History of St. Mary’s

“She who bore the Christ in her womb was raised body and soul in glory to be with him in heaven. May we follow her example in reflecting your holiness.” 

—   Opening prayer for the Feast of the Assumption


St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church has been an inspiring and steady presence in the lives of local residents for more than 50 years. Its shadow-casting steeple towers high into the air and can be seen from several vantage points in the area. Its dignified Colonial architecture provides an image of stateliness in the borough of Dumont, New Jersey. It beckons parishioners into its sanctuary, offering an opportunity to grow closer to God.

This building, located a few feet from the bustling traffic of Washington Avenue for half a century, is not just an assemblage of red bricks, stained glass, and Indiana limestone. It has become a spiritual home for the countless Catholics who have stepped through its welcoming doors. Its future looks as bright and rich as its past.

A Need for Permanence

The story of St. Mary’s Church begins decades before the cornerstone of the present building was officially installed in 1961. The church community that would one day call St. Mary’s home had its beginnings in the early part of the 20th century. At the time many of Dumont’s roads were not yet part of the local landscape; of those that did exist, some were merely byways of caked dirt or sandy paths, according to H. Jeanne Altshuler’s Dumont Heritage: Old Schraalenburgh New Jersey. The borough, having recently changed its name from Schraalenburgh, sported farmhouses, livestock, and bucolic wooded areas. Religiously, Dumont was largely Protestant; Catholics had to travel several towns away to find a Catholic chapel.

Realizing the need for change, 26 families from eastern Dumont and Bergenfield formed a Catholic Club in 1905, according to archival information. Its early meetings were held in a Bergenfield hall owned by Walter Christie. The group eventually issued a formal request to then-Bishop John J. O’Connor for the erection of a local parish. In a short turnaround, the bishop approved the request, and the Rev. John H.C. Rutten was assigned to serve the local area in October 1905.

Father Rutten celebrated the first Mass in Bergenfield the day after he arrived. It took place in the residence of the Flood family, according to Altshuler’s book. But the people wouldn’t relegate local Catholicism to a domestic entity. They wanted permanence. Within a year, construction began on what would become the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Evangelist, on Washington Avenue in Bergenfield.

While the Catholic Club found success toward the East, western residents of Dumont often headed to St. Joseph’s Church on Elm Street in Oradell, more than two miles away. Locals, who had moved to New Jersey from New York City, even headed back to the Big Apple on Sundays to attend Mass. Some may even have joined the congregation of Old North Reformed Church on the corner of Washington and Madison Avenues, for no other reason than a Catholic Mass was too hard to come by, according to St. Mary’s archives.

But the need for change was imperative. Dumont’s Catholics were inspired by Bergenfield’s success and wanted to build a church in their own borough.

Based on the recommendations of the Rev. G. De Vincentiis, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Oradell, and the results of a census study conducted by a committee of local Catholics, Bishop O’Connor was convinced that a mission could be established among the growing population of Dumont. No longer would residents have to travel out of town to celebrate Mass.

At the time, approximately 1,400 people resided in Dumont, with only 25 percent of the population identifying itself as Catholic, according to the church’s archives. Although the numbers weren’t large, the faithful were strong in their religious beliefs. On Oct. 5, 1913, Father De Vincentiis, or Father De as he was often known, held the first Catholic Mass in Dumont’s old town hall. In these early years, without a dedicated church building, Mass was even held in the firehouse on Madison Avenue. From these meager origins the parish of St. Mary’s grew, literally from the ground up.

The Little White Church

Refusing to waste time, Father De helped develop plans for the purchase of a few lots of land on the southwest corner of New Milford and Washington Avenues (at the time, Washington Avenue may have been known as Schraalenburgh Road). The property was previously owned by Leonard H. Wood, who owned much land in the northeastern section of town. On May 10, 1914, the congregation broke ground for what would become St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, colloquially known as the Little White Church.

On December 6, 1914, as the European countries engaged in World War I, the first Mass was celebrated in the original St. Mary’s, only 15 months after Father De’s original service in the old town hall and seven after the groundbreaking. The new church could accommodate 320 people, and, throughout the decades, the building was often filled to capacity. During these formative years, St. Mary’s became a vibrant presence in the community. Bishop O’Connor celebrated the sacrament of confirmation in the church in May 1915. In 1917, Father De helped gather food donations to feed more than 250 service members a Thanksgiving dinner during the height of World War I. They set up the meal in the spacious St. Mary’s Hall, in the church basement. The event was one of many that the church ran in conjunction with the soldiers and visiting military elite (perhaps even General John Joseph Pershing, according to reports), who were stationed at Camp Merritt on the border of Dumont and Cresskill.

Up to this point in St. Mary’s history, Father De had taken care of most of the church’s duties, even though he was still actively involved in his own Oradell parish. He was beloved by the community, although some early parishioners remembered that his Italian roots and “broken English” were not accepted by all. However, the faithful kept arriving in higher and higher numbers. So changes were needed.

Construction of a rectory commenced and the Rev. John V. Woods became the first resident pastor of St. Mary’s Church in June of 1922. Father De had left the Dumont population with a lasting Catholic presence that would continue for decades.

In the beginning of his service, Father Woods was unable to move into the still-unfinished rectory, and, for a few weeks, had to bed down in the houses of local parishioners. When Father Woods moved into the rectory (which was eventually moved off St. Mary’s property and brought to Druid Avenue near the brook, where it stands today), the bishop allowed the expansion of the church’s property. St. Mary’s bought two more lots on New Milford Avenue and one on Washington Avenue. The purpose of the land was to house the parish’s future school, but the Depression delayed most construction projects. The dream of broadening the Catholic community was put on hold until the economic situation brightened. The parish had the land, but not the financial means to expand. Amid this delay in the school project, St. Mary’s added an extra Sunday Mass, with the Rev. Victor C. Marion, chaplain of Mount St. Andrew’s in Paramus, presiding.

After shepherding St. Mary’s for several years, and celebrating his silver anniversary as a priest, Father Woods died on July 6, 1935, 13 years after he began his service in Dumont. Early parishioners had fond memories of St. Mary’s second pastor. Families remembered his aiding them during the difficult winter months with some extra coal for their houses and producing dances and plays in the basement of the Little White Church. The pastor’s German shepherd was also a common sight around the church property.

Father O’Neill’s Influential Years

Following the tenure of Father De and Father Woods, Bishop Thomas Joseph Walsh appointed the Rev. Henry W. O’Neill third pastor of St. Mary’s in 1935. Although the parishioners likely didn’t know it at the time, Father O’Neill’s appointment would influence St. Mary’s and Dumont forever. The priest, who transferred from a Jersey City parish, proved to be an important figure in the construction of a parish complex, a vision that took decades to realize.

Father O’Neill attended Seton Hall Prep and Seton Hall College, then studied for the priesthood at Immaculate Conception Seminary, then in South Orange, according to an article from The Advocate. He was ordained in June of 1917. Under his aegis, St. Mary’s continued to purchase property, including the stone John J. Christie homestead on Washington Avenue (also known as the Bogert House). The building, bought in January 1936, enhanced St. Mary’s presence in the community. It was demolished in 1952 to make room for the new rectory.

Eventually, St. Mary’s developed athletic leagues, Girl and Boy Scouts dens, an Italian-American club, the Altar and Rosary Society, and the Holy Name Society. From these earlier groups today’s ministries take their origins. Whether it’s CYO basketball or the Carnival Committee, St. Mary’s has a long history of keeping its parishioners spiritually and socially satisfied. Early residents had fond memories of St. Mary’s social activities, citing many of them as the reason for their first dates with their eventual spouses. The carnival, a major fund-raiser still enjoyed today, dates back to the 1930s.

With St. Mary’s growth came Dumont’s growth: The faithful flocked to the Little White Church in droves. When Father O’Neill took over pastoral duties in 1935, there were three Sunday Masses. In 1937, an 11 a.m. Mass was added to the 7:30, 9, and 10 a.m. schedule. Throughout the years, the Masses continued to grow in number. In 1948, an additional 9 a.m. Mass began in St. Mary’s Hall, plus a noon Mass in the Little White Church.

The work was fruitful, but exhausting, for Father O’Neill. St. Mary’s was expanding so quickly that he needed permanent help. In June of 1947 the church community received a new assistant priest who would stay with the parish for more than 60 years. Immediately following his ordination, the Rev. Theodore Szelest began his long service at St. Mary’s. He was one of the most beloved figures in the church’s history. He was born Sept. 8, 1921, one of five siblings, and grew up in Newark. His Polish parents had immigrated to the United States in 1907, according to local newspaper accounts. He attended St. Stanislaus Parochial, Seton Hall Prep, and Seton Hall College. After studying at Immaculate Conception Seminary, he was ordained on May 31, 1947, at Newark’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. He came to St. Mary’s and never left the parish over his 60-plus years of service — a rare duration for a priest.

Father Szelest spearheaded St. Mary’s CYO program and the annual carnival. He also chaired the fund-raisers that eventually led to the construction of St. Mary’s new church, school, rectory, and convent. Accompanying Father Szelest was the Rev. Raymond Doll, who stayed at St. Mary’s for only a few months. His replacement was the Rev. Anthony Bryce, who came from the Church of the Madonna in Fort Lee and would serve the parish for many years. Fathers O’Neill, Szelest, and Bryce became a dynamic team dedicated to the future of St. Mary’s. They are often cited by longtime parishioners as having a great influence on their spiritual growth.

The School Continues Father O’Neill’s Vision

The school project, which was delayed during the Depression, gained new life in 1950. On April 16 of that year, a groundbreaking ceremony was held and the Censullo Burke Construction Company began work. Profits from the annual carnival helped defray the construction costs not only of the school, but also of the convent, which was eventually built on St. Mary’s property near the Little White Church. In June of that year, the church also purchased a Wurlitzer Series 21 organ for $3,800 (the current Allen organ was bought in the 1970s). Local newspaper accounts estimated that more than 2,000 people attended the new school’s dedication dance, held in the auditorium (today known as Szelest Hall). The first school year began on Sept. 10, 1951. Tuition was only $10 (to cover the cost of textbooks). Archbishop Thomas J. Walsh officiated at a formal dedication ceremony on Nov. 25, 1951. In his speech, the archbishop noted that more than 750 children had registered for the school (later estimates had the number closer to 680). On June 19, 1952, St. Mary’s held its first graduation with 34 students receiving the inaugural honors. During his address, Archbishop Walsh also gave parishioners a sign of what was to come: Once the debt from the school construction was retired, St. Mary’s would break ground for a new church building.

Helping the priests were the dedicated Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, who provided religious education and preparation for the sacraments. “At lunchtime, passersby often saw the nuns in black habits and with coifs and veils framing their faces, swinging the jump rope for second graders outside the old church’s double doors,” according to an article in The Record.

Following the Money Trail

St. Mary’s needed at least $400,000 in contributions to make the new church a reality. In April of 1959, according to a flier distributed to the parish, the fund-raising drive began (although some parishioners have records of donating to it as early as 1951).  “The D-Day – The H-Hour follows when our ‘Army of Workers,’ having had their kick-off meeting on Friday, April 17, will start the Parish Solicitation, after last Mass on Sunday, April 19,” the flier reads. “What will the final result be? Only you can answer that. It will be a matter of a week and our task will be finished; a testimony to your generosity and the Everlasting Glory of God; a parish better prepared and better equipped to meet the ever pyramiding educational, social, and spiritual problems of today. … You and you alone can make all this possible. You can give to this community and to God a church that can ‘carry on’ triumphant and unhampered, the work of our Eucharistic King, and Thank God, we are confident you will not fail us.”

The parish solicited donations of every amount, from the highest “Big Gifts” all the way down to individual memorials. Approximately 600 campaign workers made visits to roughly 2,400 families over a three-day period. “If it is possible, won’t you try to spend that time at home,” the flier recommends to prospective donors. “Then, too, won’t you husbands and wives talk it over, or if you are all by yourself, won’t you make up your mind what you will want to do in support of our parish appeal and be ready when the workers call, to make your contribution? You will save their time and they will be grateful and go on their way encouraged by your quick decision and we hope, of course, Your Generosity.”

Father O’Neill joined parishioners in solid support: “I am confident that, as a result of your gift, we will have a more devoted Parish, a Parish that will fire the imagination and strengthen the faith of our little ones, a Parish of which we may be proud. Only those who can be proud of our Church will make a sacrifice for its support. You will value it, and love it in proportion to the sacrifice you make.”

The flier recommended that parishioners take an empty can of baking power and cut a hole in the top. “Put it on top of the Kitchen Cabinet or the Dresser and be ready to drop your daily pledge,” the announcement reads. “Remember, 75 cents a day for 30 months equals $675.00.” One of the slogans for the successful campaign was “Lay a Little Away Every Day.”

The need for a new church was urgent. By the early 1960s, Catholics in town had grown in number, encompassing approximately 50 percent of Dumont’s population. The faithful needed a larger space than what the Little White Church afforded them. Dumont Heritage, an extensive history of the borough, estimated that there were more than 11,000 parishioners at the time.

“Upon this rock”

Eventually, plans for the new church came to fruition. Built in the Colonial style, an unusual choice for a Catholic building, St. Mary’s realized Father O’Neill’s dream. He claimed that the style fit Dumont’s heritage as an old Dutch settlement (originally known as Schraalenburgh). “A Colonial church belongs in this place,” he told a local newspaper. “It fits here.” Although Dumont has Dutch origins, in the early 1960s the local population was a mixture of 20,000 residents. It was home to families of Italian, Irish, Polish, German, French, English, and Japanese descent. No matter the origins of the parishioners, Father O’Neill stressed their newfound identity. “They are American Catholics,” he said. “And they have a church in American architecture.” The pastor’s preference for Colonial architecture reflected his having grown up in a Morristown house of early American design. He liked the “simplicity and good lines.” Typically, early churches in the United States were built in the Queen Anne or Georgian styles. However, Colonial architecture, influenced greatly by the churches and meetinghouses designed by England’s Sir Christopher Wren, eventually gained prominence around the nation.

Some parishioners might wonder why all of St. Mary’s buildings look the same, even though they were constructed during different periods. The reason was O’Neill. When the school, convent, and rectory were built, the pastor commissioned Ricker and Axt, West New York architects, to design them along Colonial lines. Even in the early 1950s, the priest foresaw that a large Colonial church would complete his vision of St. Mary’s future. The new cruciform church was built at a final cost of $1.1 million. “We had a drive and had men go from door to door to door and get pledges,” Father Szelest told a reporter. “There was no problem with the pledges. I got a piece of poster board and listed all the memorials. People phoned them in.”

The church was formally dedicated by Archbishop Thomas A. Boland on April 14, 1962 (its cornerstone was laid in the spring of 1961). At the time of the dedication, St. Mary’s was thriving. The parish held Masses on Sunday mornings at 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 a.m., as well as noon. On holy days, six Masses were held. On weekdays, three Masses were offered. Baptisms were held every Sunday at 2 p.m. A special devotion to St. Joseph was held on Sundays at 4:30 p.m. The Easter Vigil Mass was celebrated at 10:45 p.m.

The New Church, in Detail

Following Father O’Neill’s vision, the upper church can seat 1,200 parishioners in the nave with an additional 100 in the balcony (former choir loft). The lower church can seat more than 1,000. The 50-year-old building is 63 feet wide by 175 feet long, featuring fireproof construction with steel roof trusses. Included in the church are sacristies, an ushers’ room, restrooms, and storage areas.

The massive construction is built of Indiana limestone with a variegated red brick exterior. St. Mary’s steeple, finished with copper-covered lead, towers over Dumont to a height of 115 feet. It’s topped by an aluminum cross. A pitch-roofed portico, supported by stone columns, leads into the front entrance of the church, while a louvered belfry, with electronic bell- ringing equipment, sits on top. The carillon was installed in 1961 in memory of Bernard Baggs. The bells were restored in 1999, courtesy of St. Mary’s parishioners.

The altars are made of imported and domestic marble, while the floor consists of colored terrazzo in decorative patterns. An antique white wood baldacchino, an unusual feature in a Colonial-style church, hovers above the altar. Its gold-leaf Marian monogram still glistens when the sunlight pours in.

Ornamental chandeliers hang over the faithful in the nave (the chandeliers used to feature hidden loudspeakers). A lectern, instead of a pulpit, stands near the altar rail. Its carved Paraclete resembles the American eagle. In the early 1990s, Kathy Sylvester and Marie Fitzgerald, two well-known presences at St. Mary’s, noticed that the wings of the eagle were missing. After searching for them without results, Marie’s husband, Bob, carved new wings, which are currently attached to the eagle. Years later, Kathy found the original ones in an old desk in the sacristy.

The altar rails, which were used before the Second Vatican Council, are marble with decorative liturgical symbols in aluminum and bronze panels. St. Mary’s original ambry, the special cabinet that holds the Oil of the Sick, the Oil of Catechumens, and the Sacred Chrism, was built into the wall on the tabernacle side of the sanctuary. In the early 1990s, Paul Dripchak, a Dumont cabinetmaker, designed and built the current wooden ambry, which is now located near the baptismal font on the opposite side of the sanctuary.

The outside steps and platforms of the church are made of granite, while the inside walls have a marble wainscot and ornamental plaster cornice. The front and side walls of the nave are finished with Briar Hill stone, which continues throughout the sanctuary. The vaulted, acoustical ceiling is finished with plaster.

Flanking the transepts are mosaics dedicated to the Sacred Heart and St. Ann, plus wooden statues of St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John the Baptist, and St. Michael the Archangel. In the lower church are two carved wooden shrines, one of the Crucifixion, the other of the Good Shepherd, both recessed in marble niches. A stone statue of the Immaculate Conception, hidden by a tree for years, adorns the façade.

The confessional boxes, interior doors, trim, pews, and cabinet- work are made of African mahogany.

An antique Colonial vase inspired the design of St. Mary’s baptismal font, which used to be situated in the baptistery (today’s reconciliation room). It features a bronze and aluminum hinged cover. The images on the font include a fish (an ancient symbol of Christ, the Fisherman), the Holy Spirit in the form of an American eagle, and a ship signifying Noah’s Ark. The font has been moved to the sanctuary. In 2001, on recommendations from the Liturgy Committee, the font was surrounded by a pool to aid in the baptism of adults. Joe Rossi, a parishioner who designed the outside Advent wreath, constructed the pool of landscaping blocks and a pond liner. A hidden pump sends water up through the font and spilling over its sides into the pool below. Maria Vera was the first adult baptized in the new arrangement.

The ornamental aluminum grille doors to the old baptistery are decorated with liturgical designs symbolic of the sacrament of baptism.

All in all, St. Mary’s is a treasure trove of adoration and architectural artistry.

The Parish Patroness

The beloved statue of the parish’s patroness, Our Lady of the Assumption, was a feature of the Little White Church for years. Made by the A. Da Prato Company of Boston, it depicts Mary’s assumption into heaven, with four angels accompanying her along the way. Although exact monetary figures are unavailable, the statue was listed in a catalogue for $250 in 1929. Its recent restoration cost $5,000. One of the two cherubs on the bottom left holds a scepter near Mary’s feet, a symbol of Our Lady’s queenship. Unfortunately, this angel is the only one that is still intact. From archival pictures, it appears that the angel on the upper right held gladiolas, Mary’s flowers. Gladiolas recall the Latin word for “sword,” and its sword-like leaves symbolize the piercing sorrows that Mary endured. The angel on the bottom left originally held a crown signifying Mary, Queen of Heaven. The final angel, on the upper left, held a palm branch, symbolizing a martyr’s victory over death (in this case, Mary’s victory over the decay of death by being assumed into heaven).

Let There Be Light!

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the “new” St. Mary’s is the number of Palladian windows, featuring breathtaking stained-glass designs by the Edward W. Hiemer & Company of Clifton. The windows are startling not only for their size, but for their inclusion in a Colonial building. Hiemer, in an interview, said that stained-glass windows were, in fact, a feature of Colonial houses. “It was only another step to introduce stained glass into churches,” he said. “Great care was taken not to use any strange decorative forms.” The windows, designed by the Munich-trained artist, Jacob Renner, consist of “antique” glass mouth-blown by workers at the Blenko Company. The foreground of each window depicts a scene from the life of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. All of the symbolic features are taken from the Litany of Loreto, a Marian litany approved in the 16th Century by Pope Sixtus V and first recorded in Loreto, Italy. Sacristy windows display symbols of the Queen of Angels, Queen of Prophets, Queen of Apostles, Queen of Martyrs, Queen of Virgins, Queen of All Saints, Queen without Original Sin, Holy Rosary, and Lamb of God.

In the choir loft and stairways are windows representing the Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Virgin Most Powerful, Cause of Joy, Mystical Rose, Tower of David, House of Gold, and Morning Star. The two windows in the old baptistery feature Mother of Divine Grace and Mother Most Chaste.

The background of each window features patterns that derive from Colonial woodcarvings, grille work, and other period designs. The muntins are made of aluminum, rather than the customary wood. The window paintings were executed by Simon Berasaluce, a Spanish artist who recently passed away.

Between the windows are mosaic Stations of the Cross, set in marble frames. If they are viewed on an angle, they appear three-dimensional. The Stations of the Cross from the Little White Church are displayed in the lower church. Kathy Sylvester and Jeanne Messina found them in 1997. They were restored by Jersey City Statuary, and, when they were placed in the lower church, Kathy remembers parishioner Carmine Carmello coming up to her with tears in his eyes. “Now it looks like a church,” he said. The ornate windows of the upper church stand a few feet above the lower church’s windows, which are glazed with various tints of Flemish patterned glass. The interspersed symbols on the windows offer points of interest for meditation.

Saying Goodbye to Father O’Neill

After the dedication of the new church, the number of parishioners receiving sacraments grew, as did St. Mary’s social activities. It was a time when the parish baptized approximately 200 babies a year and 300 students were confirmed. The parish was so vibrant that the priests even raffled off a new Chevy car (valued at $1,900) almost every single month.

With the joys of the new building came a new realization for St. Mary’s beloved pastor. Having served the parish for 31 years, Father O’Neill was able to see his vision come to glorious life. After a long illness, he died in July of 1966 at Holy Name Hospital. He was 74. While in the hospital, the pastor spent much of his time learning the changes in the liturgy in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. In Father Szelest’s words, Father O’Neill was “a real gentleman. He was strict. He was a real businessman, a fantastic businessman. To me, he was like a father.” Father O’Neill’s body lay in state at St. Mary’s, beneath the very roof he had envisioned so many years before.

Remembering Marie Fitzgerald by Dr. Geoffrey J. Sadock

No history of St. Mary’s Church would be complete without a portrait of Marie Fitzgerald, who was for more than 50 years the heart and soul of the parish music program. Marie Niland was born (1939) in Dumont, baptized, confirmed and married to Bob Fitzgerald in St. Mary’s. While she was still in grammar school, she was already considered a prodigy and concert pianist. In 1953, when she was 14, Father O’Neill called her out of the congregation because the regular organist had failed to appear for a funeral.

“I don’t know anything about playing for a funeral,” she protested, but Father O’Neill said, “I’ll tell you.” She played that day and sporadically in St. Mary’s for the next four years. When she was 18, she debuted at Carnegie Hall in a program of classical pieces. She studied piano at the Teaneck Conservatory of Music, under Ruth Ann Guttierez and then organ at the American Academy of Music, under Claire Cocci.

In 1961, she completed her baccalaureate degree in music at Columbia University. Shortly thereafter, Father Edward Kavin invited her to become full-time parish organist. From that time on, the music program at St. Mary’s scaled the heights. With the pastor, she founded the 40-member men’s, children’s, and bell choirs. Year after year she involved every child in the parish (about 800 at the time) in the annual children’s play, which she managed, while the children themselves directed traffic. Bishop (later Archbishop) Theodore E. McCarrick remarked that “the music in Dumont is the best in the archdiocese.”

From the 1960s through the 1990s, Marie regularly played at the major events of St. John’s Council (No. 1345) of the Knights of Columbus, The New Jersey Gaelic League, the SMA Fathers, and St. Mary’s, Closter. She composed and played a Celtic Mass annually at St. Agnes Church in Manhattan. Her younger son Jack, who often accompanied her on the tympani, remembers that she augmented festal Masses with violin, cello, and brass musicians.

She wrote all the music for Father (later Bishop) John Morton Smith’s ordination and was the only woman who played for the Dumont Elks. She was offered several prestigious appointments (including Riverside Church and St. Thomas’ Fifth Avenue) in New York City, but turned them down because, as her husband Bob recently remarked, she was “totally dedicated to St. Mary’s music ministry” and wanted to stay near her family. She worked closely with Monsignor Thomas J. Gillhooly on the music program and was instrumental in the selection and design of the “new” organ during the 1970s.

Marie’s achievements and dedication were repeatedly recognized during her lifetime. Bishop Smith gave her a lifetime award and the Irish Association made her Grand Marshall of the Bergenfield St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1991. Until her retirement in 2005, Marie was the personification of excellent music and song at St. Mary’s.

Doctor Bernard T. Baggs, the music director of Bergenfield High School, recalled that the tone and quality of her voice were unbelievable and that “Marie’s voice never changed in 60 years.” That voice, that art, that personality remained with her until her death in July of 2010. To the many choristers, musicians, worshippers, neighbors, and colleagues with whom she worked, Marie remains a beautiful symphony, never to be forgotten.

Monsignor Gillhooly and More Changes

In the mid-1960s, St. Mary’s bid farewell to the Little White Church. It was used for years as the school’s annex, while Mass was celebrated in the new building, but eventually its obsolescence proved inevitable. “There was an electrical fire in one of its closets,” Father Szelest told a newspaper. “We decided to tear it down because church attendance and the school enrollment had shrunken and all that room was no longer necessary.”

Following Father O’Neill’s tenure, Father Szelest administered the parish from 1964 to 1966. Father Bryce continued his service, and the Rev. Edward Kavin joined St. Mary’s staff.  Father Kavin was instrumental in promoting activities and special prayer sessions for children and teenagers.

In 1965, The Record printed an article outlining St. Mary’s offering a midnight holy hour on the first Friday of every month for young male parishioners. The spiritual project was spearheaded by Father Kavin. The idea grew out of the parish’s success with a 7:15 a.m. Mass held before students headed off to high school. Some 250 of the parish’s youth showed up for the morning service, so St. Mary’s clergy thought perhaps a nighttime holy hour would meet with similar success. The holy hour consisted of a candid talk by a visiting priest and an opportunity for Mass and confession. The session concluded with a pizza and soda “breakfast.”

In 1966, Monsignor Thomas J. Gillhooly became the fourth pastor of St. Mary’s, following Father Szelest’s brief tenure as administrator. Monsignor had worked at Seton Hall University for many years (the school was also his alma mater, where he played quarterback for the football team), but hadn’t served in a parish in nearly 25 years. Older parishioners remembered him as an “excellent speaker” and a “decent person.” The Harrison native was ordained in 1937.

In 1969, St. Mary’s welcomed the Rev. Stanley B. Just, who stayed at the parish for almost ten years.

At this time the church faced one of its more difficult challenges: In 1970, the Sisters of Charity announced their intention to leave the Dumont community. According to reports, the nuns felt their work was needed in other areas, including the inner city. Mrs. Fillhart became the principal of the school in May of 1970 and began hiring lay teachers to replace the sisters. With the departure of the nuns, St. Mary’s began charging higher tuition for enrollment. The cost during this changeover was $150 for the first child, $100 for the second child, and $50 for the third child. For larger Catholic families in town, there was no charge beyond the third student. Enrollment, as expected, dropped to roughly 620 students. Rather than 24 classes, Mrs. Fillhart reported that St. Mary’s was down to 21 classes. Meanwhile, the public schools in Dumont experienced overcrowding and higher enrollment.

After the sisters left, the future of the convent was uncertain, and the struggle to make the building useful proved difficult. The Rev. Joseph Murphy set up a “House of Solitude” in the building as a place for clergy “to shut down the wheels of the mind, to shut out the din of the world, and to try to listen to what the Lord may be saying.” It was open to people of all denominations, but they had to stay for a minimum of 24 hours and a maximum of three days. They spent their time fasting and praying. On Sundays, the house was available for priests to watch television and read. For $6 on Saturdays, lay people could enjoy a mini retreat of moderated discussions, with opportunities for private and shared prayer. Lunch was included in the price. The purpose of the “House of Solitude” was to achieve a sense of poustinia, a Russian word meaning desert. The term is often used in Eastern Christianity. Local plumbers, plasterers, and other volunteers helped refurbish the building after its years of disrepair and neglect. The Rev. Richard Strelecki, a Trappist monk for nine years, became the director of the program after Father Murphy. When Father Strelecki moved on to another assignment, the “House of Solitude” closed and the convent became deliquescent.

New priests started serving at St. Mary’s during this period. The Rev. Robert Gibney served from 1975 to 1978. Then, much like Father Szelest’s appointment to St. Mary’s decades before, the parish welcomed someone who would become a well-known face for many years. The Rev. Donald E. McLaughlin, previously assigned to All Saints in Jersey City, came to St. Mary’s in July of 1979.

A Conversation with Father Donald E. McLaughlin by Karen Sadock

I first came to St. Mary’s parish in June of 1979 after 11 ½ years in All Saints parish in the Lafayette section of Jersey City. I went to All Saints, which was supposed to be a team ministry, operating in a spirit of collegiality without a designated pastor. The concept was never realized. This was a demanding assignment; during my time in this very poor parish, we were called to minister to the families of seven parishioners who were murdered in their homes. Since child care was a great need, we offered Mercedarian Sisters from South America the rectory for a day care center and moved into the janitor’s house since he had bought his own home. We went from a house teeming with cockroaches to a 100-year-old un-insulated house full of rats. One morning I woke to find a rat beginning to nibble on my toe.

Bishop Bob Garner, then regional bishop for Bergen County, asked me to come to St. Mary’s. The parish was quite a change from Jersey City. My first memory was of Monsignor Gillhooly coming to my room with a bottle of apple juice to welcome me and saying he hoped I would be happy here. And I was.

One of the first things I became involved with was the Search program, which Father Dick Ehrenberg had founded alongside the one run by the CYO of Bergen County. Vince and Audrey Casserly and Ken and Nancy Florio, along with so many other people, were mainstays of the program and provided much-needed leadership and direction. This worthwhile program strengthened the faith of our parish teenagers. A number of them went on to work as youth ministers in parishes and to other positions in the church. Mrs. Ellen Anderson was great about opening her house to the kids in the program and was an integral part of Search.

The hardest part of my 10-year first assignment at St. Mary’s was my work with separated and divorced Catholics. Archbishop Peter Gerety asked me to head up the ministry, and I turned him down five times: once over the phone to his secretary and four times to his face. I received another phone call to come and meet with him. He had received five other no’s. I simply told him that I had no idea what I would be doing, didn’t know anything about the ministry, and was perfectly happy to remain at St. Mary’s. He told me I would be taking over from Father Edgar Holden, a Franciscan priest who had worked for two years under Father Jim Young, a Paulist priest from Boston, who had founded this ministry. Father Holden had done a masterful job as head of this ministry in Newark. So, four days a week, I would leave Dumont at 8:30 in the morning for a full day at the office in Newark, and then have meetings in the evenings in the four corners of the diocese. I would pull into the rectory driveway at 9:30 or 10 p.m. On weekends, I would facilitate Engaged Encounter weekends, until midnight or 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. It was physically demanding, of course, and even more emotionally draining, although rewarding.

The Cursillo Movement, or Tres Dias, as it is known in the Spanish movement, became a significant ministry for me at St. Mary’s. This three-day program, given separately for men and women, allowed a Catholic to look at his or her faith and be strengthened in it by the sharing of the team members on various topics. Marriage Encounter, for which I facilitated 47 weekends in five years, is an engaging ministry which attempts to draw couples together more closely in their love for one another and in their faith as well. The program was so successful that a number of Protestant churches adapted it for their own members.

I once did a Men’s Cornerstone weekend with Father Don Sheehan, a great guy and a hard worker. I remember sitting with him and eating the last two slices of pizza. While going over to the church, I didn’t feel well. I excused myself and Don took over. I spent the next five hours going from the bed to the chair to the floor. Finally, I realized the pain wasn’t going to go away, so I took a shower, put my dog out, and left a note for Father Sheehan that I was driving myself to the hospital. He had come in at one o’clock and tried to get me to go to the ER, but I was so tired I just wanted to stay in bed. I was having a heart attack. I was transferred from Holy Name to Hackensack Medical Center for surgery.

One of my enduring interests at St. Mary’s was ecumenical relations, an interest that had begun in seminary. As a seminarian, I visited all the Protestant ministers in Bayonne and would gather seminarians to visit Protestant seminaries, usually on Easter break. When Dr. George Webber, the United Church of Christ minister whose book, The Congregation in Mission, described his success in building powerful faith communities in East Harlem, gave a lecture, 40 Catholic seminarians attended. We also visited The General (Episcopal) Theological Seminary in New York and Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. As a result of my interest and involvement in ecumenical affairs, I attended Princeton Seminary and obtained a Master of Theology Degree. Two of my classmates were Carmelites from Tenafly.

Following my first term at St. Mary’s, I became pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace in Maywood. I stepped down after seven-and-a-half years because of health problems. Cardiac trouble dogged me for several more years, including throughout my second term at St. Mary’s, culminating in twelve hours of complicated surgery at Mount Sinai in New York in 2006. My surgeon, Dr. David Adams, told me that he did not expect me to survive.

My time at St. Mary’s was full of good, human, life-giving moments. But there were times when my heart would break. One evening, when we had just finished a Search weekend preparation meeting in New Milford, I heard a car collision and drove over to see if I could help. As I got to one of the victims, a 17-year-old girl who lived nearby asked me if my name were “Father.” I said it was, and she replied, “He knows you.” Marty Narcisiso was the driver. They had been hit by a car coming out of a side street without lights driven by an AWOL soldier going 80 miles per hour. A passenger, Tommy Jessie, was in a coma for months. We spent hours with his parents at their home and at Hackensack Hospital until 3 a.m., when a doctor told us to leave because there was nothing further we could do.

I was moved when Neil and Peg Gallagher’s son came down with cancer. He faithfully came with his parents to Sunday Mass when he could. The lift hadn’t yet been installed, and he would bravely climb the steps, one by one, struggling to get to Mass.

Perhaps the most heart-breaking memory of my time at St. Mary’s was caring for a woman who told me she had been treated for a lung problem that turned out to be breast cancer. Since her husband had gone on an extended business trip for his job, she did not begin treatment until he returned months later. By that time the tumor had metastasized to her spine and brain. One afternoon, I was at her bedside, trying to give her permission to die, to let go, when her husband came in and picked up on it. She misunderstood and said to him, “You want me to die.” He burst into tears. The cancer in her brain caused her to misinterpret. Watching this fine and wonderful woman die — a wife and mother of four children under 10 — was crushing. I had supper with the family about a week later and brought two pizzas with me. I watched raptly as each of the children came over numerous times asking their dad to fix something or how to do something. You could see their fear that he might leave them as well.

My years at St. Mary’s were fulfilling and happy. Hopefully, I was able to do some good work and help our parishioners. I wish Father Bob Laferrera, the parish, and parishioners many rewarding moments in the next 50 years as you continue faithfully to serve Our Lord in love and generosity of spirit.

Monsignor John ‘Mort’ Smith

Monsignor Gillhooly retired in 1986, after serving St. Mary’s for two decades. Much of his tenure at the church was encapsulated by two monumental challenges: How to adapt to the Vatican II changes, and how to rebound after the sudden departure of the Sisters of Charity. At his retirement dinner, he said, “My life at St. Mary’s was indeed happy. I shall never forget my priests and my parishioners. My heart is still there.”

Succeeding Monsignor Gillhooly was Monsignor John “Mort” Smith, who came to Dumont after serving in Rome as director of the Institute for Continuing Theological Education at the North American College. The Orange native was ordained in 1961 after studying at Seton Hall University and John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.

He received his doctorate in 1966 and coincidentally was assigned to St. Joseph’s in Oradell, the parish where St. Mary’s first pastor originated. When Monsignor Smith came to Dumont, there were 2,700 families in the parish. Why didn’t Monsignor stay in Rome, where his office afforded him a view of St. Peter’s Basilica? “I loved Rome,” he told a local reporter. “But I really missed being part of people’s lives.” Monsignor Smith also brought to mind the words of Pope John Paul II: “We were ordained for the service of others, for the sake of Christ and the gospel. The Pope’s work meant a lot to me because I knew I would be returning to parish work. The church is lived out in the parish — that’s where the people worship together, grow in their knowledge of their faith, turn to each other in their joys and sorrows. The parish is more than the two or three priests assigned to a particular church. The parish connects people who have particular needs and people with talents so that they may serve each other in the name of Christ.” He eventually moved on from St. Mary’s to work in the archdiocesan Chancery Office. Later he became the Bishop of Trenton.

It was in this decade that St. Mary’s celebrated a rather auspicious milestone: At the 1986 dinner-dance, the parish formally burned the mortgage. St. Mary’s was finally paid off.

The Late 1980s

In early 1987, it was announced that the Rev. Donald P. Sheehan would become the sixth pastor of St. Mary’s. The Summit native had been director of the Continuing Formation of Priests for the archdiocese. He was ordained in 1968, following studies at Seton Hall University and Immaculate Conception Seminary. He also earned a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Iona College. Before St. Mary’s, he served in two Jersey City churches and was administrator of Holy Spirit and Help of Christians in East Orange.

Under Father Sheehan’s tenure the question of the convent continued to trouble the community. Plans to turn the building into a temporary shelter faced objections from several local residents. Eventually, the Catholic Community Services withdrew its controversial plans for the old convent, and the building remained a dilemma.

During Father Sheehan’s pastoral work St. Mary’s saw the dedicated help of Sisters Margaret Hoffman, Marian Boudreau, Bridget O’Shea, Elizabeth Mullen, and Thomas Marie.

In 1989, the parish celebrated its 75th anniversary. Clergy and parishioners kicked off the yearlong festivities with a solemn Mass on April 24. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick was the principal celebrant and homilist.

A Talk with Father Donald Sheehan by Dr. Geoffrey J. Sadock

Father Donald Sheehan, sixth pastor of St. Mary’s Church (1987 to 1999), Dumont, sat at ease in the rectory of Guardian Angel Church, Allendale, to which he had just retired, awaiting my questions. He looked hale and his congenial smile set the tone for our whole conversation.

I opened by asking him his first impressions of the parish when he arrived in 1987. He said that he looked forward to his appointment and that the people of the parish were welcoming. He was excited about the possibilities at St. Mary’s, particularly about fully “opening St. Mary’s to the reforms of Vatican II.” He noted that “people were eager to get involved … in a variety of liturgical ministries” and that he took great pleasure in establishing the Liturgy of the Word With Children. He mentioned that RCIA “really took off” during his tenure and that Cornerstone and Pre-Cana flourished.

Father Sheehan was especially pleased with his efforts to “build the place up physically, to improve the classrooms and grounds.” He regards his watch as “a golden period for the school,” which was headed up by Sister Elizabeth and then Sister Bridget (of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Peace), for almost the whole of his tenure in the parish.

In response to my question about his legacy, Father Sheehan reflected and then said part of it was “the number of people who got involved in Cornerstone, religious education, running the school, and maintaining the property.” He had particular praise for “the healthy supply of people who volunteered and did things.” He remembered coming in one night and noticing that lights were on everywhere because people were so involved and thinking, “I am a happy man!”

When asked if he experienced any frustration, he said that “it was painful to see parishioners who were hurting and divided over” the fate of the disused convent. He recalled feeling that, when all was said and done, the argument in favor of using the convent as a shelter for unwed mothers with children was “stronger” than the opposition to it, and that using it for such a purpose would have solved the whole problem. Another observation was that “outreach to youth was always a problem, a struggle, that only occasionally (produced) small successes.”

He reminisced fondly about hearing Marie Fitzgerald and the choir and how much they were enjoying themselves and adding to the worship in the church. And he singled out Roz Callahan, Martha Murray, and Lillian Rothmeyer, who served as the rectory staff, for particular praise. He said he always enjoyed the carnival, which had been organized by Father Szelest, and which continues to this day. His remembrances of Father McLaughlin, who served twice as assistant at St. Mary’s, were warm-hearted.

When asked if there was any unfinished business at the time he left the parish, Father Sheehan mentioned that he was unhappy with the position of the font within the sanctuary and with the three presidential chairs behind the altar. In bringing the liturgy of Vatican II to St. Mary’s, he warmly praised Kathy Sylvester, whom he described as “energized and talented,” remarking that “she gave her all to everything she attempted.” He philosophically reflected that “we could have done our renewal without pushing out so much of our tradition. … Making the altar the center of our worship space was correct, (but) we could have done it without shattering images dear and important to the spirituality of so many.”

Another frustration was the quality of the sound system, which he tried to improve only to discover that half the parish thought the old system was better than the experimental new one, resulting in no change at all and the wry comment that “maybe it (the church) will always be an echo chamber.”

Father Sheehan’s final injunction to the parish as it embarks on its next 50 years was this: “Celebrate the centenary of the past, which was grounded in faith and in the willingness to live by it. The past involved great suffering and success. (The people of St. Mary’s) could not do any better than to pray for a future as rich.” The interview concluded with a handshake and smile, a smile which will long be remembered at St. Mary’s.

Father Robert Laferrera

Father Robert Laferrera joined St. Mary’s parish on July 1, 1999, after receiving word of his new assignment from Archbishop McCarrick. Previously, Father Bob, as he is often called, had served as the administrator at Holy Trinity Church in Hackensack and Holy Rosary Church in Jersey City.

When he began his tenure as pastor of St. Mary’s, Father Bob had a healthy dose of anxiety. It was the largest parish he had ever served, a daunting task, but almost immediately he found the richness of St. Mary’s diversity to be one of its strongest suits.

In the beginning, he focused on liturgy, what he calls the essential element that identifies us as Catholics. One of his first introductions to the people of St. Mary’s was through his homilies, and so he devoted much time to the preparation of his preaching. “During a homily, that’s when you touch the most people,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of active parishioners are listening.”

As he came to know the people of St. Mary’s and the parish’s buildings, Father Bob grew to love his newfound Dumont home. He was impressed by St. Mary’s willing devotion to service and how parishioners broadened their community outreach efforts. He remembers the first time he set eyes on the impressive church building. He was called by the archbishop on a Thursday and on Friday the future pastor headed up to St. Mary’s for his first visit. “I didn’t really know where Dumont was,” he said with a laugh, “even though I was just in Hackensack.” He met the staff at the parish office on that first day and headed over to the church. When he first entered the doors, with the sun’s rays radiating through the stained-glass windows, he was taken aback by the size of St. Mary’s and its dimensions. It is a place where the eye is rightfully drawn to the marble altar and the anguished body of Jesus Christ on the cross.

After his introductions to the church, Father Bob met the parishioners for the first time by choosing to listen and look. “I came in and spent the first couple of months just watching,” he remembered. “Little by little then you can allow your vision to permeate. But you first need to get a sense of the community and how this parish identifies itself.”

He was impressed, both then and now, with what he calls the “well” of devoted Catholics at St. Mary’s who offered their time and service to the church.

Then some of the more difficult work began. When Father Bob started, the old convent was still standing, the school and church buildings were in a dire state of disrepair, and the parish struggled emotionally with new issues, such as unemployment and the ramifications of September 11th and two foreign wars. Through prayer and reflection, Father Bob and the parish addressed these hardships with an open heart, a clear mind, and a dignified plea for participation.

Although Father Bob was reluctant to see the convent torn down, he was happy to see a vibrant senior residence built and the land well used. As for updating the church, it was during Father Bob’s time at St. Mary’s that the parish kicked off its ambitious “Realizing the Dream” Capital Campaign. To address some of the maintenance and structural problems of St. Mary’s aging buildings, the campaign asked parishioners to donate money for various improvements. Now, as the church celebrates its 50th anniversary, many of those improvements are finally being realized, and more than $860,000 has been pledged.

“The buildings are simply aging,” Father said. “The school was built in 1952, the church in 1961. My responsibility to the person who succeeds me is to lay out as good a plan for the future as I can, because, otherwise, down the road, it will be more costly. We couldn’t wait any longer. This is our home, and we always want to be proud of our home. We want it to be a welcoming environment.” It has been a struggle. The sheer size of St. Mary’s makes it an unenviable task. “Take your home,” Father Bob said, “and multiply it 10 times.”

Father O’Neill’s vision is still standing, but it needs some help to retain all its glory. So far, the capital campaign has paid $15,000 to repair the rectory’s roof and $62,500 to repair the church’s roof. The steeple has undergone repairs, as have the front steps. The largest expenditure so far has been $152,000 for the school’s heating system. Throughout the updating of the buildings, the parish has grown just as the church buildings have. “I believe community building is absolutely crucial to a parish,” said Father Bob, who mentioned the recent block party on the Feast of the Assumption as a perfect example of parishioners coming together. “I like a party, but never just for the sake of having fun. At social events, the bonds that unite us as Catholics become stronger.”

One fond memory he has of his first days at St. Mary’s is of being introduced to Fran DeBenedictus at the annual carnival. The much-involved parishioner was selling tickets for the rides and wanted to meet the new priest. “She came around from the booth,” Father Bob remembered, “and said she had wanted to meet me for some time.” What was the reason for Fran’s enthusiasm? “She had been waiting for 50 years for an Italian pastor to come to St. Mary’s,” Father Bob said with a chuckle as he brought to mind the scene. “I told her I’m only half Italian. But Fran said she didn’t care; my last name was Italian. She was the first parishioner I met, and she was a person I came to know very well.”

Father Bob has preserved his perspective on community and parish involvement all his life. He grew up in East Orange, the youngest of five siblings. Like his two brothers and two sisters, he attended Essex Catholic High School in Newark and then entered the Irish Christian Brothers in June of 1967. He went on to study at Iona University and Manhattan College and taught for many years in the South Bronx, New Rochelle, and at his alma mater, Essex Catholic. He was ordained in 1988 and celebrated his 20th anniversary as a priest in 2008.

As the number of practicing Catholics has dwindled, Father Bob said he focuses on the many people who still make St. Mary’s a vital part of their daily lives. “I used to worry a lot about numbers,” he said. “But now I want to work with the people who are here. Would I like to see more people? Yes, certainly we need to reach out to people and let them know that they can belong here, that they can participate.”

Recent Years

On August 29, 2007, St. Mary’s lost one of its mighty pillars. Father Szelest, who had come to the parish in 1947, passed away after six decades of service to the parish. His body lay in state at St. Mary’s so his many friends and fellow Catholics could mourn his passing.

In the last decade, St. Mary’s School has faced problems with student enrollment. In order to keep the tradition alive, the parish merged its education system with those of St. John the Evangelist in Bergenfield and the Church of the Ascension in New Milford. The newly combined Transfiguration Academy is housed in the former St. John’s school building in Bergenfield. St. Mary’s School and Szelest Hall still serve as components of parish life. Religious education and RCIA classes are held in the classrooms, and a renovated spiritual formation center can be found near the cafeteria in the basement.

The dilemma of the convent, which had stood vacant for years, was finally solved. After hearing criticism of the church’s intended use of the building as a shelter (much like the protest that arose during Father Sheehan’s tenure), St. Mary’s and the Archdiocese of Newark decided that the best fit would be a senior center, built in a style similar to the other church buildings. St. Mary’s property today consists of the rectory, the “new” church, school, new senior residence, and two parking lots, which are often filled to capacity with the local faithful.

Parishioner Portrait: Barbara Barba by John Soltes

Barbara Barba currently serves as the chair of St. Mary’s Pastoral Council. Her role as a “voice for the parishioner” comes after years of service and dedication to a church community she has always called home.

Barbara was baptized in the Little White Church (1953) and attended St. Mary’s School from first to eighth grade. She recalls waiting in the schoolyard with her friends and looking up at the construction of the new church. “There were steel girders and trucks everywhere,” she recollected. “I remember the steel beams for the top of the church.”

Barbara recalls her first classes, which were held in the basement of the Little White Church. It was a time when the school was overflowing and had three or four classes per grade.

She received her first Holy Communion in what is today called Szelest Hall, because the Little White Church was too small and the new church wasn’t ready. Her Communion class was massive, with dozens of kids receiving the sacrament. It wasn’t just sacramental celebrations that were packed with the faithful. Barbara remembers Sunday Masses held upstairs and downstairs at the same time, both almost at capacity.

Barbara was present at the dedication of the new church with Father O’Neill walking around the perimeter of the building blessing the premises with holy water. “It was a big deal,” she said. “So many parishioners came, even the archbishop.”

Barbara was confirmed in the sixth grade. The sacrament was offered in a separate Mass, and she wore the usual red robe.

In October of 1980, Barbara married Gary Barba at St. Mary’s. Monsignor Gillhooly, a family friend and pastor of the church, presided over the service. At that time, brides gave extra flowers to the church or a separate bouquet to the Blessed Mother.

Barbara remembers how many baptisms there were in those years. It was like an “assembly line” of babies, and she remembers her niece, Laura, receiving a private baptism in the new church’s original baptistery (now the reconciliation room). Private baptisms were allowed on request. Gary and Barbara saw their two children, Amanda and Christopher, grow up in the church and receive the sacraments of baptism, first Holy Communion, and confirmation. Barbara taught kindergarten for one year at St. Mary’s School and then returned to teaching in the public school system.

“For me, St. Mary’s is my spiritual home,” Barbara said. “We have developed really close friendships over the years. Going to Mass is not just going to Mass for us. You see friends and catch up. It’s grown to that level. As you become more involved to whatever draws you in, you begin to put names to faces and it becomes much more personal.”

Today, in addition to her chairing the Pastoral Council, Barbara serves as a Eucharistic minister. She still enjoys celebrating Mass and sitting beneath those steel beams that she saw being hoisted above the parking lot as a little girl.

Parishioner Portrait: Emily Stevens by John Soltes

Emily Stevens, a lifelong parishioner of St. Mary’s, has celebrated almost all of her sacraments at the church. Born a couple of years before the cornerstone was dedicated for the new building, Emily was baptized in the Little White Church on the corner of Washington and New Milford Avenues. At a very young age, she watched the building of the new church and the growth of the parish in the 1960s. Emily Amalfitano, her maiden name, comes from a family that moved from Brooklyn to Dumont more than 50 years ago. She grew up on Seneca Avenue and her family has long had a presence in the church and school. Although Emily has vague memories of the construction of St. Mary’s, she does remember her kindergarten class at Lincoln School (the parish did not then have a kindergarten) where all she could paint was the huge church with a big cross on the top. The young artist drew the future home of Dumont Catholics.

The parish was thriving, and the Little White Church became an annex of the school. “You grew up thinking everyone was Catholic,” Emily said. “And it seemed that way because school was so busy.” Emily attended St. Mary’s School from first to eighth grade. As a student, she remembers that Masses were held in the upper and lower church at the same time. In fact, one of her earliest memories is attending the 9 a.m. children’s Mass in the lower church with her family. The Sisters of Charity, who lived in the convent, walked up and down the aisles, making sure the children were paying attention. Her father, Vincent Amalfitano, was an usher and sometimes joined the nuns in keeping the children in the packed pews attentive. In those early days, Mass was held every hour from 7 a.m. to the early afternoon. She remembers that earlier Masses were the most packed. One reason, she believes, might have had been the old custom of fasting after midnight until receiving the Eucharist on Sunday morning. “Going to early Mass meant you could eat breakfast sooner,” she said.

Emily received first Holy Communion when she was in the first rather than in the second grade because she was a student at St. Mary’s. Parishioners knelt before the altar, while the priest walked up and down the rail, offering the Eucharist. Confirmation was held in the sixth grade for St. Mary’s students, and the sacrament could be a little nerve-wracking. “You would get a hundred questions on a card and they told you that the bishop would ask questions during the confirmation Mass,” she said. “The questions started out easy and then got harder and harder. I remember the bishop asked the girl next to me, and I was terrified.” For confirmation, Emily wore a new dress, but it was hidden beneath a red robe with a stripe and flame on its back, attire that is no longer required.

By the 1970s, Mass was offered on Saturday evenings. Soon, the 7 p.m. Mass became the chosen service for teenagers because CYO activities followed.

One of Emily’s fondest memories from those years is of cleaning the church at Father Szelest’s request. Emily and her friends, the “Sacristy Helpers,” were tasked once a week with cleaning the altar, along with the Altar and Rosary Society. She remembers taking the carpet by the altar rail and beating it with poles outside to get rid of the dirt and dust.

One of the leaders of this cleaning group was Helen Choinaki, who volunteered for almost everything at St. Mary’s. “She had a good heart,” Emily said. “I promised Helen I would be involved with St. Mary’s forever.” Emily kept her promise. In August 1981, she was married to Robert Stevens at St. Mary’s, and both of her children, Allison and Michael, have received their sacraments at the church. Today, Emily serves as a Eucharist minister and member of the Finance Council. She’s also a constant presence at the Children’s Liturgy portion of the 10 a.m. Mass. Her job with the children is similar to what the Sisters of Charity and her own father did so many years ago when the new church was built. She kindly asks the kids to pay attention and helps them understand the gospel readings.

“It’s my home,” Emily said of St. Mary’s. “I went to a prayer session once and sat up by the altar. I had a weird feeling looking out over the church. I had my father’s funeral here, my wedding, my mother’s funeral, and my kids’ baptisms. This is my home.”

Parishioner Portrait: Thomas Schreiber by John Soltes

In 1949, Thomas Schreiber’s parents moved to Dumont and began their years of dedication to St. Mary’s Church. Tom’s parents still have their ledgers from the 1950s showing their $1-a-week donations to the construction of the new church.

“They finished paying in 1960,” he said with a laugh. Tom has a long history at St. Mary’s. He was baptized in the Little White Church and attended the parish’s school from first to eighth grade. For his first Holy Communion, he remembers lining up outside the church and making his way down the nave of St. Mary’s, wearing his blue suit and white tie. Of course, his hands were folded — the sisters would have it no other way. During those years, Tom went with his family to the 9 a.m. children’s Mass in the lower church. “The nuns kept us in order,” he remembered, adding that families used to reserve the offertory gifts and sit near the back of the church. “They even announced the family in the bulletin.”

The Schreiber family has a long history at St. Mary’s School. Tom’s oldest sister attended only in her later years, because it wasn’t open yet for earlier grades. His three other siblings all enrolled. Tom was a student when the Sisters of Charity left the parish, and a new principal came onboard, a time of great change at St. Mary’s. In the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, Tom served as an altar boy. He remembers sometimes being called out of school to help serve at a funeral. “Father Szelest would come into the room and say, ‘Schreiber.’” Tom remembers, “We used to wear long black cassocks with a white thing over the top. People knelt at the altar rail, and I had to follow the priest with a gold paten with a wooden handle.” There were four altar servers then: one for the cross, two for the lit candles, and one for the book. “If you were the book, you sat up in the marble chairs,” he said. “If you carried the candles up, it was very difficult. If there were only three servers, you sometimes had to carry both candles.”

Tom remembers his first reconciliation in the wooden confessional boxes of St. Mary’s. “I was scared to death,” he remarked. “You would kneel down and then you would hear ‘woosh’ when the little sliding door opened to the priest.”

Tom’s Uncle Joe served as his sponsor for confirmation in the sixth grade. Tom graduated from St. Mary’s School, the ceremony being held in the gymnasium. “I can remember Mrs. [Marie] Fitzgerald playing “The Candy Man Can” from “Willy Wonka.”

Tom attended CYO dances over the years, played CYO basketball, and was a member of “probably the most famous street hockey team in the area.” They played in St. Mary’s lower parking lot every day. “Our life was St. Mary’s,” he said. “Sports, school, church, family. My parents even had a film of my brother’s confirmation from 1960. I just came across it. I’m watching it, and I look at the church and you see all the scaffolding. There are no stained-glass windows yet.”

Tom attended Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell and later moved away from Dumont. But his departure wasn’t permanent. Tom moved back to the local area and his home parish, and married Madeline Hastings, after she went through the RCIA program at St. Mary’s. “Madeline had fallen in love with the parish,” Tom said of his wife.

Today, Tom serves as a Eucharist minister and adult altar server. He also sits on the Liturgy, Giving Tree, and Carnival committees. He is involved with the RCIA and Pre-Cana programs, and once served as vice-chair of the Pastoral Council. His wife is a Eucharist minister and serves on the same committees. She is also the rectory housekeeper. “I really love St. Mary’s,” Tom said. “As you get older, and start thinking about retirement and cheaper places to live, it’s hard to think about possibly leaving St. Mary’s. The friends we have made are incredible. We owe a lot to Father Bob.”

One example from his years at St. Mary’s perfectly captures his time in the parish. He had moved back to the area and was becoming involved in several ministries with his wife. The school decided to hold an alumni reunion. Tom went to the party and saw a fellow parishioner he had no idea was still at the parish.“Emily Amalfitano?” he said, in complete surprise.“Tommy Schreiber?” she said in equal surprise. The two had been praying for years side by side, but not recognizing each other as adults, Tom and Emily never realized that they had spent most of their formative years as classmates.

The Vision Continues

Twelve years after starting his service at St. Mary’s, Father Bob is used to the pattern of being pastor. His confession: There is no set pattern. He pursues administrative, financial, and pastoral work during the week, but his consultations with parishioners, religious services, and visits to the homebound are never entirely predictable. “You have to be flexible,” he said. “People don’t plan on crises.” During his tenure, Father Bob has worked with many priests. From Father Peter to Father John to Father Ed to Father Raul, who presently serves as parochial vicar, the priests of St. Mary’s have enriched the pastor’s time at the church. “But it’s not about us,” he cautioned. “It’s about serving the parish.”

If there is one outstanding memory for Father Bob it has to be the reception kicking off St. Mary’s 50th Anniversary celebration. “That’s when we put our best foot forward,” he said. “It was a wonderful celebration. We really came together.” The yearlong celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the new church building has been chockfull of parish events. From the opening reception and Mass to a summer block party, a parish mission, and a concert by St. Mary’s choir, under the direction of Steve Pochini, the year has been a memorable one. Its capstone was a noon Mass with Archbishop John J. Myers and a dinner-dance held at Norwood’s Colonial Inn, a fitting venue to celebrate a church built in the Colonial style.

St. Mary’s continues to grow. The faithful still come forward to receive the sacraments every year. Hundreds of students sign up for religious education and celebrate their first Holy Communion and confirmation.

The parish observes the Paschal Triduum, the days from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, with several Masses and prayer services. Advent and Christmas are important occasions for St. Mary’s. The festive weeks feature the parish’s Advent Giving Tree, the choir’s caroling concert, and traditional midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Although the parish no longer offers a Cornerstone retreat for men and women, the church still focuses on the many spiritual ways that the community can grow. From the work of the Young Adult Ministry to the living Stations of the Cross performed by the Youth Ministry, St. Mary’s remains a vital place for parishioners of all ages.

One of the most exciting ministries at St. Mary’s is PALAD, the Philippine-American Lay Apostolate. Its vibrant members hold several spiritual and social events throughout the year.

Fund-raising and service projects that have been a feature of the church’s history for many years continue. Food is still collected for the in-house pantry and parishioners now make visits to the Community Food Bank and help out with Habitat for Humanity construction projects. The carnival is held every June. As in the past, St. Mary’s serves as a venue for the milestones in the lives of local families. Whether it’s attending a loved one’s funeral or enjoying a beautiful wedding, the church supports its parishioners throughout the stages of their lives. As the capital campaign winds down and St. Mary’s turns the page on yet another chapter in its long history, Father Bob sees many aspirations ahead. One is a fitting conclusion to this anniversary year; another is the renovation of a church that has been the spiritual home to so many generations.

“I want to light up the steeple,” he said, motioning his hands skyward. “It should serve as a beacon. Here we are in this community. We’re here for you. It would be a symbolic way of letting our light shine.”


Written by John Soltes with information provided by Brian O’Dowd, Kathy Sylvester, Karen Sadock, Dr. Geoffrey J. Sadock, Tito Canlas, local newspaper articles, historic records, and parishioner memories.