MORRISTOWN Grant funding for the historic preservation of churches in Morris County will continue to be available, thanks to a campaign in which several parishes in Morris County took part in.
The parishes joined with an interfaith coalition of religious communities in the county to successfully defeat a resolution before the county Board of Chosen Freeholders at its Jan. 28 meeting that would have barred the awarding of historic preservation grant funds to houses of worship.
During the meeting, Freeholder William “Hank” Lyon withdrew the resolution that he originally proposed Jan. 14, which would have made churches ineligible for the grants. Originally, he argued that granting them preservation funds seemed to violate the State Constitution. Instead, the board voted unanimously later during the Jan. 28 meeting to approve a resolution to reaffirm the eligibility of churches to receive grant money after two hours of vigorous debate.
“I’m very pleased that the Freeholders decided to provide funds to assist in the preservation of historic churches in Morris County,” said Msgr. John Hart, pastor of Assumption Parish here, who emailed members of the Morris County Clergy Council to help mobilize opposition to Lyon’s original resolution. “I also am happy that we [religious communities] were organized. These churches are part of the religious and historic fabric of Morris County. They also are part of our nation, which was founded on biblical values and a Judeo-Christian ethic,” he said.
In his email, Msgr. Hart encouraged churches of the Interfaith Clergy Council — led by the Rev. Janet Broderick, rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, and Council president — to gather at the Presbyterian Church on the Green in Morristown, before the Jan. 28 Freeholders meeting to select speakers for the meeting. He included a petition against the ban on funding for members of these religious communities to sign and sample language for members, who wanted to write or call the Freeholders directly. The successful campaign inundated several Freeholders with calls and emails, Msgr. Hart said.
One of the Catholic parishes in Morris County that mobilized its parishioners was St. Mary’s in Dover. Based on language that Msgr. Hart provided, SOLT Father Derek Anderson, pastor, wrote a letter in a recent Sunday bulletin, urging parishioners to act. He noted that the preservation funds do not support the religious activities of a church, but rather the preservation of the church building.
“Many of these building are well over a 100 years old and require considerable financial expenditures for maintenance,” wrote Father Anderson, who reminded parishioners that St. Mary’s received $300,000 in 1997 from the N.J. Historic Trust for the preservation of the church’s exterior and stained glass. “Needless to say, had a similar restriction applied to the Historic Trust, St. Mary’s would have been ineligible for these very substantial funds,” he wrote.
Last year, Assumption received $30,000 from the long-operating program for various repairs. Also, many of these local houses of worship double as social service centers for the poor, housing soup kitchens and outreaches for persons with HIV/AIDS, among others. Assumption houses meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous and has served as a “warm up” center during recent hurricanes, Msgr. Hart said.
Lyon had noted that the withdrawn measure addresses a part of the State Constitution that declares, “Nor shall any person be obliged to pay tithes, taxes or other rates for building or repairing any church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary to what he believes to be right or has deliberately and voluntarily engaged to perform.”
However, Morris County Counsel Daniel O’Mullan had told Freeholders last year, that in his legal opinion, the county’s grant program for historic preservation has set up “neutral criteria” for its requirements and has been authorized by law and by public referendum. The program designates money for the preservation of the exterior and mechanical systems of active houses of worship and prohibits funds to be used for operating expenses, interior work, printed materials and promotion of the their faith, according to O’Mullan.
During the Jan. 28 meeting, Lyon announced that he would withdraw his resolution, amid uncertainties about its constitutionality as the assembled crowd cheered.
“This is not necessarily the right body to answer those types of ambiguities,” said Lyon at the meeting, which included debate both in support and in opposition to granting county historic preservation funds to religious institutions.
Freeholder Director Kathryn DeFillippo and Freeholder Douglas Cabana proposed a resolution to reaffirm grant funding for houses of worship, which the all-Republican board passed 7-0. Last year’s grant program awarded $2.4 million to 30 applicants, including nine churches.
Also helping with the campaign against the original resolution were the Knights of Columbus and Bob Fredericks, an Assumption parishioner and a Morris County historian, who arrived at the Jan. 28 meeting bearing petitions, signed by 2,291 people. The effort also gained support from U.S. Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, Msgr. Hart said.
“If we lost this vote, the likelihood of getting support in the future would have been lost with it,” said Fredericks, who also spoke at the meeting. “These are old buildings — some dating back to the 1800s — and require a tremendous amount of money. If some of these churches didn’t receive funding, they might be lost over time,” he said.
In the bulletins for St. Mark and Our Lady of the Mountain parishes, Msgr. Joseph Goode, pastor of both faith communities, thanked parishioners for signing the petition. Meanwhile, Father Anderson thanked the many parishioners, who “wrote to several Freeholders and also passed along to me a copy of your well-written and well-reasoned letters in defense of the county giving historic preservation grants to churches.”
“I would personally like to thank each of you who wrote letters and those of you who took action that I do not know about to preserve the historic and religious fabric of so many communities within Morris County,” Father Anderson wrote.