If someone asked me what is the most important location associated with Italian heritage in New Jersey, I would say without hesitation St. Lucy’s Church.
Since its cornerstone was placed in 1891, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark has been a source of pride and devotion for the millions of Italian immigrants and the generations that followed. In 1998, St. Lucy’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The parish namesake, Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia), martyred in Sicily in third-century is the patroness of those afflicted with diseases of the eyes.
St. Lucy’s Church is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. Every October, tens of thousands of the faithful flock to pay homage to St. Gerard. St. Gerard Maiella of Avellino was born on April 6, 1726. He was the only son of Benedetta and Comenico Maiella. Because of his frail health he was not immediately accepted into the Order but, due to his insistence and persistence he was finally accepted in May of 1749 and became a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. St. Gerard passed away on October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine. While it was never made official, he is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of Mothers.
The third pastor, Msgr. Joseph Granato, served the parish with dedication and faith in God’s providence for 54 years, until June 2009. For those of us who have met Msgr. Granato, he borders on rock star status. His dedication to St. Lucy’s and the community has earned him a spot on many prayer lists of families of the parish.
At its height, over 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around the church, known as the First Ward. For over 80 years, that neighborhood thrived and supported their beloved church. Sadly, the neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood came in 1953 thanks to developers and the city government. They forced people give up their homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took over eight decades to build. City officials often referred to the First Ward as a “slum.” The Newark Housing Authority claimed its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good (including my family) the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist. Those homes were replaced with large buildings providing low-income housing. As the years continued, they were a great source of crime and an example of all that was wrong with Newark. Unfortunately, the damage was done at the point. The First Ward was destroyed and one of the most vibrant Italian communities in the country was history. All in the name of progress.
People with a connection to the area, and St. Lucy’s specifically, still return regularly for church. I am the fourth generation of my family that returns to St. Lucy’s every October for the Feast of St. Gerard. It is one of only two churches in the entire state where I feel truly at peace and able to prayerfully reflect and enjoy the silence.
I tell everyone I know, if you have never visited St. Lucy’s, take the time to visit this amazing church full of beautiful art and history, as well as a strong connection to the Italian community of New Jersey.