The History of Queen of Angels Church
Newark, New Jersey
By Linda Telesco and Fr. Abu Cole, SMA
Queen of Angels Church is a parish that came into being through the efforts of a group of visionary black women. On December 19, 1926, the Theresa Lane Council, named for its pioneering leader, met for the first time. Their goal was to serve their community and establish a mission for black Catholics. A few years later, ten of the original members formed “The Little Flower Guild” in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux, patron of missions. Together the groups worked toward their goals. Masses were held at St. Bridget’s Church in Newark, and in other rented locations.
The Parish is Established
In 1928, the Guild asked Bishop Thomas Walsh, for a priest for their place of worship. On September 9th, 1930 Queen of Angels Parish was established. Rev. Cornelius J. Ahern was the first pastor, assisted by the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity. The first Mass was attended by 63 people, and the parish’s first building was dedicated November 1st, 1931. Located on Academy Street, this building was a $14,000 Sears Roebuck mail order church donated by Msgr. Roger McGinley of St. Aedan’s Church, in Jersey City. By 1933, there were 700 QA parishioners. Five years later, the 1000th convert, Charles Coles, was baptized by Bishop Walsh.
Tragedy & Rebirth
Sadly, the flourishing parish’s site was destroyed by a fire on July 10th, 1958. St. Peter’s Church, a predominately German-Catholic parish, offered Queen of Angels the use of its church for Mass. For several years, Queen of Angels held two Sunday Masses and St. Peter’s held one for its parishioners. In time, the German population in the area dwindled, and in 1962, the structure that housed St. Peter’s was renamed Queen of Angels Church and became the first black parish in the city of Newark. Queen of Angels was always served by diocesan priests. However, in 1979, the parish became staffed by the SMA Fathers of the American Providence. The SMA priests who have served at Queen of Angels are Reverends Benedict Burke, Gerard Scanlan, Leo Op’t Hoog, Thomas Conlon, James Callahan, and James McConnell, the current pastor. Others who have assisted over the years include Reverends Edward Galvin (at St. Charles), Al James, and James Gessler.
A Historic Site
Queen of Angels parish is historic for many reasons. It is the first black parish in the city of Newark, and it was among the Newark churches visited in the sixties by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Also the church has been named to national, state and local registers for historic sites.
Current Life in the Parish
Queen of Angels Church and its parish elementary school have been called an “oasis in the urban desert.” Many credit the growing stability in the surrounding neighborhoods to the parish life and to the “foot-ministry” of the pastor. Fr. James is a familiar sight, walking the streets and visiting those in need. “They like to see me. They feel connected to something that gives them stability,” he said.
Though the parish has strong roots and devoted parishioners, it is located in Newark’s Central Ward, an area that has endured the long-term economic and social woes common in challenged urban areas. This neighborhood was among many in the Ward devastated during the racial turmoil of the 1960’s. When so many residents and businesses fled from Newark, the situation spiraled downward for those who could not or would not leave the area. Today, there is evident change. Construction is ongoing. Attractive, low-cost housing has improved the lives of many. Queen of Angels has been important in this transformation.
Though the neighborhood shows signs of revival, daily crisis is still a way of life for many residents, and the poverty is often crushing. “There is a lot of tragedy in this parish,” Fr. James explained. “I listen to the people. I hear their dreams and problems. Then I look for a response through the parish setting.”
Financial woes plague the parishioners and the parish itself. “A new furnace can be a serious dilemma,” said Fr. James who had to replace the heating system in both church and school. He confesses to having anxieties about how to meet the needs of his urban parish, but – like Martin Luther King – who once visited the parish, Fr. James also has dreams. Some have come to pass. Others still need the funding that, when combined with the spirit of the people, can continue to work the miracle that is Queen of Angels.