A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort.”
Churches have always been an important part of the Cape May community as a place for citizens to come together, both in worship and in meetings. At the beginning of the year, I talked about one of the earliest local Presbyterian churches at Cold Spring. The church cemetery contains marked graves dating back to Sarah Eldredge Spicer’s 1742 final resting place and unmarked graves surmised to be even older.
On Cape Island, Catholic church members established their first chapel in 1803, under Reverend Michael Hurley. The sanctuary was only opened during the summer season, when droves of Catholic visitors flocked to the city, and services were held in local homes throughout the rest of the year.
Around the middle of the century, the first permanent church was built on the southern side of Washington Street, about where La Patisserie sits today. Originally known as St. Mary’s, the church was considerably smaller than what we see now, though it bore a strong resemblance to today’s building.
The official church history shows the St. Mary’s building remained on the southern side of the street until one week after the fire of 1878, when it was moved to its present location. This is contradicted by both an 1872 map of Cape May City and a pre-fire 1878 map that show the building where it sits today. Additionally, William Essen’s bakery, now La Patisserie, was opened in 1872. The confusion may stem from St. Mary’s being renamed Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea and incorporated by New Jersey in 1878.
The picture of the original church building shown on the previous page was previously thought to be taken before it was moved, with workmen preparing foundations across the street. Another 19th-century map have helped to prove the picture was actually taken of St. Mary’s at the present location of the church, with the foundations being constructed on the southern side for the building which now houses the Colors clothing store.
The building in the background on the right side of the picture appears to be the home of Mrs. J. Mccray, which fronted on the original Delaware Avenue. Back in the 1800s, the site of today’s Delaware Avenue was little more than swamplands, and the original street to use the name was a small alley between Washington and Lafayette. The alley was replaced by a train station, which itself was replaced by Ocean Street, when it was extended to Lafayette.
The original St. Mary’s building was demolished in 1911 and replaced with the stone building we see today. Construction took about two years and cost nearly $44,000. As you can see from the picture, the new house of worship was strongly modeled after the first building.
For any readers who’d like to see first-hand exactly what that 1848 church looked like, take a ride to 501 Cape Avenue in Cape May Point and visit St. Agnes. It was built with the same specifications as St. Mary’s and still looks nearly identical.