By KAYLA J. MARSH
EATONTOWN — For more than a century, St. James Memorial Episcopal Church has provided a welcoming, healing place for members of the borough and surrounding communities to worship, meditate and study the teachings of Christ.
The “little stone church with a warm heart” is a place for people of all walks of life to explore their beliefs and express their values, and it will soon be celebrating its milestone 150th anniversary with a service and dinner banquet on April 10. The event will be held at the American Legion Post No. 346, 21 Gully Road, Neptune.
“Our doors and hearts are always open to greet all who come,” said Margaret Sandbach, a longtime parishioner who was baptized and married in the church. “Our membership represents the wonderful diversity that makes New Jersey what it is [and] we strive to make a place for everyone around God’s table and believe there should be no outcast in the Episcopal Church.”
According to Sandbach, it was in 1830 when community members wishing to hold services in Eatontown approached the Rev. Harry Finch, then rector of Christ Church in Shrewsbury, with the idea, and he and other rectors held services for over 33 years in private homes, the local Baptist Church and the Masonic Temple.
“Many devout hearts labored to sustain such services and displayed their zeal for God, His Church and its advancement,” she said.
The project of organizing a parish in the village was considered for some time before construction officially began on St. James Memorial Episcopal Church in the fall of 1866.
“Construction began with the sandstone quarried at Stonyhill, near the present corner of Highway 36 and Grant Avenue,” Sandbach said. “With a steep pitched roof, lancet window and exposed timberwork typical of the Gothic Revival style, the building was completed in the spring of 1867 at a cost of $6,000.”
While the early days presented many problems for the church since it had no running water, electricity and only a pot-bellied stove (near the present lectern) to provide heat, people held onto their faith and continued to show their support.
“A program of renovation began in 1978 [and] resulted in the restoration of the church, and recently the original bell was removed and refurbished, once again ringing clear and sweet,” Sandbach said.
“More important though than material improvement has been the quiet tide of spiritual renewal [bringing] a deeper commitment to Christ as Lord of the Church.
“The ‘little stone church with a warm heart’ shares its facilities with five 12-step groups, a Russian Church group … we support St. Brigid’s Pantry in Long Branch, adopt families through the Visiting Nurses Christmas Giving Hope program, hold Vacation Bible School for all children and have weekly Bible Study and Centering prayer groups.”
To celebrate the milestone 150th anniversary, the church at 69 Broad St. is also selling commemorative personalized bricks that will be used to create a new walkway to the front door of the church, and proceeds will also go towards the reconstruction of the crumbling front porch.
“If there is anything about St. James that makes it unique, it is that this ‘little stone church with a warm heart’ goes out of its way to make people feel welcome,” said Father Agostino Rivolta.
“There are larger Episcopal churches in the area, and each has its own spirit and attractiveness, and while we’re a small church we have a great community.”
Rivolta, originally from Italy, worked for AT&T many years prior to becoming an Episcopalian priest.
“I came to St. James simply because my wife and I had friends who were members,” he said. “They invited us, and we had not been attending church for a long time and were just made to feel welcome.”
Rivolta was previously part of the Roman Catholic Church before leaving in 1974 and said being active with St. James was the first approach to going back to church again after 20 years.
“We felt at home, and when I was asked if I wanted to come back into the ministry … I took it,” he said.
“Our community has experienced a decline with Fort Monmouth … but our numbers are coming back slowly, and we recently started reaching out to the Brazilian community in the area and started offering services in Portuguese for them, and it is going nicely … and this Easter we will be holding a joint service in both languages.”