The main altar at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Asbury Park has been removed and transported to St. Dominic’s in Brick Township.
By CAROL GORGA WILLIAMS
For those uncertain about whether the proposed developer of the Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park wants to save the church, the answer is yes, according to a lawsuit filed last week by the development group against the city and its Planning Board.
The story is a convoluted one but begins after the 2020 closure and desanctification of Holy Spirit when the diocese announced that because of rising building costs and declining church attendance, it could no longer support both Holy Spirit and Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which still has a viable parochial school on property and which continues to operate but under the consolidated name of Church of Mother Mercy run by Pastor Miquel Virella. The pastor could not be reached for comment. The diocese – which technically still owns the property – also could not be reached for comment.
The diocese previously has announced the $2.75 million from the sale would be used to make repairs at Mt Carmel church and school on Asbury Avenue.
Developer JLD Investment Group of Summit, realizing Holy Spirit would likely be closed seized upon the “unique challenge and potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to repurpose the church, according to the lawsuit filed by Sills Cummis & Gross PC. JLD became “committed to preserve the church even though it was not obligated to do so,” according to the lawsuit. JLD entered into the contract for sale March 4, 2021.
Working with the city’s Department of Planning and Redevelopment, the contract purchaser presented to the City Council a plan to save the church with the church’s upper floors becoming home to seven townhomes. A new building would house 52 townhome/apartments with 10 being reserved for affordable housing. The church basement would house a gym and storage and there would be a small retail/cafe space along Second Avenue. Green space would be publicly accessible.
Early in the process, the council declined to grant a PILOT, known as a payment in lieu of taxes without which the applicant could not make the project financially feasible, the developer maintains.
The developer later proposed to develop six individual lots on the property’s 1.126 acres or 49,027 square feet in the city’s R1 zone, which permits single family homes.
After a series of four public hearings over the summer in front of the Planning Board, the proposal was denied. The decision was a “farce” that flies in the face of the state’s Municipal Land Use Law, the developer said in the legal papers.
Now, the lawsuit is seeking for a reversal of the Planning Board’s action but also to force the Planning Board to hold an immediate hearing to approve the six-lot subdivision and to levy punitive damages against the city, as well as mandate the city pay the developer’s legal and court costs.
But under that course of action, the church would not be saved and herein is the crux of the issue: had the city approved the more dense plan, the church would have been saved, according to the developer.
“JLD desires to acquire and preserve the Holy Spirit Church, a magnificent Gothic revival-style structure that has stood on the corner of Second Avenue and Bond Street’ for more than a century, the lawsuit says.
JLD “tried to work with Asbury Park, a vibrant community that is at the heart and soul of New Jersey’s artistic community and its leadership to both preserve and protect the towering structure through an ambitious and transformative project…that would adaptively reuse Holy Spirit Church by the integration of a luxury mixed use development of townhomes – market rate and affordable apartments, retail space and publicly accessible green space,” according to the lawsuit.
The property is one mile from the oceanfront and one block in from the main traffic artery that passes through the city.
The lawsuit maintains the developer tried very hard through multiple revisions of the mixed use plan to get the town’s buy-in but “despite “every effort” by JLD “to save this unparalleled part of Asbury Park’s skyline as part of an ambitious plan – and in fact did everything they could to ensure its destruction.”
The city rather “undertook an ambitious effort to ensure the church be demolished – all the while publicly portraying they were trying to preserve the structure,” the lawsuit said.
To support their contentions, the developer also points out the city never adopted a historic preservation ordinance and neglected to create a historic preservation commission and while the church is typically referred to as a local landmark, it was never placed on the state or national register of historic places although placement on such lists would not have protected it from development.
Further, the lawsuit notes, the Planning Board members in rejecting the six-lot plan relied on the Monmouth County Inventory although it was legally irrelevant. When the initial plan was submitted to the city, the area in 2021 was “downsized” from the R-2 to the R-1 zone, which is the more restrictive zone, in accordance with recommendations from the city’s 2017 Master Plan.
Rejecting the PILOT request – which is permitted under the state’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law was inconsistent with the city’s ample use of the law in other major redevelopment projects, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit maintains city officials “colluded with a third party” that wanted to continue using the church as a church to interfere with JLD’s proposal. That is a reference to Shore Christian Center which has a sizable presence in the city but no physical structure, instead worshipping Sundays at the House of Independents on Cookman Avenue. The church sent letters of intent to both the redeveloper and the diocese “some time ago, “according to Pastor Isaac Friedel whose members the lawsuit maintained engaged in an 11th hour effort to delay the hearings by hiring the city’s own law firm to represent it at the hearings but was then notified on the day of the first hearing the law firm has to absent itself because of the conflict.
Meanwhile, Holy Spirit is being salvaged, with its main altar being sent to St. Dominic Church in Brick. Father Brian Woodward, the pastor there, could not be reached for comment but acknowledged receipt of the altar on social media. One sticking point is church members who watched the altar’s removal or went into the church after its removal noted it was done in such a way as to disregard the existing ornate nature of the sanctuary and now could require repair if the structure was preserved.
“I did hear a lot of people were upset about that,” said Friedel of the altar’s removal. “It was done abruptly.”
However, if Shore Christian Center were to acquire permission to use the property, the condition of the interior would not be a hindrance, he said. “It isn’t a huge deal for us but for the parishioners of Holy Spirit, it was a really big deal,” the pastor said.
He said his church hopes to have discussions about using the church, through a sale or lease or some other arrangement.
“I think we’ve been very clear about our interest in the building both with the developer and the diocese,” he said. “From our end, they have not responded with anything official but we are just waiting to see if they are interested. We are certainly keeping the door very open.”
Shore Christian Center is in the miracle business. “We will pray it has a happy ending,” Friedel said.