Masterpiece Mausoleum: Exploring North Arlington’s Modern Marvel

The mausoleum at North Arlington’s Holy Cross Cemetery, nearing its 35th and final year of construction and expansion, is expected to be the largest Catholic mausoleum in the nation upon completion.

The chapel rose window depicting Christ with Children in the main Genesis chapel.
Photo by JR Delia

The clack of footsteps against the marble floor is the only sound that disturbs the reverent silence. The 39-foot-high vaulted ceiling encloses a brightly lit space that answers every sound with ghostly echoes. When you step into the chapel, on the main level, your first impression is of light and color. High above one end of the hall, sunlight pours through an 87-year-old stained-glass window depicting Christ with children. Two 87-year-old white marble statues of Saint Anthony and Saint Teresa—from the Sacred Heart Church in the Vailsburg section of Newark—guard the east and west corridors leading out of the chapel.

This is the mausoleum at North Arlington’s Holy Cross Cemetery, a modern marvel nearing its 35th and final year of construction and expansion. It is expected to be the largest Catholic mausoleum in the nation, upon completion next spring.

The mausoleum combines ancient scriptures and contemporary art in an effort to transform the creepy reputation of mausoleums into a family-friendly art venue. It’s easy to forget that the beautiful marble walls also serve as crypts. Stained glass scatters color across entombment spaces and intricate mosaics stand alongside shelves of cremation niches. The story of Adam and Eve is carved along the base of the Bottacino marble altar, which was commissioned from a sculptor in Italy and stands in the center of the chapel. The Days of Creation are reimagined in six mosaics as swirls of radiant Venetian Smalti tile, gold glass, and stones painted with 24-karat gold, commissioned by two artists in California.

“We really tried to set this up like a museum,” says Andrew Schafer, executive director of the Archdiocese of Newark Catholic Cemeteries. “What we’ve found is that parents and grandparents bring children and start telling the story of the artwork.”

Evangelizing through artwork is a time-honored tradition, dating to centuries when many churchgoers were illiterate and learned their Bible stories through visual portrayals. Holy Cross borrows from the ancient practice while infusing new technology and innovative presentation techniques to bring the artwork to life.
One flight down from the chapel, four restored, 100-year-old stained-glass windows—from Saint Lucy’s Church in Jersey City—are backlit by lightboxes to create the illusion of natural light. Motion-sensor lights illuminate the rest of the corridor. On the second-floor balcony, two round stained-glass windows, rescued from the closing of Vailsburg’s Sacred Heart Church, are suspended in medallion frames. The six-foot windows are presented alongside a spectacular view of New York City’s skyline.

The rest of the collection—from the lindenwood sculptures of four church mothers to bronze statues of Saint Frances and Saint Kateri Tekakwitha—also borrow modern technology. Instead of standard bronze plaques listing information to accompany the artwork, inserted in the marble walls throughout the mausoleum are QR codes, small black-and-white gridlike squares that can be scanned by smartphones to call up explanatory material.

Construction of the mausoleum, now in its seventh and final phase, began in 1979. It’s 250,000 square feet will unobtrusively accommodate 35,747 burial spaces when completed. The Archdiocese, which started collecting art in 1853, will feature 90 major artworks.

It has been a long wait. But as Joe Verzi, assistant executive director of the Archdiocese of Newark Catholic Cemeteries, points out, “The art is monumental. It’s a permanent thing. They’ll be here and people will be seeing them a hundred years from now, so they have to be perfect.”

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