St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold, has been elevated to the status of a Co-Cathedral in recognition of the role it has played in the life and activities of the Diocese. The Monitor file photo

St. Robert Bellarmine Church, Freehold, has been elevated to the status of a Co-Cathedral in recognition of the role it has played in the life and activities of the Diocese. The Monitor file photo

In the early and mid 1970s, the area of Central New Jersey was experiencing a steady settling by professionals who worked in New York and Northern New Jersey and wanted to provide a wholesome life for their families in the more affordable suburbs. The already thriving churches in the area became insufficient to serve the people of God in this area. 

When the parish of St. Robert Bellarmine was established in 1971 in the budding suburb of Freehold, a parish worship space, which doubled as a parish hall and gathering space, was constructed with a “family” parish community in mind. This worship space provided for the needs of the parish for 30-plus years, but as the parish grew and events and ministries became more numerous, it was clear that a new church building was necessary.

Having had a good financial foundation from which to draw, the new space was to be built with an eye toward beauty, function and growth; housing definite ecclesial designs. The parish church of St. Robert Bellarmine was dedicated in 2002 with a seating capacity of 1,100 congregants. As one enters the gathering area, he/she is drawn in by double rosette windows – one at the entrance of the church and another at the entrance of the nave. The large gathering area offers a place for the faithful to greet one another, for ministers of the Mass to assemble their procession and ample space for various ministries of social outreach to function.

Although the building is a new construction, it contains many traditional elements that make the nave and sanctuary warm and welcoming. A clear story (high walls with windows) along with rose windows of clear glass allow ample natural lighting in the church and draws attention to the sanctuary. The clear rose windows bring a sense of transparency and a flow between the life of the church and the life of the community. Within the nave the stained glass windows honor the Mysteries of the Rosary, Saints of the Americas and the patron of the parish, St. Robert Bellarmine.

The white marble platform holds the major appointments of the sanctuary: a deep green Carrera marble of the altar, tabernacle pedestal and ambo. The striking beauty of these appointments has a profound effect on those who gaze upon the sanctuary. The marble-covered back wall of the sanctuary, in effect, acts as a reredos.

The nave of the church is built in such a manner that there is no need for pillars, giving the congregants a clear view of the liturgical action in the sanctuary and throughout the body of the church.

St. Robert Bellarmine Parish is located very close to the geographic center of the Diocese and is easily accessed by major highways north, south, east and west. This reality along with the accessibility of all buildings has made St. Robert Bellarmine a central location for liturgical, social and educational efforts of the Diocese.

The faithful of the parish take seriously the ministry of hospitality to their brothers and sisters from around the Diocese, and our mission to receive all who come together in Christ’s name. In recent years, certainly since my arrival as Bishop in 2010, the Diocese of Trenton has been blessed by the easily accessible availability of St. Robert Bellarmine Church.  Numerous days of recollection, spiritual programs, liturgical events, opportunities for pastoral training and countless other meetings have been held in the parish facilities there.

Two years ago, I moved the annual Chrism Mass from St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton to the centrally located St. Robert Bellarmine Church to more easily accommodate the priests of the Diocese for our yearly Holy Week dinner together, our liturgical renewal of priestly commitment and the blessing and distribution of holy oils used in the sacraments for the year ahead. 

Having attended so many events there and having read about all of the other diocesan activities that used St. Robert’s as their chosen venue, I considered the possibility of seeking its elevation as a Co-Cathedral for our vast Diocese.  I was aware that other dioceses – recently, the Diocese of Brooklyn – had pursued a similar route.  I spoke about his rationale to the Bishop of Brooklyn and sought his advice.

I consulted with the priests of the Diocese of Trenton about this idea and the reaction was largely supportive.  Some few raised objections which I also considered.

In April 11, 2016, I presented a proposal to the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops in Rome. With his encouragement, I followed his directions and submitted a formal request.  Cardinal Oulette responded with further questions, which I answered.

On December 3, 2016, the Congregation for Bishops approved my proposal and wrote on December 19.  The Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre transmitted Cardinal Ouelette’s letter on December 23 and I informed the pastor and the parish in writing on Christmas Eve.

In addition to the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, which remains the Mother Church of the Diocese, St. Robert Bellarmine Church has been elevated to the dignity of a Co-Cathedral in recognition of the role it has played and will continue to play in meeting the needs associated with the life and activities of the Diocese of Trenton. A seat or "cathedra" for the Bishop will be placed in the sanctuary, reserved only for the Bishop in liturgical celebrations. Certain diocesan events will be scheduled annually in the Co-Cathedral of St. Robert Bellarmine, while others will remain in the Cathedral in Trenton.

Plans are being made for the liturgical celebration surrounding the elevation of St. Robert Church to the dignity of a Co-Cathedral sometime in the early part of 2017. The Apostolic Nuncio or his delegate will attend that Mass for the signing of the “acta” or official document of elevation. The date for this historical event in the Diocese of Trenton will be announced as soon as it is determined.