Sacred Spaces: Visiting 12 of NJ’s Holiest Sites

Reflecting the state’s panoply of world religions, treasured sites welcome and inspire strangers as well as congregants. We visited 12, from awesome to austere. Here they are, in alphabetical order.

Cape Island Baptist Church

115 Gurney Avenue, Cape May; 609-884-3917
American Baptist

Illustration by Stefano Vitale

With roots dating to 1844, this congregation has witnessed many historic moments, including a wartime visit by President Abraham Lincoln. In 1861, the original church—dedicated in 1847—was used as a Union Army enlistment location. In those early days, “congregants walked, singing, to a nearby stream for baptisms,” says the Reverend Miriam Mendez, associate regional pastor of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey.

The church that stands today was built in 1916. At the time, Victorian architecture—modern Cape May’s signature look—had fallen out of style. The new church was built in the Spanish Mission style of stucco and brick with a red slate roof. In the cornerstone were placed a Bible, newspapers, a list of office holders and a Baptist manual—all wrapped in an American flag. In March 1962, a powerful Nor’easter (known as the Ash Wednesday storm) battered the Shore and flooded Cape May, badly damaging the church. Congregants volunteered their time to repair the building. Today, the church continues to attract locals and vacationers alike.

IF YOU GO: Sunday worship service is 11 am; family service, on the first Sunday of each month, is 5:30 pm. For special events, call 609-884-3917 or check the website.

Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart

89 Ridge Street, Newark; 973-484-4600

Illustration by Stefano Vitale

First proposed in 1859, with the first spade of dirt turned in 1898, this extraordinary structure was in the early stages of construction when its first pontifical Mass was held in 1928. Finally completed in 1954, it was designated a National Historic Site in 1976. “This is the most perfect and exact example of French Gothic architecture in the Western Hemisphere,” says Reverend Armand Mantia, who has been leading tours here for 42 years. The fifth largest cathedral in North America, it is roughly the size of Westminster Abbey, but its two towers are 7 feet taller.

The building incorporates several types of domestic and imported marble; hand-carved Appalachian oak; crystal, silver and bronze chandeliers; and an abundance of stained glass handcrafted in Munich.

Mantia says art historians consider the cathedral’s stained glass the second finest in the world, after the Chartres Cathedral in Northern France.

Everything—from the 5-foot-7-inch marble statue of Jesus on the bronze crucifix hanging from the baldachino to the massive pipe organ—exudes grandeur.

When Pope John Paul II visited in 1995, he designated the cathedral a minor basilica—that is, a church of special prominence honored by the pope.

“It’s sort of like being knighted,” says Mantia.

IF YOU GO: Check website for times of Mass each day as well as events and concerts, instrumental and vocal.

Christ Church

68 Church Street, Montclair; 973-783-1010
Non-Denominational Christian
Christ Church is one of about 20 New Jersey megachurches (churches with 2,000 or more members)—although it has only 900 seats. Most of the congregation attends Sunday services at its newer, larger branch on Green Pond Road in Rockaway.
The congregation acquired the Montclair location from the First Baptist Church in 1994. The Romanesque-style building is constructed largely of stone, and is notable for its gracefully curved apse, 80-foot-tall bell tower and exquisite Tiffany stained-glass windows in the Grand Foyer. Inside, a series of intricately carved flying buttresses add to the majesty of the large sanctuary.

On a recent Saturday night, the sanctuary was filled with amplified music and the warm, red glow of an overhead spotlight. The feeling was more rock concert than church service. At the conclusion of the program, a gentle drum roll buoyed congregants as the assistant pastor asked them to close their eyes and invite God into their lives.

IF YOU GO: Saturday service in Montclair is 7 pm; Sunday services are held at 9:30 and 11:30 am and 1:30 pm. Dress is casual and all are welcome.

First Congregational Church

40 S Fullerton Avenue, Montclair; 973-744-4856
Spectacularly designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, whose works can be found from Honolulu to New Hampshire, First Congregational was dedicated in 1916. Today, it is on the state and national registers of historic places.

Its stunning, late-Gothic style is reminiscent of the West Point Cadet chapel—also by Goodhue. From the outside, the church seems massive, but inside, the sanctuary has a more human scale. Congregants take their places on the church’s original wooden pews beneath the vaulted ceiling. Gothic archways separate the nave from the side aisles. Light pours in through the plentiful stained-glass windows.

Wednesdays, amid candlelight and flute music from 6-8 pm, the public can walk the church’s labyrinth, painted on the wooden floor between the altar and pews, whether as a form of meditation, prayer or just curiosity.

“A maze is a trap,” explains senior minister Reverend Ann Ralosky, “but with a labyrinth, if you stay the course, you’ll end up exactly where intended.”

First Congregational is also home to Outpost in the Burbs, a local nonprofit beloved for its community work and for producing concerts by terrific pop, folk and rock artists.

IF YOU GO: Sunday service is 10:30 am, with refreshments in the community room afterward. Check the website for public events.

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