Baptist’s elders were receptive to the idea and agreed to turn over the church building to the mission, asking only that the Ridgefield Park group contribute $25,000 to care for retired Baptist missionaries, which was done, recalled Millie Lugo, who serves as one of the deacons and treasurer of the Hispanic contingent.
The Mirandas – who now live in Budd Lake in rural Morris County – agreed to commute to Belleville to lead services and preside at Sunday School classes. Rev. Carmen is pastor and Evaristo is associate pastor.
“It’s been a blessing,” said Minnie. “They are very godly pastors – dedicated to the church, heart and soul. And this congregation is very appreciative and blessed to have them as pastors.”
Important milestones chronicled by the church include these:
On Nov. 5, 1992, the mission had its first Sunday worship service at Grace Baptist Church of Belleville (Iglesia La Gracia de Belleville in Spanish).
On Jan. 15, 1995, the congregation transitioned from mission to church.
On May 13, 2003, the ordination of the Rev. Carmen Miranda took place.
In its 22-year existence, Iglesia La Gracia de Belleville has baptized more than 100 members (a mixed socio-economic group that includes an Army colonel) of whom about 80 regularly attend Sunday worship services, according to Minnie. Aside from Sunday School, the church sponsors community outreach programs and events and Summer Bible classes for youth and adults.
Sunday services are accompanied by a youth musical team whose 10 members range in age from seven to 16 directed by Rene Orellana and his wife Ayda. And they are broadcast online in real time via gracebaptistchurch1@ verizon.net.
“As a Spanish Christian population, our mission is to bring the Light of Jesus and bless the town of Belleville in sharing the Gospel,” Minnie said.
When the congregation first arrived in Essex County, its members felt somewhat detached from a community with largely ethnic Italian roots but, as Minnie noted, since the early 1990s, “we have seen an influx of Spanishspeaking people living here, from Latin and Central America, so God is collecting all of his nation. God has promised Belleville for Christ.” (Forty of the American Baptist Church’s 281 ministries in New Jersey listed on the ABC website are Hispanic.)
Indeed, Millie said, “there have been miracles among several of our members for whom our congregation prayed. Since we came to Belleville, we’ve seen ladies who couldn’t have children give birth and two people who were in wheelchairs have recovered: one is a woman who was crushed against a building by a taxi in New York and the other is a man who was doing construction work on the third floor of a building when the structure collapsed.”
Because the 102-yearold church building was in rough shape when the mission arrived, “our pastors understood the need for repairs,” Millie said, and, over time, she added, the congregation has spent about $200,000 for improvements such as new windows, a refurbished basement, additional classrooms, a new boiler, new doors, a new front entrance and landscaping.
Perhaps best of all, she said, the church parsonage – which was purchased by several former Grace pastors – was acquired by the new congregation in 2005.
“Now we have it as a rectory and for visiting pastors and missionaries,” Millie said, and, perhaps at some point, it can be the permanent home for the church’s pastor and family.
In the meantime, Grace Baptist Church is preparing to mark, belatedly, its 100-year anniversary during a special service on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 5 p.m., which will be attended by the Rev. Dr. Lee B. Spitzer, executive minister and senior regional pastor of the ABC of New Jersey. Representatives of the area’s Spanish churches, along with Belleville elected officials and township police and fire chiefs, have also been invited.