History of Saint Michael’s
On November 28th, 1928 Bishop Thomas J. Walsh of the Diocese of Newark established the parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Union. This was in response to a need arising from the very quick growth of the township as a new suburb of the City of Newark. Father Thomas Larkin, the pastor of the parish of St. James the Apostle in Springfield, was given the charge of both parishes. St. Michael’s quickly grew to be a much larger parish than St. James.
Through the generosity of the Kelly Family, the property which constitutes the block on which the current parish buildings were constructed was given with the stipulation that the new parish would be dedicated to St. Michael, the patron saint of Michael A. Kelly, the first Unionite to give his life in the First World War. One of the streets making the boundary of the property was renamed after the young Kelly. Until a church could be built, Masses were said in the Union Movie Theater on Stuyvesant Avenue.
In 1930 the cornerstone for a church/school combination was laid. It was the time of the Great Depression and it seems that construction was slow. The records show that weddings, baptisms, etc. didn’t take place in this structure until 1934. What are now the principal’s office and two classrooms on the middle level of the building was the housing for the Sisters of St. Dominic of Caldwell. The priests lived at St. James and traveled back and forth.
Shortly after the church/school opened, a wooden house, which would serve as a convent, was built by the men of the parish on a lot across the street on Orange Avenue. This structure still exists as a private home. Finally, in 1936, the rectory was completed and the first resident pastor, Father Edward Begley, took charge of the parish. Father Larkin was made pastor of St. Mary’s in Elizabeth at this time, but it was said that “he left his heart” at St. Michael’s.
During the 30’s the parish grew in leaps and bounds as farmers sold their land and developers built new modern homes in what was considered a very fashionable community. The Second World War in the early 40’s slowed down construction as men and material went into the war effort. But at the end of the war, Union experienced huge growth as returning soldiers married and with their wives and children marched out of the cities into the burgeoning suburbs.
In the 1950’s, St. Michael School had so many students that grades four to eight went into half-day sessions. There were many sisters available to teach in those days, but the convent was too small to hold them. In 1952 Father Begley started a campaign to raise the money needed to construct a new brick convent next to the church/school and behind the rectory.
The church, too, had become totally inadequate for the huge numbers of Mass attendees. It was not unusual to have people standing in the hallways and staircases inside the building in order to attend Mass. Sometimes they even spilled out onto the lawn in front of the Orange Avenue entrance.
So, in 1954 the cornerstone was set for a new large church which serves us to this very day. The church was built originally to accommodate 1000 people. But, almost as soon as the doors opened, it was inadequate for the parish. So, after waiting just a couple of years, the large basement of the church was turned into a complete Lower Church. Simultaneous Masses were said upstairs and downstairs. In the early 1960’s it was recognized that there really was an absolute need for another Catholic parish in Union, and Holy Spirit Church and parish were established. Even still, St. Michael’s remained a huge parish.
In August of 1966, the now Monsignor Begley died after a lengthy illness and was buried next to the church building on its North side. He was succeeded by Father Thomas Grant who became as beloved as his predecessor. During his pastorate the township stabilized somewhat in its growth and St. Michael’s reflected this stability. When Father Grant retired, he was succeeded by Monsignor Thomas Touhy. It was the 70’s with all the turbulence of the times and this too affected the parish. Attendance at Mass dropped off enough that it was no longer necessary to use the Lower Church for Mass on any but a couple of Sundays a year. So, the Lower Church was reconfigured in such a way that it could be used as a parish hall as well as for Mass when needed.
Monsignor Touhy retired in 1987 and Father Ronald Rozniak was named pastor. He served here for a short time before being sent to St. Joseph’s in West New York. His successor in 1988 was Father Kenneth Herbster. During Father Herbster’s pastorate, the Upper Church was reconfigured and redecorated in line with the liturgical requirements of the Second Vatican Council. Father Herbster stepped down as pastor in 1993 and was replaced by Father Matthias Conva. During his term, the slow and unending process of maintenance and repair of aging buildings began. In February 2006, Father Charles McDermott succeeded the retiring Father Conva. Father McDermott had already served as parochial vicar for twelve years, and in a rare move, was made pastor, not only of the parish where he had been serving for such a long time, but also of his home parish where his family was one of the earliest families in the parish. In July 2015, Father Robert Wolfee succeeded Father McDermott as Pastor. Health issues forced Father McDermott to take early retirement. Father McDermott was named Pastor Emeritus by Archbishop Myers for his many years of service to our parish. In July, 2017 Rev. Msgr. Anselm I Nwaorgu succeeded Father Robert Wolfee as Pastor.
When the parish was founded, Union was a sleepy town of farms and new housing, usually just off the main streets. The ethnic population in 1928 was predominantly English and German. But many Irish families were moving in from Elizabeth and Newark, to live in the new suburb. Later on Italian, German/Hungarian, Polish, and Slavic families became a noticeable presence.
In the last 20 years, huge numbers of Portuguese, Asians and Africans, as well as Afro-Americans have replaced many of the older population in the township. This is reflected in the congregation at St. Michael’s, which may be one of the most ethnically diverse parishes in the Archdiocese of Newark.
History, Viva Voce By Fr. Chuck.
February, 16th 2018