Saints Peter & Paul
The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry
My intention had been to finish the second installment of my Gems of the Centennial Exhibition.
In my research I stumbled upon some sad news. Sad on a personal, perhaps spiritual level.
My beloved little church in my hometown of Trenton, Sts. Peter and Paul, was on the auction block.
Peter and Paul’s as the natives referred to it as, was the home base for my paternal grandmother, a Slovak woman, born and raised in this industrial part of South Trenton. One of many little ethnic neighborhoods making a claim to the American Dream; establishing families, communities, and churches, wondrous churches. My ancestors poured , what seems from my perspective, ridiculous sums of money as donations to establish churches that would represent their particular ethnic interests. This was happening all over the East coast, Trenton has it’s share of really lovely churches, Italian, Slovak, and Pole. So many folks built so many impressive churches, sacrificing effort, time, and hard earned cash.
Unfortunately neighborhoods change, the factory worker’s children become middle class, leaving behind charming neighborhoods, shops, and sadly these really lovely churches and the communities built around them.
Peter and Paul’s was one such church.
Sts. Peter and Paul
395 -403 Second Street
Although possessing a modest exterior, a dour grey stone, softened only by our Blessed Mother gazing down upon her faithful, I quickly grew to love this church.
When I was nineteen my first partner Douglas and I purchased a charming little rowhouse around the corner from the church, in the late 80’s, we paid $5000.00, cash.
The neighborhood had fallen terribly, gangs, welfare folks, illegals. I didn’t notice the squalor, it was a delightful little house to claim as my own, with a teeny patch of land in which to plant radishes. When we told my Grandmother where we had moved she was delighted and startled. I hadn’t known my new neighborhood had been where she was raised; she regaled me with neighborhood tales, but her spirit was dampened by her fear for my personal safety. She took comfort in that we were “two boys”.
I discovered Peters and Paul’s through her stories. I was looking for a church, looking for something, I’m still looking. Peters and Paul’s seemed like an opportunity.
It was. They had an early Mass, 5:30 am, I would stumble out of bed, slip through the alley between my street and the Church, and enter the rear side door, past the altar to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I quickly secured my own pew and my own position in this odd ball little congregation. The last few Slovaks left, loyal to the neighborhood, it’s traditions, and this church.
Or they were just broke.
I was enchanted time and again. In May, the month devoted to our Blessed Mother, homemade bouquets, often sweet blue hydrangeas from their gardens, were gathered by the Altar Guild. They were adorable in their coffee cans decorated by tin foil and ribbons. So much more wonderful then the costly spiritless arrangements made by the local florists. These tender bouquets, modest and sweet against the faded grandeur of this really magnificent neo-Romanesque interior really touched my personally, spiritually, and aesthetically.
If the exterior was essentially un-inspired, the interior compensated for the modesty. Romanesque influences abounded, a magnificent painted ceiling complete with strangely large Archangels. A very impressive High Altar ,resplendent in it’s polychromed marbles, intricate carvings, ignoring Romanesque archetypes but delighting this particular peasant’s eye. Early electrical fixtures, elaborately fashioned Seraphs from which one bare little electric bulb offered illumination.
Amidst this splendor, were water stains, broken pipes, and neglect due to lack of funds.
But certain traditions were not to be ignored, finances be damned.
The front doors, which in the sad photo show as an unfortunate dingy white, were initially finished in a vernacular form of faux bois. A curious finish which included adding beer to the paint, the result, an almost alarming orange-ish “oak”. I spoke to the artisan, he lived in the neighborhood, had been taught his craft as an apprentice, finishes such as this were mandatory if you were to be a reputable painter. He bemoaned the fact that cheap latex paints and a desire for economy had all but eliminated the use of his talents. He donated his services to the church. God love him.
Secular maintenance, though important, was not as valued as sacred tradition. The Sacristan’s duties were stringently enforced, Vatican II be damned.
Statuary was draped in purple during Holy Week, the Blessed Sacrament interred in a mock Sepulcher, the ceremonial procession making theatric use of the thurible (censor) and patent sprinkler. Our Lord protected under the umbraculum, a strange handheld umrella, ornamental in it’s swags, tassels, and embroidery. Charming, emotionally touching, and doomed. I knew, as a very young man, that these traditions were coming to an end. No more would our Virgin receive her purple shroud to signify Her, and our heart’s mourning for the dead Lord. The “ombrellino” would go into storage as an artifact of a primitive faith.
#1-holy water pot
#2 patent sprinkler
#6 umbraculum, “ombrellino”
And so it happened.
As I was moving away to brighter happier places, Peter and Paul’s was in the process of it’s own changes. To accomadate the evergrowing Hispanic flock, Spanish masses were added. Initially there was some Slovak grumbling, but the transition went surprisingly well. The new members were dutiful, sincere, and frankly young, with children, energy ,and joy. The mutual love both communities shared for the Holy Mother smoothed the way.
I had hoped that would ensure the future of Sts. Peter and Paul.
I guess not. The auction sheet states that the sacred elements will be removed prior to closing.
But what about the devotional window of St. Anne, donated through sacrifice by some long dead parishioner. What about the crumbling fresco of St. John in the Baptistry? Will he be primed out and given a fresh coat of Contactor’s white?
My heart breaks at these changes.
I treasure my being able to witness the last moments of this one little sweet church.
I close with a few of the churches that seem to still thrive in the Capital City of Trenton.
Basillica Church of the Sacred Heart
Final construction, 3rd, as shown, 1899
another view of Sacred Heart
A thriving church, popular with the Polish community
Interior of St. Hedwigs
This particular type of splendor, is frankly quite typical of so many Trenton churches. The desire to outshine Rome apparent.
Again, the strangely large painted Archangels.
Detail of St. Hedwig’s interior.
The light Rococo coloring, lovely and fresh.
Church coloring has always influenced my own work. The altar angels are wonderful, I covet them.
A procession at St. Hedwig’s making happy use of the Baldacchina.
The Umbraculum apparently wouldn’t have been sufficient to protect our Lord from the noonday sun.
This church, built and loved by Trenton’s Italian community, was my father’s church. As a boy I looked up with wonder at the Neo Gothic architecture, it’s rich carvings, and it’s paintings, endless painting.
Immaculate Conception inspired me to be an artist. I will never forget this church.
To indulge our Protestant brothers I include a few beauties.
St. Michaels Episcopal
Last major alteration 1870, in the Fantasy Gothic style, after Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I close with this country church, outside of urban Trenton. This Methodist church is in Groveville, where I was raised. Groveville is an early little town, rural in nature, mid-19th century architecture, as far away from the Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and Real Housewives as you can get. It is my particular understanding of what being from “Jersey” is all about.
Groveville Methodist Church
built 1887 in the vernacular Methodist “plan-book” style.
Sts. Peter and Paul
chromolithograph 19th cent.
Have a great day.