Finding God in Monmouth Beach
Monmouth Beach was an amazing community in the late 19th Century. In addition to the rich and famous there were also, thanks be, the humble and devout.
Over a 20-year period in the late 1800s, two large borough houses of worship were built — the Episcopal St. Peter’s of Galilee Church in 1873 on Ocean Avenue and the Catholic Church of the Precious Blood in 1891 on Riverdale Avenue. Only Precious Blood remains today.
Back in that Gilded Age time, the borough’s coast was a “Millionaire’s Row” — our seashore was dotted with large Victorian mansions, many requiring up to 15 household employees to maintain. The town also had several hotels and inns as well as the exclusive Monmouth Beach Clubhouse Hotel on Beach Road. Many of those workers (mostly Irish immigrant cooks, maids, gardeners and other household staff) and their families were Catholic, and rather than continue to make the three-mile journey to the Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Long Branch, they decided to build their own house of worship.
In 1889, John Maney, Sr., a founding member of the MB school board, sold his land on Wesley Street for $1,500 for the church’s construction. The cornerstone was laid in June 1891 and John Burke of Asbury Park was the builder.
To raise building funds, dances, raffles and card parties were held. The all-wood structure — it’s known to sway in strong winds — is noted for its fascinating interior architecture (a gabled ceiling). The Revs. William Cantwell and James McFaul lead worshipers during the early years.
At first a mission of Star of the Sea, it officially became its own parish in 1910. The initial First Holy Communion was held in June 1911. Massive storm damage to shore area homes in 1913 -1914 reduced the population; the congregation dwindled and the church was reduced back to mission status.
“Where knowledge ends, religion begins.”
In those days, since the church was unheated, wintertime services were often held in a nearby chapel. The one-room chapel, located behind the garage of the current rectory, had no pews and was heated by a large potbelly stove. In later years, that building was moved to Wesley Street. In the late 1920s the church steeple was removed after several lightning strikes (which still hit the roof today). In the late 1930s central heating was added to the church and catechism classes were taught on the front porch of a Riverdale Avenue home.
In 1946, Precious Blood again became a permanent parish, opened year round under the Rev. Francis Dwyer, who rented a room on West Street from Frances Lockwood. The parish even had an Irish-born priest, Father Jeremiah Murphy, who died young of a heart attack while pastor in 1955. Under the pastorship of the Rev. Walter Greene, a rectory was built in the late 1950s and he also managed the purchase of a house at the corner of Riverdale Avenue and Griffin Street for the parish.
Under Father Maurice Griffin, a parish center (the Catechetical Center) was opened in November 1961. For construction, the parish had purchased a large track of land off Wesley Street for $500 from Alfred and Beatrice Ennis in 1947. To retire the debt on the parish center, the Rev. Earl Gannon (pastor from 1963 to 1986) instituted popular bingo nights. The Rev. John Kielb, appointed pastor in the summer of 1989, served until poor health made him retire in 2010. Today, the Riverdale Avenue house of worship is led by Rev. Robert (“Father Bob”) Kaeding, who was appointed pastor in July 2011. The Rev. Kaeding, who is gay, is also the director/founder of the The Center in Asbury Park, a volunteer organization that helps people with HIV/AIDS.
The parish, which celebrated its centennial in 1991, is comprised of an active and devoted congregation (which includes Monmouth Beach, the Port-au-Peck area in Oceanport, and North Long Branch).
In 2001, Frank Woolley, a World War II hero who returned home to Monmouth Beach to face a challenging life of blindness, willed his Riverdale Avenue house to the parish. In 2006, the parish completed a large rehabilitation project at a cost of more than $500,000. Restrooms were added, all stained-glass windows were removed and restored, and a roof and new siding were added. New pews were installed later.
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The Church of the Fishermen
The St. Peter’s of Galilee Church — built right at the water’s edge — was dedicated in August 1873. Classic mages of the majestic house of worship and Galilee fishermen doing their trade on the nearby beach is iconic Monmouth Beach.
It was also known as “Rikers’ Church” after the John L. Riker family, chemical industry titans and owners of nearby property. The Teese, Keasbey, and Dodd families also were major church benefactors. Situated on the east side of Ocean Avenue, the construction cost was $8,000.
The church, which had a magnificent pipe organ, had no fixed clergy. Open only during “15 summer weeks,” the seashore church played host to many “high-society” weddings (including family of former NJ Gov. Christine Whitman, her maternal grandparents, Reeve and Kate (Prentice) Schley, were married there in September 1907). Some of the “leading clergymen of the country” were said to give “services always of and interesting variety” at the seaside church
Frequently under assault due to major storms, the large wooden Gothic church was moved to the westside of Ocean Avenue in 1937 for protection (north of today’s MB Cultural Center). Unused as a church beginning in 1941, borough commissioners rejected a plan by a Broadway theatrical man, Clinton King, to use the building as a summer theater in August 1950.
The vacant Episcopal house of worship was burned to the ground in a spectacular May 1955 fire, as strong east winds from the ocean fed the flames.