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Deli employee helps parish rescue historic pieces of first church

June 16, 2017

If only stained glass windows could talk, the quartet now safely nestled in the walls of a small Hillsborough chapel would have quite a story to tell. The windows, members of a set of 10 rescued from neardemise, were saved with the help of some ecumenical teamwork, an 11-hour telephone call from a concerned employee of a deli, and a team of faithful parishioners, and their pastor, who were not afraid to get their hands dirty.

 

The windows’ story began about 150 years ago with their installation in the small St. Joseph Church in East Millstone, a 2.3-square-mile, rural Franklin Township community on the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The congregation eventually outgrew the building, built a larger church across the Millstone River in Hillsborough, and sold their original house of worship and its rectory to St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Forane Catholic Church in 2000.

 

That Catholic community, which traces its origins to the apostolate of St. Thomas in India in 52 A.D., remained in East Millstone until they, too, outgrew the small building. The sale of the chapel by the Syro-Malabar Catholics to the Korean Baptist Church of America in 2015 put the storied stained glass windows in dire danger but set the ecumenical teamwork into motion.

 

Renovations of the building’s interior and exterior by the new owners began almost immediately, a step to be carefully weighed in the sleepy hamlet added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. In September, pews and other artifacts from the chapel and rectory were removed and discarded to achieve a more modern look, as were those stained glass windows. The population of East Millstone, measured by the U.S. 2010 census to be just 579 souls, was soon buzzing at the changes.

 

A neighbor of the small church shared her concerns with Georgette Hage-Boutros, a worker in the town’s Sunrise Creek Deli. The Lebanese woman, a member of St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church, Somerset, was deeply troubled as well.

 

“When I heard the windows were in the dumpster, I knew they should not be,” Hage-Boutros said. “I thought, ‘These windows are blessed.’” “Like in my church, they are always donated in memory of someone. My family comes from a very strong belief,” she continued, “and it bothered me. I called [Jesuit] Father Hank [Hilton] for help.”

 

Father Hilton, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, is a frequent customer in the deli. He said that stain glass windows is not part of the Korean Baptist tradition. That is why they discarded everything.

 

Father Hilton enlisted the aid of the parish’s building and grounds committee members and others to quickly file a “stop work” order for the Korean Baptist church. “The whole town is historic,” Father Hilton said, “and you have to get permission to make any major improvements.”

 

He and long-time parishioner Jack Tamburini brought their concerns to the Oct. 6 meeting of the Franklin Township Historic Preservation Advisory Commission to save the windows. After discussion and review at their Dec. 1, 2015 meeting, the commission approved the Korean Baptists’ plans for renovating the East Millstone church, and St. Joseph Church was gifted the old windows to be used as artwork in their main church in Hillsborough. “The Korean Baptists couldn’t have been nicer,” Father Hilton said. “They just didn’t understand.” Knowing that any delay could spell the end for the windows, St. Joseph parishioners and their pastor went to the old church to see what could be salvaged.

 

“We went dumpster diving,” Father Hilton said with a laugh. “We found the windows, an old poor box, a portable tabernacle and other items.”

 

A bit worse for the wear, two of the 10 windows were unsalvageable and three were in need of serious restoration. Tamburini and volunteers Louis, Joseph, and Joseph Jr. Marchiafava removed and stabilized the windows with plywood sheets, then moved them to an off-site storage facility in Manville. By the following May, the parish building and grounds committee was assigned the task to coordinate the windows project. The myriad steps

 

to restoring the windows to their former glory and installing them in the St. Joseph chapel took many months and many sets of helping hands. Consultations with experts, cleaning the 200-pound windows, reinforcement into their wooden frames, designing lighting, touching up inscriptions, repairing stress cracks, and other painstaking tasks took between seven and nine man hours per window to restore them to their original beauty. In October 2016, the small chapel inside St. Joseph Church was equipped with additional electricity and cabinetry to welcome the stained glass windows from their storage site in Manville to their permanent home in the Hillsborough church.

On Feb. 28, 2017, the Holy Spirit window was the first to be installed in the church's gathering space. On March 4, the re maining four windows were moved into the new chapel in time to stand witness to St. Joseph's sesquicentennial celebration. Plans for the remaining windows are being determined.

 

In her 19-page, painstakingly detailed document which recalls window retrieval and installation, building and grounds committee member Jo-Ann Delasko noted that a stained glass window "is often used to depict stories from the Old and New Testaments,

 

to communicate scenes and episodes from the Bible to everyone, including those unable to read. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that beauty was a spiritual path to God. Stained glass can remind us that there is something – something beautiful – beyond the world in which we live." The small chapel inside St. Joseph Church is indeed that "something beautiful." If only stained glass windows could talk, these four, measuring four feet by eight feet and installed five feet from the floor, would tell the tale of so many faith communities coming together to celebrate their homecoming.

 

Come, listen.

 

 

By Christina Leslie, Correspondent at The Catholic Spirit

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