Late in 1889, a group of Carpatho-Rusin people attending the German American Roman Catholic Church in Trenton, New Jersey sought to participate in an occasional Liturgy and to receive the Sacraments according to their own Greek Catholic (now Byzantine) Rite. These pioneers came to America from towns, villages and farms in the part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that is now Slovakia and the Ukraine. They brought with them a tremendous capacity for hard work, a strong desire to contribute to their new nation, and above all, a strong love of God. The Reverend Fathers Alexander Dzubay, Gabriel Vislocky and Eugene Volkay, three priests from the vicinity of Wilkes-Barre and Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, were among the first priests of the Byzantine Rite to celebrate the Liturgy and administer the Sacraments to these people.
The actual founding of the church was made by Father Volkay, then pastor at Hazleton, Pennsylvania, with the aid of seven laymen: John Hatrak, John Breza, John Kusnirik, Andrew Bucko, John Ceperak, Michael Skurla, and Michael Breza. On March 15, 1891, these men assembled in the hall of N. Anchak and on the motion of Father Volkay, wholeheartedly agreed to begin their religious life as an organized group. The feast of the Assumption of the Most Pure Virgin Mary was chosen as the patronal feast of the new church. During a Divine Liturgy celebrated by Father Volkay, all present made an initial donation to the new parish. To further unite the group, a benefit society was organized and entrusted with the task of registering fellow Carpatho-Rusins as members of the church.
At the first meeting of the new parish, trustees and ushers were appointed to aid in church work. Space was rented in a new building on the southeast corner of South Broad and Beatty Streets to use as a chapel. (This building later became a dry goods store.) Blessed by Father Volkay in 1891, the chapel contained a small altar, vestments, chalice and other essentials donated by members of the parish. In order to encourage the faithful to regularly attend Sunday services, even if a priest was not always available, a professional teacher and cantor, John Stavrovsky, was hired. Cantor Stavrovsky offered religious instruction, led the faithful in prayer and song, and did much to ensure the growth of the new parish.
As with any new undertaking, difficulties were encountered and it was a challenge to maintain everyone's commitment to religious observances and spiritual advancement. However, the small religious group persevered with the guidance of the seven loyal and determined organizers. The number of the faithful increased to thirty-two and in a short time, funds were sufficient to send for the Reverend Father John Szabo, who became the first pastor of St. Mary's parish on July 26, 1892. Under Father Szabo's spiritual guidance and leadership, intensive organizational work began.
During the same year, 1892, the construction of a new church was initiated on ground purchased for $1200 on the corner of Grand and Malone Streets. The cornerstone was laid on April 16, 1893 and a brick church with a steeple and bells was erected on a stone foundation. The bells, which cost $500, were blessed on July 30, 1893. Two months later, in September 1893, the church which would accommodate about four hundred people was dedicated with elaborate ceremony by the Most Reverend Michael O'Farrel, D.D. the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton assisted by six clergy of the Byzantine Rite. Prior to these later events, the church was incorporated on July 11, 1893 by Bishop O'Farrel. The first Board of Trustees consisted of five individuals: Bishop O'Farrel; Monsignor James A. McFaul, chancellor; Reverend Father John Szabo, pastor; and laymen, John Hatrak and John Breza. As recorded in the minutes of the first meeting, the first by-laws of St. Mary's Greek Catholic Church were formulated and promulgated in accordance with the laws of the State of New Jersey and in compliance with the regulations of the Catholic Church. Thus, under the guidance of Father Szabo, both the legal and spiritual foundations of the new church were secured.
Prior to his reassignment to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Father Szabo recorded the names of parishioners worthy of mention for their zeal and charitable works. The surnames of those individuals were Borsch, Kicinko, Truhan, Scerba, Varga, Artim, Maczovsky, Stopko, Ivan, Vorobjeff, Gocs, and Kostival. On December 10, 1893, Father Theodore Damjanovich became the new pastor and through his efforts and zeal, continued progress was made. In 1894 land for a cemetery was acquired, a fence installed, and a crucifix purchased for $1,000 was erected. The cemetery and crucifix were blessed in June of 1895.
With the continued generosity of the parishioners: liturgical appointments were purchased for the church; paintings in the church initiated by the artist, George Havelka, were completed by Stephen Hegedus; and at the cost of $1300, an Iconostasis was erected. This Iconostasis, subsequently moved to the church of St. Nicholas in Roebling, New Jersey, was blessed in September 1896 by the Most Reverend James A. McFaul, L.L.D., Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Trenton. Most of the Byzantine clergy of the Eastern United States were in attendance as Bishop McFaul delivered an English sermon and Father Volkay preached the Russian sermon.
With the completion of the church, Father Demjanovich turned his attention to the building of a school. The school building was constructed and gas and water facilities were installed at a cost of over $7,000. Desks were purchased and John Choma, a professional cantor and teacher, was hired to run the school. Father Demjanovich departed for Europe in October, 1897.
In January 1898, Father John Csurgovich succeeded Father Damjanovich. Although his initial appointment was intended to be a temporary one of six months, Father Csurgovich remained as pastor for seven years. He paid the debt on the cemetery and began construction of a rectory at 210 Grand Street in April, 1899. The rectory was completed and blessed six months later on November 30, 1899. Significant during 1899 was the fire that broke out in the church. Flammable items such as carpets, furniture and tapestries were destroyed but the loss did not exceed $300. In September 1899, the school was officially opened with sixty-seven students. During the early years, about forty students attended school daily and a special course was offered on Saturdays for fifteen children from the surrounding farms. The first teacher of English was Miss Schlotter, and John Choma taught the Rusin language and church chant.
In 1900, the school, church and rectory were equipped with steam heating systems at a cost of $500 and the debt for the rectory was fully paid. The following year, the exterior of both the church and rectory were painted. In addition to the names of parishioners mentioned previously, early accounts of the history of the church recognize the contributions of individuals with the following family names: Jareczka, Smoliga, Baran, Sestak, Smajda, Ceremsak, Ciberey, Andrejco, Bacsik, Francovsky,Ondy, Nagy, Zupko, Novikmec, and Bobera.
On October 2, 1902, the Apostolic Visitor, the Right Reverend Andrew Hodobay celebrated the Divine Liturgy and then blessed several donated religious images and vestments. On May 10, 1903, an official visitation was made by the Most Reverend James A. McFaul, D.D., Bishop of Trenton, who presided at the Solemn Liturgy and also delivered the sermon. The celebration was concluded with a dinner at the rectory. In that same month, Michael Nemeth was appointed cantor of the parish and teacher in the school. Mr. Nemeth was known for his remarkable teaching ability and splendid work in the field of liturgical chant. He organized the youth of the parish and shared a practical knowledge of the Rusin language, singing, reading and writing.
In August 1903, electrical facilities were installed in the church, rectory and school. The balance of the $3000 church mortgage was also paid. This was an important occasion because it marked the first day that the parish had no debt on any of its properties.
While Father Csurgovich was a humble and modest man, he was a zealous pastor and keen administrator who left the parish in sound financial condition. His parting with the church in July 1906 was sadly received by the parishioners. He was succeeded by the Reverend Father Anthony Kecskes from the Diocese of Prjashev, who stayed only for a short time and was succeeded by the Reverend Father Basil Volosin who enjoyed a two year tenure as pastor. Father Volosin was succeeded by the Reverend Father Cornelius Laurisin who worked intensely to assure the progress of the parish. Besides ministering to their spiritual needs, Father Laurisin was instrumental in helping parishioners establish their homes in the vicinity of the church. On his advice, the church purchased nearby property and resold parcels of land at reasonable prices to parishioners who then built their homes there. Thus the vicinity of the church became largely a parishioners' community - for four or five blocks from the church, Grand and Adeline Streets were populated by parishioners. By May 1912, when Father Laurisin was recalled to Europe, the membership of the parish had increased so that the original church was no longer able to accommodate the people. In 1912, ground was also purchased for the second cemetery.
Father Laurisin was succeeded by another zealous and industrious priest, the Reverend Father Joseph Kovalchik. His brief stay of three years witnessed great achievement. The membership of the parish during his pastorate was over 700 families. The magnificent church that stands today was built. A masterpiece of architectural design and artistic skill, the granite church was constructed at a cost of $48,000. In 1941 at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the parish, the value of the church was "estimated to be not less that $150,000."
On January 14, 1914, His Excellency, the Most Reverend Soter Ortinsky, D.D. assumed jurisdiction over Byzantine Catholic Churches in America. By virtue of civil law, he acquired the authority of President of the Board of Trustees and St. Mary's Church automatically fell under his jurisdiction. It was by authorization of this Board of Trustees on November 20, 1914, that the first mortgage in the amount of $40,000 was obtained for the construction of the new church building.
Father Kovalchik was succeeded by the Reverend Father Valentine Balogh who served St. Mary's for only five months. Father Balogh was succeeded by the Reverend Father Eugene Homicsko after whose arrival the new church was dedicated by the Most Reverend Bishop Soter Ortinsky. Father Homicsko had far-reaching plans that required the generous support and cooperation of parishioners. One of his priorities was to build a new school where parish children could be taught in a truly Catholic spirit in accordance with the Byzantine Rite under the guidance of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great. On August 15, 1920, the Board of Trustees adopted a resolution to obtain a loan of $130,000 to construct a school on the site of the first church. This building continues to stand today on the corner of Grand and Malone Streets.
The annual statements of the parish indicate that the total amount spent on the school was $180,000. The bank loan was $135,000 and the balance was borrowed from members of the parish. The school was solemnly dedicated on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1922 by His Excellency, the Most Reverend Metropolitan Count Septycki, D.D., who was visiting the United States. In spite of a very promising financial outlook, difficulties arose from the very beginning. To pay the enormous debt, special collections were made and assessments were levied; this led to considerable discord among parishioners. The turmoil was climaxed by the decision to build a new home for the Sisters. This required an additional loan of $30,000.
Father Homicsko was an industrious pastor who gave his full energy to the tasks he faced. Unfortunately, his health rapidly declined and ultimately forced him to tender his resignation to the Most Reverend Basil Takach, D.D., newly appointed by the Holy See as Bishop for the Carpatho-Rusin Greek Catholics (Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholics) in the United States. Father Homicsko died shortly after his transfer to Beaver Meadows, Pennsylvania and before the completion and dedication of the convent by Bishop Takach who resided in Trenton at the time. Father Homicsko was ultimately succeeded by the Reverend Father Desiderius A. Simcoe, a young, capable and energetic man who arrived in Trenton on September 21, 1928 from a well organized parish in Beaver Meadows, Pennsylvania.
Father Simcoe confronted an enormous task. Morale was low and the financial status and prospects were almost hopeless. Yet he achieved the apparently impossible. Patience, sermons, instructions, frequent contacts with the faithful at all parochial and social activities of the church, reorganization of the Youth Club, and the organization of new societies (Altar Society, Sacred Heart and Sodality) produced fruit. One of his first achievements was the introduction of the envelope system; this increased weekly offerings and helped in registering regular members of the parish. The response was excellent, and the generosity of parishioners restored the church's financial health.
As a result of the dedication and hard work of the Sisters of St. Basil the Great, the school became one of the outstanding elementary schools in Trenton. In 1930, John Mitchell succeeded John Nemes in the role of cantor-and-teacher. Following the difficult years of the 1920's during which church membership declined from 700 families to less than 150 families, the spiritual and social life of the parish regained vitality and many of its former members returned. In 1935, the Girls' (Ladies') Auxiliary was organized as a branch of the St. Mary's Greek Catholic Men's Club and since that time has played a remarkable role in assisting the church in spiritual, social, and fund-raising activities.
With the return of orderliness in the parish, the people responded generously to the needs of the church. During the Great Depression and with a heavy mortgage at 5 ½ and 6 % interest, both the parishioners and the pastor had to make great sacrifices. Father Simcoe somehow managed to keep the church from bankruptcy on many occasions. He ultimately stabilized its financial status by consolidating debts and paying off a major part of the mortgage.
During the late 1930's and early 1940's, many improvements to the church and the parish took place without the need to levy special assessments on parishioners. Paintings in the church were restored. The Iconostasis was artistically rebuilt and reinforced. The Holy Sepulcher was dismantled and rebuilt. A sound system was installed, pews refinished, and lighting improved. An artistic, handmade altar and white birch pews were installed in the Sisters' chapel. A new terrazzo floor was installed in the church, the roof of the school was completely replaced, and a sorely needed rectory was built. During the twenty-eight years of Father Simcoe's pastorate, St. Mary's became one of the largest and most outstanding parishes in the diocese - a tribute to a devoted pastor, and committed and generous parishioners.
The Golden Jubilee of the parish was celebrated on Thanksgiving Day, November 27, 1941 with a Solemn Divine Liturgy of Thanksgiving offered by the Reverend Stephen Gulovich, D.D., Chancellor and personal representative of the Most Reverend Basil Takach, D.D., Bishop of the Greek Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. Eighteen priests participated. A banquet in the school hall followed the ceremonies in church. The school children presented a short program and the school band, under the direction of Mr. Joseph F. Mayer, rendered a few selections. Father Volkay, founder of the church, was present along with lay-organizers Mr. and Mrs. Skurla, Mr. and Mrs. John Breza, Ms. Anna Hatrak. These individuals were dispensed from any obligatory support to the Church for the rest of their lives.
After the death of Father Simcoe on June 12, 1956, the Reverend Father George J. Chegin was appointed pastor by the Most Reverend Nicholas T. Elko, D.D., Apostolic Exarch of Pittsburgh. On July 4, 1956, Father Chegin undertook his new pastoral duties with zeal, fervor and diligence. He increased the number of Liturgies on Sunday and Holy Days to accommodate workers and vacationers and, following the tradition of Father Simcoe, continued the various devotions. On February 11, 1957, Father Chegin was appointed Dean of South Jersey and was formally installed on April 25, 1957.
During the next two years, Father Chegin initiated a "Money Raising Campaign" for the purpose of renovating and redecorating the church. The church was completely renovated, the Iconostasis dismantled, the Icons applied to the walls surrounding the altar, and new appointments purchased at a cost of $150,000. In addition, extensive repairs to the school were made at a cost of $50,000 and the ground at the third cemetery, purchased in 1948, was filled in at a cost of $10,000. These projects were paid in full during Father Chegin's pastorate. A Solemn Rededication of the church took place on October 2, 1960.
On July 31, 1963, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States announced the formation of the new diocese of Passaic and the appointment of its first bishop, the Most Reverend Stephen Kocisko, D.D. former auxiliary to the Most Reverend Nicholas T. Elko, D.D. Bishop Kocisko reappointed Father Chegin as Dean of South Jersey on September 10, 1963. The First Canonical Visitation of St. Mary's by Bishop Kocisko took place on May 22, 1964.
For reasons of health, Father Chegin formally requested that Bishop Kocisko relieve him of his duties. (Father Chegin died on February 14, 1974.) On August 4, 1964, the Right Reverend Msgr. John A. Stim, V.F., former pastor of St. Michael's Cathedral in Passaic, was appointed as the new pastor of St. Mary's and Dean of South Jersey. Many unforeseen difficulties confronted the new pastor. Although the cost of renovating the church and school were paid in full, $100,000 in debt for the mortgage, demand notes, and loans from parishioners still remained. A parish census was conducted. A new roof was installed on the church building at a cost of $15,000 and the ceiling of the sanctuary was repaired. At the cost of an additional $25,000, the school building received a new roof, the school furnace was repaired, and the convent was completely renovated and refurbished. Through the hard work and generosity of the entire parish and the leadership of Msgr. Stim all of this debt was carefully and painfully liquidated. On July 1, 1966, seventy-five years since its inception and sixty-three years since its first resolution of property debt, the parish was again free of any encumbrances.
Parish work was not completed. For the next two decades, Msgr. Stim focused on upgrading and increasing parish facilities, and maintaining its spiritual, educational and social programs. The year 1971 saw the First Canonical Visitation by the Most Reverend Michael J. Dudick, D.D, Bishop of Passaic. In 1972, a large one-story building, a former A&P food store on the corner of Beatty and Adeline Streets, was purchased and transformed into a spacious and attractive Parish Center at the approximate cost of $300,000. The Solemn Dedication of St. Mary's Parish Center by Bishop Michael Dudick, D.D. took place on September 15, 1974. Today, the Parish Center continues as the home of Wednesday and Sunday bingos, church socials, dinners, and special programs. In 1977, the third cemetery was completed and opened. In 1984, three acres of land with three buildings were purchased on Route 130 North in Robbinsville, New Jersey. The largest of the buildings was transformed into a Chapel that could accommodate over one hundred and thirty worshippers during the Divine Liturgies each Sunday and Holyday of Obligation. The ranch type house on the property was used as a site for religious instruction and as a parish center. The cost of the property and chapel construction was $630,000. Msgr. Stim also purchased a private house on the corner of Adeline and Malone Streets. This property, which abuts those of the rectory and school, originally housed the parish Religious Gift Shop and After-Care Center; today it is used for Eastern Catholic Formation classes.
After serving the parish for twenty-three years, Msgr. Stim retired in 1987. His immediate replacement was the Reverend Msgr. Alan Borsuk who served as pastor for eleven months prior to his reassignment to St. John the Baptist Church in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Father Borsuk was succeeded by the Reverend Msgr. Nicholas I. Puhak who came to our parish from St. Mary's Church in Manville, New Jersey in June, 1988. As coincidence would have it, Msgr. Puhak is the grandson of the very first pastor, Father John Szabo and also the nephew of another former pastor, Father George Chegin.
Msgr. Puhak continued the role started by his grandfather nearly one hundred years earlier - that of guiding parishioners to better serve God. Much time was also spent on the enormous repairs required in the church building, including forty new blocks of granite, new steel beams and 500 stainless foot-long pins. The exterior was cleaned, new gutters and flashing installed, and the bell towers painted. The interior benefited from improved lighting, a new confessional, refurbished pews, repair of walls, additional marble wainscoting, and painting. The Parish Center received additional air-conditioning and heating units, an acoustical ceiling, new roofing, exhaust system and stucco work. The school building endured asbestos removal, replastering, plumbing and electrical improvements, installation of new smoke detectors and fire alarm systems, and repainting throughout the building. All of this work, at a cost of $725,000 required tremendous financial commitment and support by members of the parish.
Nearly all of the above improvements were completed before the beginning of celebrations in honor of the parish centennial year. In honor of the Centennial, trips were sponsored to the Blue Army Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Washington, D.C., to Ellis Island museum where the relatives of many parishioners entered America, and to Las Vegas. On August 13, 14 and 15, 1991 a Tridium was held in honor of the Patroness of the parish. Father Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal, offered an inspiring homily during this time and Msgr. Ted Wojciehowski of nearby Holy Cross Church preached at the Divine Liturgy. On September 8, 1991 a Divine Liturgy was offered and a Picnic followed at Liberty Lake in Columbus, New Jersey. On October 5th and 6th of the same year, the school children and the choir gave two performances of Carpatho-Rusin religious and folk songs and dances under the direction of Jerry Jumba, musical director of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Finally, the Centennial celebration concluded with a Divine Liturgy on October 27, 1991 followed by a banquet at the Princeton Marriott Hotel attended by 900 parishioners, guests and friends.
In 1996 the Holy See issued an Instruction directing the Eastern Catholic Churches that had adopted a series of devotions of the Latin Church, such as Stations of the Cross, Novenas, May Crowning and so forth, to discontinue these practices and instead implement devotions more authentic to Eastern Tradition. In 1999, Reverend Edward G. Cimbala, D. Min., a parish vocation, was assigned as pastor. His focus was to prepare the parish for the implementation of the Holy Father's directives. He immediately began a program of instruction to educate the faithful in their authentic Tradition and customs. Father Ed, as he was affectionately known, developed plans to install an Iconostasis to replace the one removed in the late 1950's. Free-standing frames were constructed and four of the original large Icons were removed from the walls and placed inside the frames to form a "type" of Iconostasis in preparation for the "real" one yet to come.
In 2000 the school, which had been in continuous use since its construction in 1921, was closed due to insufficient enrollment and escalating costs. It was truly a sad rupture in an otherwise vibrant parish community. Later that same year, through the guidance of Father Ed, the vacant school building was leased to the City of Trenton for a period of five years.
On July 1, 2002, the Very Reverend Gregory J. Noga assumed the pastorate of Saint Mary's. After a few months Father Noga set about implementing the plans the parish council and finance committee had developed. Soon a ramp was constructed to facilitate entrance to the church and a lavatory was installed in the narthex capable of accommodating physically challenged individuals.
The year 2003 proved to be both challenging and difficult. A parish convocation was conducted to determine what plan of action might realistically be implemented. Should the parish relocate or remain in the city? If remaining in Trenton was the answer, then what repairs and renovations should take place? The parishioners also learned that the Chapel in Robbinsville would close and the property would be sold. Unfortunately, the property was too small for expansion and the parish could not afford to relocate and maintain two locations, nor was it reasonable to maintain two separate facilities when the church in Trenton was sufficiently large.
Also in 2003, a contractor was asked to evaluate the massive bell towers and provide a proposal for repairing the damage. Bishop Andrew Pataki, and Father Noga reviewed both this proposal and the engineering and architectural report prepared by A.J.S.A. architects, specialists in restoration and repair of old buildings, commissioned by Father Greg the previous year. Ultimately, the proposal of Francis Hutta Builders, Inc. was accepted. Thus began the three year project that involved not only the repair of the church's towers, but the replacement of the slate roof, flashing and rain gutters, repainting of the cupolas and gilding of the distinctive triple bar crosses that immediately identify the church's Eastern heritage.
Simultaneously, the firm of Marbleworks, Inc. was contracted to remove the pre-Vatican II Latin style altar, steps and baldachin that was part of the renovation during the 1950's. The uneven floor surrounding the altar was resurfaced and overlaid with perlato marble. In keeping with Eastern tradition, a five feet square Holy Table was installed. The terrazzo floors in the nave and vestibule were refinished and the pews were reset with greater depth between them. The new spacing facilitated ingress and egress thus enabling ease of quad-cane and walker use for the physically challenged. Lastly, a new Iconstasis and Icons were installed. Although these changes were completed by 2006, it was another two years before the church could be painted and the lighting refurbished.
On October 26, 2008 the restored and newly renovated church was solemnly rededicated. The new Iconostasis was blessed and the Holy Table was consecrated by the hand of the Most Reverend William C. Skurla, D.D., Bishop of Passaic. Assisting the bishop at the Altar were: The Very Reverend Michael J. Mondik, Syncellus of New Jersey; the Very Reverend Gregory J. Noga, pastor and Protopresbyter of the Central New Jersey Protopresbyterate; the Reverend Monsignor Nicholas I. Puhak, former pastor; Reverend John J. Zeyack, parish vocation; Reverend Edward G. Cimbala, parish vocation and former pastor; Deacon Thomas L. Vanisko, parish deacon and Deacon Robert Berhens. Following the liturgical program the clergy and parish family enjoyed fellowship at the German American Society banquet facility in Yardville, NJ.
A second church convocation is planned for the early part of 2009. Primary points of focus will be the formulation and articulation of parish goals concerning evangelization and education as well as the financial strategies to achieve them.
Throughout the one hundred and seventeen years since the beginning of this parish, the Byzantine Catholic community of the Trenton area has been blessed by dedicated pastors, loyal and generous parishioners, and leaders of parish organizations who have devoted countless hours to support our parish financially, spiritually, and socially. With God's blessings, this will continue.