St. John’s Sewaren

The Beginning

St. John’s Episcopal Church, which has been incorporated for over a 120 years, began in 1891 when a few residents of Sewaren, then communicants of Trinity Church, Woodbridge, felt that this little shore community should have an Episcopal Church of its own. The first service was held on May 31, 1891, in a building on West Avenue known as the Schoolhouse. The Rev. L. H. Lighthipe of Trinity Church officiated at this service, which was attended by about fifty people. The small congregation continued to hold services each Sunday conducted by Mr. Hamilton Schuyler, a lay reader from the General Theological Seminary. They worshiped in the Schoolhouse until October of 1891 and then moved to a vacant house belonging to Mr. Johnston, who was then the president of the Central Railroad of New Jersey. During the autumn and winter of 1891- 1892 Mr. Livingston Schuyler served the congregation as lay reader, and Holy Communion was administered each month by a minister supplied by the diocese.

On March 23, 1892, the minutes of the vestry purpose of the” organization of a new parish to be known as St. John’s Parish”. In May, the Bishop of the diocese, The Rt. Rev. John Scarborough, agreed to the formation of a new parish and the erection of a new church. A Certificate of Incorporation was filed, a seal was obtained, and things moved very swiftly toward completion of a church building. The Rev. Hamilton Schuyler had been called to serve the parish as Deacon and began his stay at St. John’s on Trinity Sunday, June 12, 1892. The cornerstone ceremony was held on June 18, 1892, and the new church formally opened for services on September 4.

Thus began the seventy-five year history of the small brown-shingled church overlooking the waterfront in what was then one of the most fashionable and exclusive resort areas in New Jersey. St. John’s Church had an auspicious beginning. Interest was high in the only church in the community, and many donations were made to get the little church underway, including the land on which the building stands. Stained glass windows, altar, pulpit and lectern were among the many gifts to the church, and other congregations donated articles much needed by the new congregation.

The first Sunday school was begun in July, 1892, with five teachers and about thirty students. An organization of girls known as the “Desire Circle of the King’s Daughters” was begun and helped raise funds for the church. The women began to take a large part in its development in the very beginning when the “Altar Chapter of the Women’s Guild” was organized.

The mortgage on the church was paid off in 1898, and Bishop John Scarborough consecrated the building on December 18. Hope was high for the success of the new parish.

The Lean Years

All was not smooth sailing; however, for as early as this the church began to run into difficulties. There were to be many different men serving as Priest-in-charge, Lay-reader-in-charge, or merely supplying the church on a week to week basis. The longest period of continued ministry during the early years is that of the Rev. E. W. Colloque who served the church from December, 1901, until November, 1906. Before that, and after as well, we read in the minutes of the parish’s inability to raise enough funds to support a permanent rector or of their difficulties in finding the right person for the church. Among the many men who ministered to the church were The Rev. M. Horton, H. H. Cole, I. Van Winkle, C. M. Dunham, Chas. Fiske, R. Hatch, R. E. Urban, H. F. Hamilton, C. H. Mallory, M. Kain, P. Vanamee, J. W. Crowell, E. J. Jennings, E. W. Little, and A. W. Arundel. The spiritual strength of this small parish mustn’t be underestimated, though. Private donations provided many necessary church appointments, repairs and improvements, amortization of the mortgage, and even money to pay the rector’s salary. A second-hand organ was purchased, though the organist’s salary may have been paid by individual members, and services were held regularly. Many of the vestry meetings, however, seem to have been devoted to lengthy discussions on the financial situation.

Several solutions were offered to the money problem; an envelope system was proposed and discarded; circulars were sent to residents of Sewaren and vicinity asking for yearly subscriptions; church suppers and fairs were held regularly to raise funds; show that a meeting of “sundry residents of Sewaren” was held for the the pews were rented at $50.00 a year. For a time nothing seemed to solve the problem for long. In 1910, it is recorded twenty-six town residents joined the newly formed Christian Science Church. This was truly a great blow to St. John’s. During this period, the idea of acquiring a Parish House came up for discussion many times. It was thought that it would be of value in attracting new people to the church and that it could house a Rector when the parish was able to support one. This purchase was deferred many times because of the financial problem, but over the years the fund started in anticipation began to increase slowly. In May of 1921, the minutes record that it had been voted to investigate the property at 494 Cliff Road with the idea of using the lower floor for a meeting place and the upper floor as a home for the current Rector. Later that year the building was bought. At this time the Priest-in-Charge was the Rev. Herbert B. Pulsifer, whose stay from 1920-1923 was a relatively long and peaceful one for this parish.

The Rev. H. B. Pulsifer was followed by the Rev. J. H. S. Putnam and the Rev. Michael Barton, each of whom served for about a year. The Rev. Mr. Putnam seems to have been the first man to officially minister jointly to St. Mark’s Church in Carteret and St. John’s, though records indicate that many of the men who performed marriages, administered baptism, gave communion, etc., in the early 1900*s, also performed these services for St. Mark’s at about the same time. The association continued for some time and was renewed again recently to the mutual advantage of both churches.

After the resignation of Fr. Barton, things looked dismal again. Finances were in bad shape, and it seemed as if it might be impossible to keep the congregation together. There was even discussion about the feasibility of selling the newly-acquired building to accumulate some new capital, and the diocese was consulted for advice on the problem. Money was raised, however, and, as is often the case, this bleak period was followed by one of health and relative prosperity with the advent of the Rev. J. Wm. Foster, who became Rector of the church in December, 1925

The Good Years

The ten-year span of Dr. Foster’s service seems to have been remarkable because of the spirit and sense of humor he displayed. His attitude seems to have lifted the small parish out of its slump and inspired the congregation to do its utmost. For example, at the end of a lively message outlining an unfortunate financial difficulty, Dr. Foster closed with the Following admonition: “P. S. But if you would come to church oftener I could preach you some saving gospel”. Thus, he managed to place their financial problems in the proper perspective.

On February, 1928, St. John’s Guild held a program of entertainment in the Municipal Building. Some of the names listed on the program are among the many that recur in accounts of Guild activities, and this revue is typical of the kind of thing that was often done to raise funds for the church. At the Annual Meeting in 1928, it was reported that the Guild had completed payment for the new heating system in the rectory, would meet the July interest on the Rectory mortgage and were then planning to take up the matter of repairing and painting the Rectory. The women of the church had once again shown their indispensability in the work of the church.

Dr. Foster’s stay was not without any problems. During 1930, financial difficulties again forced the parish to consider its problems. Discussions were held regarding the feasibility of sharing the rector with an adjoining parish. Dr. Foster offered to take a decrease in salary, and it was agreed to dispense with the services of a janitor and an organist for the time being. Typically, the devoted parishioners came through. It is recorded that the vestrymen turned over their usual donations to the church in lump sums to meet the immediate need. The regular collections increased in response to the call for help, and morale improved markedly. Another crisis had passed, and the little church continued to go about God’s business.

In 1941, Mr. Herbert R. Denton began his service to the church as lay reader, and this association continued for some years. Mr. Denton was subsequently ordained to the Diaconate and later to the Priesthood. In 1943, Bishop W. Gardiner appointed him as curate to the Rev. George H. Boyd of St. Peter’s, Perth Amboy. Father Boyd then assumed the oversight of St John’s with Fr. Denton serving as vicar of the church residing in Sewaren. Once again the church moved forward. On December 3 0, 1943, the final payment on the parish house mortgage was made, a concrete indication of the improvement of the affairs of the troubled little church. For the next few years, St. John’s went briskly about its spiritual life, holding a Memorial Day service in 1944, making repairs and adding appointments to the church. The young people were offered the use of a tennis court and a Church School picnic was held in June, 1944. It was necessary to ask the parish house tenants to vacate the ground floor because of the growing needs of the congregation for room for their activities. In fact, the lots opposite the church were purchased in anticipation of the building of a new Parish House. It was a thriving church which held a special service on September 11, 1944, to celebrate the first anniversary of Fr. Denton’s ordination. In 1945, Fr. Denton left St. John’s to become assistant rector of St. Peter’s. It so often happens in small churches that the capable young clergymen are quickly called to more important positions. A satisfactory solution to the problem was rapidly adopted. St. John’s, Sewaren, would share a vicar with St. John’s, Fords, under the guidance of the archdeacon and the Board of Missions. And so, the Rev. F. N. Howden came to Sewaren in April, 1945. The church continued to prosper under Father Howden’s guidance. The Sewaren Men’s Club came into being and, in turn, sponsored a Boy’s Club. St. John’s Supper Club was organized. This was an active group which served suppers, ran a bazaar and conducted many other activities for the support of the church. More necessary repairs were made to the buildings and grounds. New choir vestments were purchased, and the organ was repaired and electrified. Fr. Howden served until December, 1948, when he left to become an army chaplain.

At the annual meeting in January, 1946, Mr. Joseph Thomson had been elected to the post of senior warden. He was destined to play a vital role in the history of St. John’s. When Father Howden left the church in December, 1948, the church was once again in the familiar position of being without spiritual guidance and without sufficient funds to attract a satisfactory vicar on a permanent basis. The vestry decided to separate from St. John’s, Fords, and ask Mr. Thomson to serve as lay reader temporarily and to have someone come in once a month to conduct the communion service.

This “temporary” arrangement prevailed for fifteen years, with the vicar of St. Mark’s, first Father Davidson and later Father Forrest, usually conducting the Communion Service. Mr. Thomson, a dedicated man, served St. John’s devotedly for this period of time and kept the parish firmly on the road to stability, both spiritual and financial, the church organizations continued to thrive, the Sunday School averaged 35-45 students, and interest and enthusiasm in the work of the church remained at a high level. A new organ was purchased during 1955. This valuable improvement in the little church was contributed to by all of the church organizations.

During January, 1955, the parish house was damaged by fire. This raised the problem of what to do with the building which seemed always to be in need of repair. The third floor had been almost completely destroyed, and the second floor had suffered much smoke and water damage. Was this the time to build a new home for church activities, or should the building be restored and continued in use. After much consideration, it was decided not to launch a building project at that time. The building was repaired.

One of the many activities during Mr. Thomson’s leadership was the renovation of the church building. In 1956-57 new carpeting was installed, the woodwork and pews were varnished by some of the women of the church, new electric fixtures were installed, and the outside trim was painted. Other minor improvements were made as well, and the building brightened up considerably. In 1956, the average attendance hit an all-time high of 50, a fact of which Mr. Thompson was justifiably proud.

In 1957, St. John’s church received a legacy from Mrs. Louis Brown a Faithful Communicant. Mrs. Brown left her home to the church for its use as a rectory, as well as a sizable endowment fund. This was not the first time devoted parishioners had left money to the church. The Wright and Tombs funds have been of enormous importance to the budget of St. John’s.

Thus, Mr. Thomson’s “temporary” appointment as lay reader-in-charge proved to be a most fortunate arrangement. His fifteen years of leadership were good ones in terms of interest in the church and spiritual growth. In 1935, Dr. Foster reached the age of retirement and thus was forced to resign as Rector of St. John’s. During June, 1935, a committee appointed by the vestry held a conference with Bishop Knight and Archdeacon Shepherd, to consider what should be done next. The usual financial problem was once again raising itself, and the parish was undecided about its next course of action. With the help of the diocese, the church was supplied for a while with substituting clergy, one of whom was the Rev. Orville N. Davidson. While Father Davidson was priest-in-charge of Holy Trinity Church in South River, he also held services in Sewaren twice a month for a- while. Eventually, Father Davidson moved into the second floor apartment in the Parish House and conducted services every Sunday in conjunction with St. Mark’s Church in Carteret. This arrangement remained in effect for only a short while, until Father Davidson was called to Grace Church, Linden, in January, 1938. St. John’s was once again without a pastor.

Again, the vestry had to turn to the diocese for advice, and a conference was held with Archdeacon Gribbon, at which time the various possibilities for providing services were discussed. Since the parish was unable to support a permanent rector, it was arranged that a lay reader be engaged for three Sundays a month, and a clergyman would administer communion once a month. Mr. Ross Fowler, a vestryman of St. Paul’s Church, Rahway, had been training his son, Ross Fowler, Jr., and another young man, Robert Andrews, in Lay Reading; these dedicated gentlemen agreed to give St. John’s whatever help they could. Their only remuneration was to be a small donation by the church to the mission work of the diocese. The archdeacon, himself, acting as priest in-charge for a while, conducting Communion services, presiding over the annual meeting in 1939, and taking a very active interest in the affairs of the struggling church. Arrangements similar to this continued to prevail for the next few years. The lack of money and limited membership were as always the largest obstacles looming the path of continuing growth. However, the parish observed its fiftieth anniversary in 1942 with the same spirit of optimism which had prevailed since its inception.

During 1961, the Rev. Wm. F. Forrest became vicar of St. Mark’s Church, Carteret, and also assisted at services in Sewaren. Upon his ordination, to the Priesthood, Father Forrest regularly conducted the Communion service at St. John’s, and on Mr. Thomson’s resignation in 1964, Father Forrest became Priest-In-Charge. He and his wife became the first occupants of the rectory at 498 Cliff Road. His ministry continued until 1965, at which time the Rev. Howard F. Klein assumed charge of both St. Mark’s and St. John’s. Father Klein left in 1966 because of poor health. He died a few months later.

The Rev. Richard H. Humphrey came to Sewaren in October, 1966. A native of East Orange, Father Humphrey received his undergraduate degree from Monmouth College and his bachelor of Sacred Theology degree from the Philadelphia Divinity School. Under his dynamic leadership St. John’s looks forward to continuing its role as a vital force in the community.

Rev Humphrey moved on in late 1968 to be replaced by Rev William Smith who served both congregations of Saint Marks in Carteret and Saint Johns in Sewaren. He resided in the rectory on Cliff Road. It was during his tenure that this rectory became in dire need of repair. The church being low on funds was able to sell it, as it was a grand old home worthy of fixing up and purchase a new home construction at 17 Woodbridge Avenue in 1976. The home on Cliff Road remains as it was in the early 1900’s and has been brought back to its original grandeur by the present owners. Rev Smith was the first to occupy this new rectory.

Rev Smith retired in 1979 and was replaced by Rev Michael Lynch. He too had double duty with Saint Marks and Saint John’s. He performed well and was very interested in getting the children to understand the bible. He would pick up the children from both congregations and bring them to Saint Marks where they all study the bible and its teachings. Unfortunately he suffered an aneurism in 1983 and passed away.

Rev Peter Cook came to carry the mission of both churches. He was a military Chaplain at one time and loved to sing patriotic songs. God Bless America was almost a standard at the end of each service. During his tenure Saint Mark’s attendance stated to fall off and it was decided to close the church and sell the property. Through Gods divine power a Christian congregation bought the property, fixed it up and is thriving very well to this day. All his efforts where now centered around Saint John’s Church where he spent many long hours helping to sustain the existing congregation and grow it’s attendance.

Rev Wayne Bowers came to take over from Rev Cook in late 1989. He brought a new dynamic personality and was able to grow the congregation. Parish picnics, outdoor services and such help spread the growth while bringing in other ethnicities. This help build a diverse congregation with strong talents. Sunday school for the children flourished and the children started to take a more active role in the Sunday services. During Rev. Bowers tenure Saint John’s celebrated its 100 year anniversary. A big celebration was planned and executed with a parade starting from the old Rectory property on Cliff Road that went around the Church a few times ending in prayers on the lawn thanking God for his guidance in maintaining Saint John’s through its first century.

In 1997 Fr. Bowers was leaving and the church was without a vicar. Also during this time financials were also an issue. At the same time Saint John’s Fords was also experiencing the same issues. Once again it was time to unite. The two vestries of Saint John’s Fords and Sewaren got together to form the Raritan Bay Episcopal team Ministry. Many hours were devoted to designing a document that would bring together these two congregations with one Vicar. They established documents with bylaws that would govern the way the 2 congregations would interact with one another and how the priest would devote his time between the 2 churches. A steering committee was also formed that consisted of President, Vice President, sectary and treasury. To begin with they did not need a full time priest, for a year and a half the churches worked with supply priest who came on Sunday’s to preform services. But at a diocesan convention in 2000 a priest without a parish was found, Fr. Walter Duval. He was available and moved into the parish house at Saint John’s Sewaren in May of 2000.

In 2002, with both churches working hard to develop their respective congregations the Vestries of both churches decided it was time to search for a full time Vicar. Fr. Duvall health was failing and he indicated that time was getting close for him to retire. So a search committee was formed from lay people of both congregations. Questioners were given to all members concerning the traits a priest should have to be able to attend to these 2 congregations. The diocese began by providing potential names, a short list was made up and interviews and visits to their present parishes were made. In December of 2002 a decision was made and acceptance by both congregations to call Fr. Martin Oguike to become the full time Vicar of both churches was made. Fr. Martin preformed first services in January of 2003.

Things started to come together, both churches started celebrating services together on special occasions, like Mothers and Fathers days. Dinners along with special visits from the bishop were held a one or the church buildings. Congregations began to grow, but it seemed that financials always come into play and economic times starting from 2003 were not the best of times. But the churches prevailed. But as time went on it became apparent that the best solution was to combine both congregations into one church building, providing better resources, more people to run dinners and other activities.

In 2009 serious thought by both vestries was under consideration. The answer was clear they needed to be together, but where? One church would have to give up their church and move to the other. While the combining of both churches was the right thing to do, a hard and difficult decision had to be made upon where the both congregations will hold services. The choice was more of a business decision and not an attachment one, It was decided that Saint John’s in Sewaren would be the best solution and that Saint John’s Church in Fords would be used a Center for Christian Partnership. So both buildings were retained and both would still be used to promote the word of God.

In June of 2010 the first service was held at Saint John’s Church of Woodbridge. Both congregations came together to form one body to serve the Lord God. This was accomplished with the leadership of Fr. Marti Oguike. With his continued leadership in March of 2013 the diocese of New Jersey recognized the Congregation of Saint John’s Woodbridge as a Full Parish, no more a mission that started years ago, but as a parish.

The growth of Saint John’s Woodbridge continues. Outreach ministries, like operation Christmas Child, Acts of Kindness day, visits to the hospitals and walks for a variety of causes are just a few that this church from 1892 until this day has performed and continues to preformed with the help of God Almighty.