It’s been a blessing for 75 years

By Karen Zautyk

 Observer Correspondent 


On Sunday afternoon, at a Mass of Thanksgiving marking the 75th anniverary of the dedication of St. Stephen’s Church, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda stood in the sanctuary and gazed up at the breathtaking Gothic architecture and told the congregation that what he was viewing wasn’t a parish church.

“This,” he said, “is a cathedral.”

Observer readers who have been fortunate enough to visit St. Stephen’s would agree. The soaring vaulted ceiling, the columned nave, the magnificent reredos behind the main altar, the light coming through the exquisite stained glass windows … it all lends a particular sense of grandeur to this house of worship.

Later, after the readings and the gospel — and hymns that had echoed through the building — Hebda took to the pulpit to deliver the homily, which he prefaced with the comment, “Not only does this church look like a cathedral, it sounds like a cathedral!”

But bricks and mortar and glass and marble and wood are just part of the story of St. Stephen’s. Citing “the vitality of this parish after 75 years,” the archbishop noted: “This building is only a manifestation of what it going on in your hearts.”

“We know that God is here,” Hebda said, and for 75 years “this has been a place where people could open their hearts to the Lord.”

Hundreds of hearts were opened on Sunday, for the huge church was filled for a celebration not only of parish history but, more importantly, of the common Roman Catholic faith the parishioners cherish.

Hebda was the representative of the Archdiocese of Newark at the Mass, at which more than a half-dozen other clergy officiated along with the pastor, the Rev. Joseph A. Mancini. And the Knights of Columbus Honor Guard added to the ceremonial pomp. As did the incense wafting through the nave.

It should be noted that St. Stephen’s Parish predates the church at Kearny and Laurel Aves. by four decades.

The parish itself was founded in 1899 as a mission of St. Cecilia’s Church, Kearny. In 1900, St. Stephen’s began holding services in what had been a small Methodist church on Chestnut St. in the Arlington section.

Eventually, the parish built its own church, and school, at Midland Ave. and Chestnut St. (St. Stephen’s School operated for many years before being replaced by Mater Dei Academy, which occupied the building from 2009 to 2012.)

The present church was dedicated Sept. 17, 1939, and there is a photo taken at that ceremony showing the Rev. John P. Washington leading a procession into the building.

Photo (l.) by Karen Zautyk, (r.) Facebook Interior and exterior pictures of Kearny’s very own ‘cathedral’.
Photo (l.) by Karen Zautyk, (r.) Facebook
Interior and exterior pictures of Kearny’s very own ‘cathedral’.


A little more than three years later, on Feb. 3, 1943, Father Washington would die in the North Atlantic — one of the Four Chaplains whose heroism would be remembered not only at St. Stephen’s, but around the world. Along with Protestant ministers the Revs. George L. Fox and Clark V. Poling and Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the priest perished on the USAT Dorchester, which had been torpedoed by a German submarine. The Four Chaplains gave up their lifejackets, and their lives, to save Dorchester crewmembers.

St. Stephen’s was Washington’s last parish assignment before he was appointed a U.S. Army chaplain in World War II. There has long been a plaque inside the church honoring him, and now the Four Chaplains Memorial, an impressive bronze sculpture, graces the church lawn.

On Sunday, following the Mass, adults and children were gathering around that memorial — and then, more than 360 of them sat down for a picnic on the lawn. A table, running nearly the width of the grassy plot, bore a bounty of food, all of it prepared by parishioners. There would also be music, and games for the children, and even a “dunk tank.” (Alas, we could not stay for the festivities, so we don’t know who got dunked, but somehow we doubt it was the archbishop.)

We chatted briefly with Cyndie Schirm, who was arranging the food table, and we learned that the event was planned and brought to fruition by a committee of Parish Council members. Kudos to all.

The sight of the overflowing trays and bowls and casseroles brought to mind something Hebda had said in his homily. Citing the parable of the loaves and fishes (five loaves and two fishes with which Christ fed a multitude), the archbishop noted that afterwards, the disciples had gathered up the scraps that were left from the feast, and these filled 12 baskets.

“Count the baskets of God’s blessings before you,” he told the congregation at the Mass. “You should rejoice, for what a blessing this parish has been.”

In his remarks following the service, Mancini referred to a bit of popular history. The year 1939, the same year the beautiful St. Stephen’s Church was dedicated, brought, he noted, “two very important cultural events.”

On July 4, in his farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium, the dying Lou Gehrig told the crowd, “. . . today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

And later that year, “The Wizard of Oz” was released.

“Today,” Father Joe said, “we consider ourselves to be the luckiest Catholics on the face of the earth because there is no place like our spiritual home.”


(Editor’s note: The Giants won Sunday, didn’t they? We saw more than one Manning jersey in church. We’re not saying, we’re just saying.) 

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