A Legacy of Kindness: St. John’s Church, Elizabeth, N.J.

Worship at St. John's Church on the second Sunday in Advent | Photos by Daniel Gage
Worshipers exchange the peace

By Charles Hoffacker

After many years away, I decided last fall to visit the graves of my forebears in New Jersey and to worship at what was their parish for generations: St. John’s Church in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

St. John’s is located in the historic heart of Elizabeth, an area known as Midtown. The seat of Union County and New Jersey’s fourth-largest city, Elizabeth is home to 130,000 people. This church is positioned to grow as a center for ministry, in the immediate neighborhood and beyond.

My visit to St. John’s made me aware of a legacy of kindness, and I will describe examples: the welcome home extended to a loyalist rector during the Revolutionary era, the successful inclusion of European immigrants in the 19th century, and a current ministry by and for newly arrived Latino people. These are only a few episodes from a long history of a parish that obeys the gospel.

Founded in 1706 by missionaries of the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts, St. John’s was planted in a major New Jersey community close to New York and originally known as Elizabethtown or Elizabeth Town.

For many years, the rector of St. John’s was Thomas Bradbury Chandler (1726-90), a loyalist during the American Revolution and a strong advocate for episcopacy in North America. In Chandler, St. John’s parishioners had a prominent and learned priest.

Beginning in 1775, Chandler lived in England for 10 years, then accepted an invitation from St. John’s to return as rector. A cancer subsequently developed on his face that kept him from many official duties. Vestry members demonstrated Christian character by insisting that he continue in office and live in the rectory, even when incapacitated.

The ability of Chandler and his congregation to transcend deeply held political differences is also apparent in how his daughter Catherine married Revolutionary War General Elias Dayton’s younger son, also named Elias.

The general’s older son, Jonathan Dayton (1760-1824), was the youngest person to sign the U.S. Constitution. Both Thomas Chandler and Jonathan Dayton are buried at St. John’s.

The British government appointed Chandler as the first Bishop of Nova Scotia in 1785, but he declined the appointment due to ill health. Chandler contributed in many ways to the founding of the Episcopal Church, such as promoting contacts that resulted in Samuel Seabury’s consecration by Scottish Episcopal bishops in 1784.

Fr. Martinez

Many of Chandler’s papers were destroyed, but a 1790 catalog of his library survives that lists nearly 2,000 books. This catalog became a major source for a new biography: The Folly of Revolution: Thomas Bradbury Chandler and the Loyalist Mind in a Democratic Age by S. Scott Rohrer, published in March 2022 by Penn State University Press.

Church figures for the second half of the 19th century show substantial expansion at St. John’s.

St. John’s anticipated this period of growth by erecting its building in 1860 with a seating capacity of 700, which makes it the largest Episcopal worship site in New Jersey. Its interior recalls St. Mary’s, Oxford, and its exterior recalls Merton College, Oxford. Many immigrants must have found their way to this new church. Among them were my Hoffacker ancestors, immigrants from Germany, who were attracted to both St. John’s and the Episcopal Church. My great-grandfather’s descendants came to include faithful laypeople, and three of us became Episcopal priests.

I know little about how the Hoffackers became Episcopalians, but St. John’s must have done something significant to attract and retain them. There were, after all, other religious options available in their new homeland. Similar developments no doubt occurred in other families newly arrived in Elizabeth who opted for St. John’s. Kindness must have had something to do with it.

A popular exercise among Episcopalians today is to ask how they came to their current congregation, which may have been their first encounter with the Episcopal Church. One of the most popular factors is the kindness and interest demonstrated by some specific person. In that person, the congregation showed a welcoming face, demonstrated a hospitality that began to incorporate a new person into the congregation.

I believe my forebears encountered this at St. John’s, and I am grateful they did. I hope that any new arrival at an Episcopal church today will have a similar experience.

When my wife, Helena Mirtova, and I visited St. John’s on a Sunday in November 2022, the building looked very different than it must have appeared to my ancestors in the 19th century. The mid-Atlantic urban climate had its effect over many decades, as had delayed maintenance. But the place was alive, and we found ourselves on the receiving end of kindness.

The people at St. John’s are now Latino and working class, accurately reflecting their neighborhood. The liturgy, which was in Spanish, followed Rite II, as we saw while using a bilingual prayer book produced by Episcopalians in Europe. Perhaps a hundred people attended the service. Men and women, adults and children, were all well-represented. People seemed happy to be present, at home in their church.

A welcome impression I received was of people assisting one another. In many congregations, those engaged in social services and those receiving services constitute two distinct groups. At St. John’s, they appeared to be a single group. Those helping knew from experience what it was like to receive help.

This congregation includes recent arrivals from several Latin American countries, above all Colombia. Their pastor, Father Jorge Martinez, is from the Dominican Republic. Last November a service at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton, New Jersey, included the confirmation or reception of 40 people from St. John’s.

Periodic liturgies at St. John’s welcome people to their new church and their new country. My wife, an immigrant from Latvia, was deeply moved to learn of these services of welcome and to see a video of Father Martinez marking each new arrival with the sign of the cross.

The church operates an immigration center that offers the services of an attorney. Food, clothing, and emergency housing are available. The immigrants served by St. John’s not only face legal, economic, and cultural challenges in settling into their new homeland. Because many have been traumatized by violence at one time or another and bear deep emotional scars, psychological and spiritual counseling and support are an essential part of ministry among them.

St. John’s is an old parish with a young congregation. Father Martinez has served there for only a short time, much of it coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic. But his ministry there is already fruitful, with many hopes for the future, including a youth soccer team. The church’s physical plant is vast, a resource for parish and community activities. Father Martinez and his congregation are people of hope. They are willing to work hard to realize visions rooted in the gospel, and they know that kindness is contagious.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington who lives in Greenbelt, Maryland. His son-in-law, Daniel Gage, provided photos for this article.

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