Joe Louro, a longtime parishioner who steered the building committee for the new church, and Father Thomas J. O’Connor, pastor, stand outside the building that went from being a vision to a reality. Photos courtesy of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish

Joe Louro, a longtime parishioner who steered the building committee for the new church, and Father Thomas J. O’Connor, pastor, stand outside the building that went from being a vision to a reality. Photos courtesy of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish

Story by Lois Rogers | Correspondent

The last thing newcomers to the area probably expect to see as they traverse the pastoral byway of Georgia Road in Freehold Township is a co-cathedral of monumental and classic proportions gracing the landscape.

But since Christmas Eve, that is exactly what they would experience driving along the road with its pleasant mix of residences and recreation areas. On that holy night, appropriately enough, it was announced that the solid and spectacular structure of St. Robert Bellarmine Church would become elevated to the dignity of a co-cathedral, an honor bestowed thus far by the Holy See in fewer than 10 U.S. churches.

As the Feb. 19 date of the ceremonial elevation neared, Msgr. Sam Sirianni, parish pastor, and Joe Louro, a longtime parishioner who steered the building committee that brought the church from the drawing board to reality early in the new millennium, talked about the structure.

Louro enjoyed sharing details of the church’s history, disclosing that as originally conceived by Father Thomas J. O’Connor – pastor from 1988 until his death on June 11, 2008, in the mid-1990s, when plans for a new church began to surface – the idea was for a smaller, less-imposing building capable of seating about 700 faithful.

“Father O’Connor had a black belt in frugal and wanted something on a smaller scale,” Louro said of the beloved, late pastor whose tombstone in an Irish churchyard is nonetheless engraved with a rendering of the future Co-Cathedral he did build.

The architectural outcome was determined by diocesan planners in the late 1990s under the direction of then-Bishop John M. Smith and Msgr. Richard Brietske, who was chairman of the diocesan building commission at the time, Louro said. They foresaw that when it came to new construction, the impending decline in the number of priests would translate to a need for larger, if fewer, churches.

“They knew in the future that if there were going to be, say, five weekend Masses in a parish” and major liturgical celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, any new churches would have to be capable of seating 1,000, Louro said.

That being the case, the 19,000-square-foot church, designed by the late architect Vincent Riggi, seats 1,003 faithful in the nave with standing room for 300. The chapel/parish hall can further accommodate 650.

Father O’Connor and the design committee hired Riggi after a long and exhaustive search of newly constructed church buildings along the Eastern seaboard, which all too often looked, Louro said, like fast food restaurants. In addition, the parish initiated a capital campaign in order to raise funds toward the $5.2 million project.

As the original worship space had been an all-purpose building, the team wanted something exceptional, something that lent itself to the glory of the liturgy, Louro said.

Between Riggi’s talents and Father O’Connor’s great liturgical sensibility and attention to the needs of the community, they found it.

With the basic design, Riggi “was able to give us everything we wanted,” including a round setting and the clerestory – the row of windows between two layers of roofs, which allows a great amount of light to fall from the ceiling onto the nave, Louro said.

There were hurdles to overcome, especially setting the foundation, since the soil in Freehold is clay.

“We had to excavate a hole four-feet deep to remove the clay,” Louro said, and then layer various sizes of stone as fill.

“We wanted every detail of the church right. This was going to be the only Catholic Church in Freehold Township.”

Practically speaking, “every detail” ranged from ensuring that the building would be as accessible as possible, which included a ramp that enables priests who use wheelchairs to celebrate Mass. There’s a “backup sacristy” for major celebrations and “more than enough restrooms” to accommodate the scores who worship there.

With Father O’Connor leading the way, the committee and the architect were “very aware of the [Church] liturgical directives that the sanctuary be very open and accessible for the celebration of the different Sacraments, of which the Mass is paramount,” Msgr. Sirianni said.

Great care was taken with the appointments such as the marble altar and ambo and the placement of the tabernacle, which Msgr. Sirianni said, is “in keeping with the General Instruction [of the Roman Missal]. Everything is made of material that is beautiful, noble and very simple.” All are placed in a manner that keeps the focus on Christ throughout, he said.

Msgr. Sirianni spoke of the windows, including two large rondels and the stained-glass panels that highlight not only the saints of the New World, but the great mysteries including the Annunciation, Nativity and Assumption; the Baptism of the Lord, and Jesus surrounded by children as offering uplifting opportunities for prayer and reflection.

The gathering space is another remarkable feature of the Co-Cathedral, he said. Reflecting the direction of the Second Vatican Council on Liturgy, it is not only a “place where people can stand comfortably” at times when the nave is at capacity, it is also often used as a devotional space.

“At Christmas, it is where we place our Nativity. On civil holidays, such as Fourth of July, we set up holiday displays to stress the call to pray for our country,” Msgr. Sirianni said.

And because Father O’Connor did not believe in cry rooms, the wide expanse has served since its Dec. 7, 2002 dedication as a place where “when a toddler is having a bad day, parents can be with their little ones [and] the children can run around.

“I think that really gives a testament to the love Father O’Connor had for children,” Msgr. Sirianni said. “It speaks of the man who built the church as well as to the ongoing approach of how the parish welcomes all.”