Holy Spirit Church closure to help ensure Catholic presence in Asbury Park

December 3, 2020 at 5:25 p.m.
Holy Spirit Church closure to help ensure Catholic presence in Asbury Park
Holy Spirit Church closure to help ensure Catholic presence in Asbury Park

Jennifer Mauro

When Divine Word Father Miguel Virella arrived in Holy Spirit Parish nearly 10 years ago, he knew he soon would be helping to shepherd the merger of several Asbury Park parishes. He had one plea for the then-pastor – friend and mentor Father William McLaughlin.

“I used to tell him, ‘Father Bill, don’t you ever leave me here alone.’ And he used to tell me, ‘Don’t worry, kiddo.’”

Roughly six months later, Father McLaughlin passed away, leaving Father Virella at the helm of merging Holy Spirit, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Saint Peter Claver and Our Lady of Providence Parishes.

“We had a beautiful funeral celebration for him in Holy Spirit Church. It was unforgettable,” Father Virella said, the recollection of bidding his good friend farewell shining through his eyes.

That memory – and those of thousands of parishioners – are at the forefront of Asbury Park’s Catholic community with the recent announcement that Holy Spirit Church, one of two worship sites of Mother of Mercy Parish, will be closing. Due to financial strains, the Holy Spirit Church property and convent building will be sold – a process that could take months or years to complete.

The choice was not made lightly, parish pastor Father Virella explained in a letter to parishioners in late October that announced the closure and sale.

“Holy Spirit Church is part of the legacy of this Catholic community in Asbury Park, and it holds a special place in the hearts of our parishioners,” he wrote. “However, consolidating down to one campus is unavoidable.”

The community’s reaction, Father Virella said, was one of an overwhelming sense of loss.

“One of the biggest feelings in the community is sadness,” he said. “Some people are upset, but it’s more that they are grieving greatly. We have pioneers here – people who participated very actively in the building of the community, in fundraising, dances, and all kinds of activities to help the church flourish. Some parishioners were students from when Holy Spirit Parish had a school.”

Difficult Decisions

Indeed, the history of the area’s multicultural Catholic community spans more than a century. Holy Spirit Church – a towering Gothic-style brick sanctuary that holds dozens of statues and soaring stained glass windows – was founded in the late 1800s by German and Irish immigrants.

In the 2000’s, the parishes of Holy Spirit and nearby St. Peter Claver merged. Our Lady of Providence, Neptune, of which Father Virella was pastor, came together with Asbury Park’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. In 2014, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Holy Spirit became one under a new name – the Church of Mother of Mercy Parish. For the past six years, the parish has retained two worship sites: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church located on Pine Street, and Holy Spirit Church on Second Avenue. The parish school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is housed on the Pine Street campus.

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Through these restructuring measures, the Catholic community in Asbury Park has been transformed into a single multi-ethnic, multi-cultural parish of approximately 2,000 households. This includes Hispanic, Anglo-American, Haitian and African-American parishioners. More than 250 children receive religious instruction through Mother of Mercy Parish, and another 183 children are being educated in the parish-sponsored Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. 

In his letter, Father Virella explained the factors that forced the decision to close Holy Spirit Church: “Faith and effort have brought us this far together, but we continue to struggle with very serious financial challenges that require us to do more. The parish must deal with the costly impact of aging buildings, old machinery and equipment, underground oil tanks, rising insurance rates, the loss of rental income and, most unfortunately, decreasing Mass attendance and offertory gifts.”   

Once Holy Spirit Church is sold, the parish plans to consolidate an anticipated seven Masses in Mount Carmel Church – three in English, three in Spanish and one in Creole. An eighth bilingual Mass is also being considered. 

With the revenue generated from the sale, the parish will repay debt and hopes to have funds remaining for improvements in Mount Carmel Church.

Among those projects: fixing leaky windows and damaged walls; installing a bathroom on the first floor of the church and constructing an elevator down to the church’s unfinished bottom level.  The roof on the Our Lady of Mount Carmel School gym also needs repairs.

There are hopes that the bottom level of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church can be renovated to include a Holy Spirit Chapel, which would contain statues and artifacts from the former church and additional  multipurpose rooms for parish ministries and meetings.

‘The Faith is Still Alive’

For years, the parish finance council and a special subcommittee looked for ways to keep both churches open, and parishioners were kept informed of the parish financials throughout.

“Closing Holy Spirit Church is not something we want to do,” said parish business manager Angela Gitto. “We just can’t afford to maintain it – the aging building and needed upgrades. In order to sustain a Catholic parish in Asbury Park, one of the churches had to close.”

Keeping Our Lady of Mount Carmel School open was another goal for the parish, as Father Virella and Gitto see the school as an investment for the future – both in fostering socially conscious Catholics and hoping they will give back to their community and parish as adults. 

“I hope and pray for your understanding, and I ask for your support as I continue to do what is best for Mother of Mercy Parish,” Father Virella wrote in his letter.

With discussions underway on how to salvage Holy Spirit Church’s rich history, services will continue there as scheduled.

“The Holy Spirit Church building is very important, yes, and all our memories [are] there, but far more important is us as Church,” Father Virella said. And after his own experience of having lived and served for 20 years in the area, he hopes he can convey an important message to the Catholic faithful: “We are still here. The buildings will change, situations will change, but the faith is still alive.”

Reflecting on the Old Testament, Father Virella likened the experience of the Holy Spirit community to the people of Israel and all the difficulties they encountered as they walked through the desert. “They found the Promised Land because they kept the faith, [and] because they kept together. “We need to keep together the best we can.”


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When Divine Word Father Miguel Virella arrived in Holy Spirit Parish nearly 10 years ago, he knew he soon would be helping to shepherd the merger of several Asbury Park parishes. He had one plea for the then-pastor – friend and mentor Father William McLaughlin.

“I used to tell him, ‘Father Bill, don’t you ever leave me here alone.’ And he used to tell me, ‘Don’t worry, kiddo.’”

Roughly six months later, Father McLaughlin passed away, leaving Father Virella at the helm of merging Holy Spirit, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Saint Peter Claver and Our Lady of Providence Parishes.

“We had a beautiful funeral celebration for him in Holy Spirit Church. It was unforgettable,” Father Virella said, the recollection of bidding his good friend farewell shining through his eyes.

That memory – and those of thousands of parishioners – are at the forefront of Asbury Park’s Catholic community with the recent announcement that Holy Spirit Church, one of two worship sites of Mother of Mercy Parish, will be closing. Due to financial strains, the Holy Spirit Church property and convent building will be sold – a process that could take months or years to complete.

The choice was not made lightly, parish pastor Father Virella explained in a letter to parishioners in late October that announced the closure and sale.

“Holy Spirit Church is part of the legacy of this Catholic community in Asbury Park, and it holds a special place in the hearts of our parishioners,” he wrote. “However, consolidating down to one campus is unavoidable.”

The community’s reaction, Father Virella said, was one of an overwhelming sense of loss.

“One of the biggest feelings in the community is sadness,” he said. “Some people are upset, but it’s more that they are grieving greatly. We have pioneers here – people who participated very actively in the building of the community, in fundraising, dances, and all kinds of activities to help the church flourish. Some parishioners were students from when Holy Spirit Parish had a school.”

Difficult Decisions

Indeed, the history of the area’s multicultural Catholic community spans more than a century. Holy Spirit Church – a towering Gothic-style brick sanctuary that holds dozens of statues and soaring stained glass windows – was founded in the late 1800s by German and Irish immigrants.

In the 2000’s, the parishes of Holy Spirit and nearby St. Peter Claver merged. Our Lady of Providence, Neptune, of which Father Virella was pastor, came together with Asbury Park’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish. In 2014, Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Holy Spirit became one under a new name – the Church of Mother of Mercy Parish. For the past six years, the parish has retained two worship sites: Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church located on Pine Street, and Holy Spirit Church on Second Avenue. The parish school, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, is housed on the Pine Street campus.

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Through these restructuring measures, the Catholic community in Asbury Park has been transformed into a single multi-ethnic, multi-cultural parish of approximately 2,000 households. This includes Hispanic, Anglo-American, Haitian and African-American parishioners. More than 250 children receive religious instruction through Mother of Mercy Parish, and another 183 children are being educated in the parish-sponsored Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. 

In his letter, Father Virella explained the factors that forced the decision to close Holy Spirit Church: “Faith and effort have brought us this far together, but we continue to struggle with very serious financial challenges that require us to do more. The parish must deal with the costly impact of aging buildings, old machinery and equipment, underground oil tanks, rising insurance rates, the loss of rental income and, most unfortunately, decreasing Mass attendance and offertory gifts.”   

Once Holy Spirit Church is sold, the parish plans to consolidate an anticipated seven Masses in Mount Carmel Church – three in English, three in Spanish and one in Creole. An eighth bilingual Mass is also being considered. 

With the revenue generated from the sale, the parish will repay debt and hopes to have funds remaining for improvements in Mount Carmel Church.

Among those projects: fixing leaky windows and damaged walls; installing a bathroom on the first floor of the church and constructing an elevator down to the church’s unfinished bottom level.  The roof on the Our Lady of Mount Carmel School gym also needs repairs.

There are hopes that the bottom level of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church can be renovated to include a Holy Spirit Chapel, which would contain statues and artifacts from the former church and additional  multipurpose rooms for parish ministries and meetings.

‘The Faith is Still Alive’

For years, the parish finance council and a special subcommittee looked for ways to keep both churches open, and parishioners were kept informed of the parish financials throughout.

“Closing Holy Spirit Church is not something we want to do,” said parish business manager Angela Gitto. “We just can’t afford to maintain it – the aging building and needed upgrades. In order to sustain a Catholic parish in Asbury Park, one of the churches had to close.”

Keeping Our Lady of Mount Carmel School open was another goal for the parish, as Father Virella and Gitto see the school as an investment for the future – both in fostering socially conscious Catholics and hoping they will give back to their community and parish as adults. 

“I hope and pray for your understanding, and I ask for your support as I continue to do what is best for Mother of Mercy Parish,” Father Virella wrote in his letter.

With discussions underway on how to salvage Holy Spirit Church’s rich history, services will continue there as scheduled.

“The Holy Spirit Church building is very important, yes, and all our memories [are] there, but far more important is us as Church,” Father Virella said. And after his own experience of having lived and served for 20 years in the area, he hopes he can convey an important message to the Catholic faithful: “We are still here. The buildings will change, situations will change, but the faith is still alive.”

Reflecting on the Old Testament, Father Virella likened the experience of the Holy Spirit community to the people of Israel and all the difficulties they encountered as they walked through the desert. “They found the Promised Land because they kept the faith, [and] because they kept together. “We need to keep together the best we can.”

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