At the turn of the last century, Stone Harbor looked much different than it does today. The narrow strip of land at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach was sparsely populated, and largely consisted of windswept beaches, open grazing areas used by offshore farmers, and salt marshes.
Yet growth was swift, and soon homes, roads and the first churches sprouted where formerly only sand swirled and dune grass grew. One of them, St. Paul’s Catholic Church, is now marking the 100th anniversary of its dedication as a parish.
Back in those early days, the promotional efforts of the South Jersey Realty Company, which took title to all of the land in 1907, had paid off. Fifty-two families were permanently residing in Stone Harbor by 1910, and they needed places of worship to fulfill their spiritual needs.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was the first one built in Stone Harbor, constructed in 1910 at the corner of 95th Street and Third Avenue. Those of the Roman Catholic faith, however, had to climb aboard a ferry (provided by the South Jersey Realty Company) to Anglesea and from there take a trolley to St. Ann’s in Wildwood for Sunday Mass.
By the summer of 1910, Catholic services began to be held in an abandoned excursion house (an establishment offering lodging) at the foot of 83rd Street. Father James Moroney, of St. Ann’s, was appointed to “look after” Stone Harbor as a mission.
“I recall going to Stone Harbor with Father Moroney … to find out where I was to say Mass,” wrote Father E. L. Saupin about that excursion house in a letter dated 1952. “The room looked to me like an old abandoned hall, requiring a good deal of attention to be suitable for Sunday services, but people were interested and succeeded in making it look respectable and I went there every Sunday in the summer of 1910.”
Saupin further recalled: “During the summers I spent at Wildwood, I had to cross over from Anglesea to Stone Harbor on a motorboat. In bad weather, my server and I were about the only passengers, and our pilot thought it was hardly worth his while to make the trip. However, we managed to persuade him, and I do not think the people of Stone Harbor were deprived of Mass on any Sunday.”
In 1911, plans were made to construct the first Roman Catholic Church in Stone Harbor on a plot of ground on 99th Street that was donated by the South Jersey Realty Company. By the Fourth of July weekend in 1911, the new St. Paul’s Church was completed, and on June 19, 1913 it was formally dedicated as a parish, originally under the jurisdiction of the Trenton Diocese.
While St. Paul’s is now part of a new parish – Saint Brendan the Navigator, created in 2010 by Bishop Joseph Galante of the Camden Diocese after uniting it with Maris Stella in Avalon – the date of June 19, 2013 will certainly be noted by all those who have called St. Paul’s their spiritual home throughout the years.
“Saint Brendan the Navigator is joyfully celebrating the 100th anniversary of St. Paul’s Church,” said Monsignor John T. Frey, its pastor. There are plans to have a special Mass honoring the St. Paul’s centennial on Saturday, June 29, at 6pm. The principal celebrant will be Bishop Dennis Sullivan. Afterwards, there will be a dinner for parishioners at Quinn Hall.
Upon its dedication back in 1913, the Rev. Edward J. Whalen was named as the first pastor of St. Paul’s. Photos of the church from that time show a simple, wood-framed structure set on pilings, with five sets of stained-glass windows on each side, and a large white cross set atop its steeple, as well as a smaller cross above its front entranceway. Inside, large beams criss-crossed the ceiling, and there was seating for 180 in its carved wooden pews. The landscape around the church in those early days consisted mostly of sand and scrub bushes, with no sidewalks or nearby houses.
According to the St. Paul’s Diamond Anniversary booklet published in 1988, these were the “firsts” for the new church:
· The first baptism was held on July 6, 1913, for Elena Lisa, daughter of Joseph Lisa and Catherine Barber.
· The first Catholic child born in Stone Harbor was Vincent Lennon, son of Michael Lennon and Anna Kelly.
· The first funeral conducted in St. Paul’s was that of Julian Van Thuyne, 82, who died on August 27, 1914.
· The first marriage ceremony was held on November 4, 1914, uniting Willis Elliott Reynolds and Ada M. Tear.
In 1914, Whelan was transferred and the spiritual needs of the parish were taken care of by its founder, Father James Moroney, and several Holy Ghost Fathers of Philadelphia, from 1915 through 1936, until its second pastor, Rev. Edmund A. Reed, was named.
Other milestones in the 100-year history of St. Paul’s include the building of the rectory in 1936, a project of Reed’s, as well as the addition of a parish hall and recreation building in the late 1930s.
As the parish grew, it became apparent that a larger church was needed. In 1952, ground was broken at St. Paul’s current location at Third Avenue and 99th Street, several lots away from the original church. The new church cost $250,000, with another $50,000 spent for furnishings, and was dedicated on July 5, 1953.
“It’s an exciting time for St. Paul’s Church,” says Monsignor William Quinn, who was pastor from 2000 to 2009, in reflecting on the parish’s centennial celebration. Although he is now retired, Quinn has stayed on at St. Paul’s and is helping Frey. “There have been a lot of people served in this parish.”
Quinn has ministered for several decades in Cape May County, first at St. John of God in North Cape May, then spending 15 years at St. Ann’s in Wildwood.
“I know the county pretty good – I’m not a ‘shoobie,’ ” he says with a laugh. “The people of Stone Harbor are a people of faith, they are very friendly and appreciative and there’s a great spirit about them.”
During the winter, there are five Masses each week at St. Paul’s, then 11 from July to Labor Day as the population swells tenfold.
“This is a pretty active parish that’s located in a very nice environment,” Quinn says. “We perform a great number of weddings here, perhaps 20 to 30 during the spring and fall. People meet here, buy homes here, and want to marry here.”
One interesting aspect of St. Paul’s history is that it once had a grammar school. Opened in 1958 under the direction of Rev. Leonard Naab, the school was located on the corner of Third Avenue and 100th Street, and was staffed by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and headed by principals Mother Mary Beatrice Martin (1958-61) and Mother Marie Martha Fleming (1961-67).
St. Paul’s School educated children from first through eighth grade, drawing from families in Seven Mile Beach, Cape May Court House, Belleplain, Woodbine and Whitesboro.
Because there were only four classrooms, two grades shared each room, with the staff teaching double grades. At its peak, nearly 140 children were enrolled. There were 122 pupils enrolled in the winter of 1969 when the decision was made to close.
Among the Sisters who ministered at St. Paul’s were Sr. Anne Marie Burton (1966-69), Sr. Jane Frances Reardon (1964-65), Sr. Rita James Murphy (1965-67), Sr. Seraphine Livolsi (1968-69), Sr. Rose Marie Frangione (1965-66) and Sr. Augusta Marie Grant (1967-68).