Saint Mary's Parish, Middletown, posted this image of their church covered in snow as the region prepared to dig out from roughly two feet of snow that fell on the area Jan. 22-23. Photo courtesy of Facebook/Saint Mary's Parish.
Saint Mary's Parish, Middletown, posted this image of their church covered in snow as the region prepared to dig out from roughly two feet of snow that fell on the area Jan. 22-23. Photo courtesy of Facebook/Saint Mary's Parish.

As storm clouds converged on the eastern seaboard, Catholics in central New Jersey prepared for the worst.

Thankfully, it appears the worst was averted.

With unofficial snow totals from the National Weather Service showing 22 inches having fallen in Trenton over the weekend, parishes around the region saw smaller crowds and canceled events, but little to no property damage reported as of Monday morning.

Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., issued a dispensation on Friday afternoon in advance of the storm, lifting the normal obligation to attend Sunday Mass. The monster storm left Catholics digging out, and canceled nearly all of the religious schools on Monday.

New Jersey Transit was shut down due to the storm, thousands of flights were canceled, and travel up and down the east coast was made all-but-impossible on a weekend many planned to witness against abortion as part of the March for Life.

As Franciscan Father Jim Scullion, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Brant Beach, put it, “there were a lot of nervous people” up and down the central Jersey coastline when forecasts put the region directly in the path of the oncoming storm.

But by and large, parishes along the southern Monmouth and Ocean County coastlines reported Jan. 24 and 25 that by and large, prayers to come through the storm safely were answered.

“We lost an entrance sign by the church but there was no water in the church,” said Father Scullion. The church – one of four worship sites in the parish which spans Long Beach Island – had sustained serious water damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While there was a lot of flooding and ice nearby, “nothing hit the church this time,” he noted.

Some low-lying communities around the Diocese were encouraged, or in some cases even forced, to evacuate in advance of the storm, such as in Barnegat, Little Egg Harbor, Brick and Manasquan.

In Bay Head, Sacred Heart Parish canceled its weekend Masses because it is a smaller community, but counted itself lucky for not sustaining any damage from the snow and ice.

At St. Peter’s Parish, Point Pleasant Beach, Masses were held, but with a much-reduced crowd. On Monday, “there was a good number of people at morning Mass. I’m glad that we were able to clean the cars off and move them,” said Sister of St. Joseph Pat McClure who serves on the parish staff.

In preparation for the storm, diocesan officials and parishes that sustained extreme damage in that storm have been working to reduce flood exposure, based on lessons learned since Hurricane Sandy.

Before the storm hit, the diocesan risk management team asked pastors to ensure that all precautions were underway to mitigate damage, especially in coastal areas such as St. Denis Parish, Manasquan, where high winds and storm surges were expected.

The parish’s school and seaside chapel were heavily damaged by Sandy, so Father William J. Lago and Michael Pindar, custodial manager of the parish, kept a close watch on the computer, tracking the storm throughout the weekend and checking out the portable barricade panels designed to keep the flood waters at bay.

If conditions had called for it, these steel panels would have been installed at 11 potential points of entry to protect the school building, which remains in constant use despite the school itself having closed in June.

Because the bridge leading to Our Lady Star of the Sea Chapel at the beachfront had been flooded out during the blizzard, Father Lago and Pindar were unable to check on the worship site over the weekend. By Jan. 25, the flooding had receded and a check by Pindar revealed all was well there too.

With worship sites in Barnegat and Manahawkin and a parish center and regional school as well, St. Mary’s Parish has opened some of its facilities as a shelter during previous bad storms, including Sandy.

While Barnegat officials had advised voluntary evacuations on Jan. 22, the need for sheltering at the parish never materialized, said the parish’s pastor, Msgr. Kenard J. Tuzeneu.

Associate Editors Patrick T. Brown and Mary Stadnyk and correspondent Lois Rogers contributed to this report.