After 160 years, NJ parish keeps on growing

St. Joseph of the Palisades Roman Catholic Church, now in West New York, has been a large parish from its founding in 1863 by Passionist priests who were based in Union City. Today, it is the largest Hispanic parish in the Archdiocese of Newark and one of the largest overall.

There are some 5,000 parishioners. On average, more than 3,000 worship every weekend at 13 Masses said in two languages at four worship sites: the main church, the lower church, the upper community room and Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel on Broadway in North Bergen.

The Rev. Helber Victoria, the pastor, said it was daunting when he first arrived nearly four years ago.

“I had to start a pastoral plan for such diversity of the faithful,” he said.

More than 90 percent of the congregants are Hispanic, Victoria said, with most hailing from Central and South America.

On the occasion of the closing of the 160th anniversary of the parish earlier this month, Cardinal Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, presided and addressed the people in Spanish. Helber wrote in the parish bulletin: “With great affection I congratulate this multicultural and great community of Saint Joseph’s on its anniversary and for the legacy that has permeated the hearts of its faithful.”

The parish is culturally and social-economically diverse, he noted. There are some upper middle class, middle class, and very poor people. First- and second-generation migrants are the majority explaining why 10 of the weekend Masses are in Spanish. There are five full-time priests working in the parish, rare for today’s staffing.

Victoria is trying to educate the parishioners how to organize and cooperate with the city by introducing more and more the term: “cultura ciudadana.” He translated that term to mean taking care of natural resources, sidewalks, for example, and embracing the values of a civic culture. Mayor Albio Sires, a Cuban migrant, has returned to City Hall after a long tenure as a member of Congress and he attended the anniversary dinner after the Mass.

North Bergen resident Millie Benitez has been a member of the parish for almost a half century and has worked as the parish secretary for 44 years.

“I love working with the people that come to the office for information or other matters,” she said. “I have met so many amazing people throughout the years who have become part of my extended family. That has been my greatest gift.”

She noted the demographic changes after her long tenure. The majority of the parishioners were English-speaking when she first started at the parish and many of them have moved away or passed on. Cuban immigrants replaced them and, she noted, “both communities worked well with each other.”

Originally, the parish ministered to German Catholics in Guttenberg where the first church was built. It moved to West New York and completed the new church in 1903 and was predominantly Irish.

The parish opened an elementary school in 1909 staffed by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart from Peekskill, New York. The high school opened in 1924 and has since closed.

Benitez recalls lots of fund-raisers through the years. Bingo was big along with card parties, calendar…

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