Religion in Early Somerset County
Historical records indicate that the first organized religion in the Somerset County area arrived in the late 1600s and early 1700s with early immigrants to the area. These early immigrants were primarily from Scotland and Holland. They came to this area for the abundant farmland and the religious freedom for which East Jersey (as it was called at the time) was known. Along with their migration to this area, they brought their religious faiths.
The Scots brought the Presbyterian religion with their first area church being built in Bound Brook in 1688. The Dutch brought the Reformed religion and the first Dutch Reformed Church was built in Finderne in 1699.
In the mid-1800s there was a large influx of Irish immigrants into America. Many worked on building the railroads and water canals of New Jersey. Raritan (a section of Bridgewater at that time) was a major terminus for the railroad in the area, and it led to a large population of Irish immigrants, most of which were Catholic.
The Irish Catholics had nowhere to practice their faith since Somerset County of that time was staunchly Protestant. For the Catholic Church, Somerset County was considered a mission area with only a periodic visit from a priest who came from the east. The first Catholic Church built in the area was St. Bernard's which was established in Raritan in 1853.
Religion in Early Hillsborough
In the early 1700s Hillsborough was a farming community with its residents primarily of Dutch background. They moved here from Staten Island, Brooklyn and Long Island to take advantage of the cheap farmland that was only a two-day journey away. Over time the Dutch settlers built several Reformed Churches within Hillsborough Township, numbering four at one time.
Hillsborough residents of other religious backgrounds sought spiritual guidance in other communities. The inhabitants of the northern part of the Township went to churches in Raritan, Somerville and, in some cases, Bound Brook. Those from the southern and eastern sections went to Franklin.
Catholicism in Hillsborough
In tending the farms of Hillsborough, the Dutch used slaves and indentured servants, many of whom were Irish. These Irish servants were some of the first Catholics to arrive into Hillsborough. From these earliest Catholics, our community grew as immigrants from other European countries moved to Hillsborough. They came as farmers and as workers for the lace mills in Somerville and Raritan.
Hillsborough of the late 1800s was much different from than the Hillsborough we know today. The Township had wide expanses of farmland dotted with farmhouses and a few small population centers or communities, one of the largest being Flagtown.
Automobiles were a relatively new invention. People still primarily got around by using horses. Roads were not paved and travel during wet weather was far from easy. If you were traveling a distance, you probably took a train since the Wright Brothers had yet to make their first flight. Electricity was available, but Carrier did not invent air conditioning until 1911. Communication was via the printed word or face-to-face. Radio and television were still in the future. Education was conducted in small schoolhouses.
Some local Catholics attended one of the three ethnic Catholic Churches in Raritan. St. Bernard's, as previously noted, was established in 1853 to serve the Irish immigrants and had been the first Catholic Church in the area. In 1903 Italian parishioners formed St. Ann's and in 1912 Slovaks founded St. Joseph's.
Catholics in the southern and eastern sections of the Township attended St. Joseph's in East Millstone or Catholic Churches in Manville. The majority of Flagtown Catholics attended the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Somerville. To avail themselves of the sacraments, locals would make the trek into Somerville by horse, perhaps car or train. (Yes, by train. At the time there was a railroad station in Flagtown across from the foundry, and there were frequent trains serving the area.)
Link to the Immaculate Conception Church in Somerville
The history of Mary, Mother of God Parish is directly linked to the Parish of the Immaculate Conception in Somerville. The origins of Catholicism in Somerville can be traced back to missionaries from the Jesuit and Benedictine Orders who served the area. Later, priests from Bound Brook, Plainfield and New Brunswick met the spiritual needs of the Somerville area.
In December of 1882, a new Parish was constituted in Somerville and was designated Immaculate Conception. One of the priests from Bound Brook, Father Martin von den Bogard, who had been among those serving the spiritual needs of Somerville Catholics, was installed as the founding Pastor and continued in that capacity until his return to Holland in 1910.
The first Mass in Somerville was celebrated in the Somerset Hall at West Main and Union Streets. To use the Hall the parish paid $8 per month. Later Masses were offered in Otis Hall at Somerset and New Streets.
The second Pastor of the Immaculate Conception Parish was Father Richard T. Ryan, a native of Woodbridge, New Jersey. He served as Pastor until his death in 1937.
First Masses in Flagtown
Soon after Fr. Ryan became Pastor, the spiritual needs of Catholics in the Hillsborough area were recognized, and he was given responsibility for the community of Flagtown. In 1916 Fr. Ryan began celebrating weekly Sunday Mass (weather permitting) at the McHugh-Burgess farmhouse in the Flagtown section of the Township. A flattop piano covered with a cloth served as the altar and folding chairs were set up for the congregation.
Father Ryan or other priests from Immaculate Conception would celebrate Mass and then have breakfast with some parishioners before returning to Somerville. At Christmas, Father Ryan would arrive earlier than normal to hand out gifts of fruit and candy to the children.
Fr. Ryan would return during the week and teach religion to the local children. Classes were held after school and also in the McHugh-Burgess home. If the weather were nice, class would be held in the yard. A local schoolteacher who was Catholic would help out.
Children were also baptized at the McHugh-Burgess house, and on the occasions where a family had not designated a godfather, the priest would appoint himself as the child's godfather. Father Ryan never went home empty handed. He enjoyed the Flagtown water so much more than Somerville water that he would fill up some containers with the local water and take it home with him.
Mary, Mother of God Mission Church
The next step in our evolution was our local community being designated Mary, Mother of God, a Mission of Immaculate Conception. With the designation of Mission, the building of our first Church was undertaken. On March 16, 1931 ground was broken for a Church building on property donated by the McHugh-Bergen families. Construction proceeded during the "Great Depression" era and on July 10, 1932, the Right Reverend Monsignor William McKean dedicated the Church of Mary, Mother of God - Flagtown.
The original Church accommodated about 200 people. It had no inside plumbing, and outside toilets remained in use into the 1960s. A hand pump in the back of the Church was used to obtain water needed for Mass. Peter McHugh would get to the Church in advance of the 9 o'clock Mass to procure the water needed for Mass and to start the furnace for heat.
Volunteers from the Altar-Rosary Society and Younger Girls Sodality cleaned the Church. Peter McHugh donated a pump organ to the Church, and Adele McHugh was the volunteer organist. Mrs. David Webster, a local non-Catholic, took care of washing and ironing the altar linens. Upon her death she willed her Flagtown house to the Parish.
The basement of the Church was used as a multi-purpose hall. One of the many uses was to hold religious instruction classes for Parish children. In the thirties it was periodically used for social events such as card parties, dinners, dances and entertainment shows. The entertainment included numerous show business personalities. One was Marie Powers a singer with LaScala Opera, and a cousin of parishioner Eleanor Noll. The hall was also used to serve meals to children who came to Flagtown by bus from the Newark area.
The hall also played a role in World War II. From 1943 to 1945 the basement hall was set-up as a field hospital. The Hillsborough area was considered to be of strategic importance due to the existence of the Belle Mead Army Depot. During the war there was a concern that the Depot could be a target for enemy bombing, and the hospital was established in case of casualties.
The hospital had 12 beds, and at the sound of air raid sirens local Doctor Sam Husted and parishioner nurses “Babe” Clawson, Genevieve Mandeville, Adele McHugh, Rose Solga and Agatha Stryker would rush to the Church to be ready in case their services were needed.
The Belle Mead Army Depot was built in 1942 as a primary East Coast staging area in support of the war effort in Europe. The construction of the Depot involved many construction workers. Local parishioners helped the cause by offering their homes as places for workers to sleep and eat.
In the latter part of the war, the Hillsborough Depot was the site of a prison for Italian and German prisoners of war. Several parishioners recall, as young girls, attending dances at the prison. Others recall making their Confirmation at Immaculate Conception along with some of the younger prisoners.
During the 30s and 40s a community of sisters residing in the South Branch area assisted the Parish with religious instruction. In the summers Father Petrocelli, a visiting priest, led processions honoring the Blessed Mother on Zion Mountain.
The community continued as a mission of Immaculate Conception for seventeen more years under the guidance of Fr. Ryan and subsequent Immaculate Conception Pastors, Frs. Joseph F. Mahoney and Robert J. Graham and Associate Pastors Wade and Willis.
Mary, Mother of God Becomes a Parish
With the continued growth of the Parish, Bishop William A. Griffin, Bishop of Trenton, constituted Mary, Mother of God a Parish in its own right. During Holy Week of 1948, the Catholic residents of Flagtown and the larger community of Hillsborough had a Parish they could call their own.
Unfortunately, the written historical records of the Mary, Mother of God community only begin with the designation of its Parish status. Being a Mission Church of the Immaculate Conception, records were kept at that Church. On the morning of January 6, 1965, a fire destroyed the Immaculate Conception Church and the records of the Mary, Mother of God Mission were lost.
Rev. Joseph M. Kurtz - First Pastor
With the designation as a Parish, Bishop Griffin named Father Joseph M. Kurtz as the first Pastor.
The first couple to be married in the new Parish was Albert Tkacs and Eleanor Bednar. In that first year as a Parish, six couples were married, and thirteen children were part of the initial First Holy Communion on May 23, 1948. The first child Baptized was Barbara Lee Hoffman on May 2, 1948. Barbara was the first of fourteen Baptized that first year.On November 8, 1952, Bishop George Ahr confirmed the Parish's first seventy children and six adults. (At the time, Confirmation was not held yearly. The next Confirmation took place in May 1956).
Since the Parish was initially without a Rectory, Fr. Kurtz took up residence in an apartment on the farm of the Noll family in Belle Mead. While there, he took care of his own cooking, cleaning and laundry.
Fr. Kurtz organized many Church activities, most of which continue to be part of the Parish today. He organized the Holy Name and Altar-Rosary Societies and also started the annual May Crowning of our Blessed Mother. The religious instruction programs for our children continued and grew with Fr. Kurtz. He also brought the first Christmas Midnight Mass to the community.
He enjoyed being with the children of the Parish and enjoyed playing baseball with local teenagers. Long-time residents recalled that he had his own baseball uniform but always wore his priest’s collar. Father Kurtz was known for his acts of charity that included distributing baskets of food to the needy.
Rev. Anthony Pluta - Second Pastor
Father Kurtz continued as Pastor of Mary, Mother of God for two years, and in May 1950, Father Anthony Pluta was installed as the second Pastor.
In 1955, Fr. Pluta purchased the Van Doren residence on South Branch Road diagonally across the street from the Church; the house is still standing today. This became the Parish's first Rectory. Fr. Pluta bought a new organ, and the housekeeper also served as the organist. He heard confessions before Mass, and at times the Mass would be delayed until he had finished. Parish picnics and other outdoor activities were held in the parking lot surrounding the Church.
In 1964, Father Pluta foresaw the continued growth of the Parish and purchased 88 acres of land on Triangle Road from the Piskorowski family. He envisioned the building of a new and larger Church and the construction of a Parish Center.
Father Pluta continued to serve the Parish for 16 years.
Rev. John Sullivan - Third Pastor
In 1966, Father John Sullivan was installed as the third Pastor of our community. During his Pastorate, the changes established at the Second Vatican Council were introduced, including the Folk Mass, still popular today. He also introduced the Christian Family Movement to the Parish, and he started bingo as a revenue source.
Fr. Sullivan served the people of Hillsborough for three years and in April 1969, Father James Dubell was named as temporary Parish Administrator.
Rev. Anthony Kramarz - Fourth Pastor
In June 1969, Rev. Anthony M. Kramarz was installed as the fourth Pastor. Fr. Anthony initiated Family Planning Groups, Marriage Encounter and the United Societies. Revival of the Junior and Senior C.Y.O. groups took place during his Pastorate.
With the help of parishioners, a large garage/storage facility was built on the property behind the Rectory. The large grassy area to the side and rear of the Rectory was then used for yearly carnivals and Parish picnics. Bingo games were held each Wednesday night at the Hillsborough Fire Company No. 2 Hall on Route 206.
As the Parish grew, the Church hall became too small to accommodate religious instruction so it was moved to the Woods Road Elementary School located on the corner of Woods and Hillsborough Roads. Classes were held there each Saturday morning during the school year.
The parish growth also necessitated the addition of more Masses to the Sunday schedule. With the increased schedule, Father Anthony began inviting visiting priests to assist him on Sundays. Many of those who assisted were from the Consolata Order, which has a major residence in Franklin, NJ.
In 1977 the Parish grew to the point where the Bishop assigned Father Stanley Jarosz as the first associate Pastor. Father Stan was the first of 16 associates that have served the Parish.
Father Anthony Kramarz sponsored two dinners a year for patients from the Skillman Neuro-Psychiatric Center. In celebration of Valentine’s Day and Thanksgiving, busloads of patients were brought to the Church hall where volunteers cooked and served a sumptuous meal and other parishioners entertained the patients.
During the Christmas season, Father Anthony and the Holy Name Society would elaborately decorate the front lawn of the Rectory with the centerpiece being a large lighted Nativity Scene.
As part of the Parish's 25th anniversary celebration, a commemorative picture album was produced. It had pictures of the Parish families, as well as pictures of various Parish groups. Some of the pictures are included in this history.
Fr. Kramarz served the parishioners for eleven years and on April 11, 1980, he was installed as the Pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Sayreville. He continued as their Pastor until his retirement. Father Anthony passed away in April 1998.
Rev. Eugene Schellberg - Fifth Pastor
Following Fr. Anthony's departure, Rev. Eugene Schellberg was assigned as Temporary Administrator. A short time later (July 12, 1980) Father Schellberg was installed as our fifth Pastor.
Father Gene's first big venture was to conduct a complete Parish census. He named a steering committee to organize a Parish Council. He asked George LaPolice to join the Parish as our first Permanent Deacon.
More priests, more parishioners, more masses and the little Church on South Branch Road was becoming a little too tight. One of the many signs illustrating this growth was moving Confirmation to the Hillsborough High Scholl auditorium in order to accommodate those being confirmed and their sponsors,families and guests.
With the explosive growth taking place in Hillsborough, Father Gene quickly realized that the Parish population was far exceeding the capacity of the Flagtown Church. In response to this growth, he organized a group of parishioners to help develop a plan for a new Church. When the Parish was first established there were approximately 100 families. By 1980 the Parish had grown to over 1000 families.
The Building of a New Church
In March 1981, fifty years after the Flagtown Church was built, Father Gene announced plans for a fundraising campaign so that a larger replacement Church could be built. The new Church was to occupy 13 of the 88 acres that were owned by the Parish on Triangle Road. The remaining acreage was to be sold to help defray the cost of construction.
The new Church was to have 14,000 square feet of space and would hold 500 people for Mass. It would include a chapel, a shrine room and the Pastor's offices. In addition, there would be a Parish hall named St. Joseph Cupertino Hall that would also accommodate 500 people. The hall could be used for religious instruction classes as well as Bingo. On-premises parking would handle 200 cars.
On June 28, 1981, ground was broken at the Triangle Road property for the new Church and Parish Center. Less than one year later, on the eve of Palm Sunday 1982, Father Gene celebrated the first Mass at the new Church.
The Church was officially dedicated by Bishop Theodore E. McCarrick, first Bishop of the Diocese of Metuchen, on September 18, 1982. It was the first Church dedicated by Bishop McCarrick in the newly formed Diocese of Metuchen. The old Church was sold in 1983 and is still standing on South Branch Road. It continues to serve the needs of the people of Hillsborough, now as a children's learning center.
Some pieces of our history were brought from the old to the new Church. The large stained glass window that was prominent behind the altar at our the old Church was saved and placed at the end of the main hallway at the entrance of the Shrine Room. The large statue of our Blessed Mother that was at a side altar in the old Church was moved into the new Chapel. The old Stations of the Cross are now the outside Stations located on the west side of the parking lot. A painting of the old Church is on display in the Church's main hall.
Although the new Church was occupied in 1982, the priests still resided at the Rectory located on South Branch Road. It was not until August 1986, that ground was broken for a new Rectory at the Triangle Road site.
In addition to being the residence for our Parish priests, the Rectory was designed to accommodate Parish offices. A large meeting room (St. Francis Meeting Room) was planned for the lower level. With the completion of the Rectory in December 1987, all Parish facilities had been brought together at the Triangle Road location. In the same month the old Rectory was sold.
Bishop Edward Hughes officially dedicated the new Rectory on May 29, 1988.
1988 was also the year for another Parish first. On August 6, John Fell was ordained to the Priesthood at Mary, Mother of God Church. Father John had previously assisted the Parish as a Deacon. Upon completing his preparatory education in Rome, he asked to have his Ordination at our Church. He was named an Associate Pastor of the Parish in August 1988. Except for a period for advanced studies in Rome, Fr. Fell remained at the Parish until 1990.
During his Pastorate, Fr. Gene initiated the Perpetual Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and round-the-clock adoration continued for several years. It continues today on weekends from Friday through mid-day Sunday.
Under Father Schellberg’s guidance, the Parish articulated a Parish Mission Statement in 1986, which still serves as a guide for our community. The original Mission Statement is on display in the Church's main hallway. During his stay, Father Gene had visiting priests from the Vincentian Order assist at Sunday Masses.
Church Building Expanded
Six years after the Parish had moved to the new Church on Triangle Road, it became apparent that space was again becoming tight. On Christmas Day and Easter and Palm Sundays, additional Masses were celebrated in the Church hall to accommodate the number of people in attendance. Recognizing that Hillsborough's and the Parish's population would continue to grow, Fr. Schellburg initiated an expansion program which would add room for another 250 people raising the Church's capacity to 750.
Expansion was also recognized in another way. As the Hillsborough area grew, new Parishes were established. Two of the newly established parishes established in the diocese covered territory that was part of the Mary, Mother of God Parish. In 1982 St. Charles Borromeo in Montgomery Township and in 1984 St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Three Bridges were established.
In 1989 a Parish picture directory was published.
Father Schellberg continued as Pastor until March 1993. Upon his departure the St. Joseph Cupertino Hall was renamed Schellberg Hall in his honor.
Rev. Liam Minogue - Sixth Pastor
With Father Schellberg's departure Father Liam A. Minogue was appointed as the sixth Pastor of Mary, Mother of God Parish. Fr. Liam initiated a collaborative ministry program within the Parish by implementing what continues today as the Pastoral Council. The Council provides greater involvement and leadership opportunities for the laity in the Parish. Through mini-councils, parishioners are playing a larger role in the governance of the Parish.
Under Fr. Liam’s leadership, a Pre-School Program was begun. In the first year nine 4-year olds graduated from the program. By the second year, the program had 80 children had been enrolled. As the Parish grew under Father Liam, the religious instruction grew dramatically. To assist in structuring the program, Father Liam brought in Sister Imelda Dooley of the Franciscan Order as Educational Director where she served from 1994 to 1998.
In keeping with the Parish's charitable tradition, Fr. Liam organized the Saint Vincent De Paul Society which offers service to the needy and suffering. He also introduced liturgical dance into the celebration of the Mass.
Father Liam kept alive the traditional New Year's Eve celebration and the St. Patrick's Dance. Through his encouragement, the youth group flourished. Other traditions continuing were the Rosary-Altar Society's Christmas Crafts Bazaar, Fish Fry and Spaghetti Dinner. Each September a Parish Picnic was held in the Church parking lot. Assisting the Parish were priests from the Holy Ghost Order in Ireland and the Benedictine Order.
On the 50th anniversary of the Parish in 1998 Father Liam hosted a trip to Ireland and organized an anniversary golf tournament. The golf tournament has become and annual event held on Columbus Day. During 1998 the Parish's fourth Deacon, Al Payne, was installed.
1948 to 1998 - Fifty Years of Growing in God's Faith and Service
In 1998 the Parish celebrated its 50th anniversary. A gala party was held at the Doubletree Hotel in Somerset and this history was compiled. In 1948 we began with 100 families and in 50 years we had grown to approximately 2800. With 1998 the Parish had a gala party So how have we grown in fifty years? In 1948 we had about 100 families and in 50 years the Parish had grown to approximately 2800 families or 10500 individuals. The first First Holy Communion class had 13 children. In 1998 four Masses were celebrated to accommodate the 189 children who received their First Communicants, their families and guests.
From teaching a few children religious instruction in the original Church basement the CCD program had grown to over 1200 children. The first Parish couple was married in 1948. Through the end of 1998 702 couples had said “I do” at Mary, Mother of God. The Parish's first Confirmation took place in 1952. In May 1998, Bishop Hughes confirmed 106 children. From Baptizing fourteen infants in 1948, one hundred sixty-five were Baptized in 1997.
With the continued growth of Hillsborough and our Parish the Church was again tight for space. Christmas, Easter and Palm Sunday again necessitated celebration of Mass in both the Church and Schellberg Hall. During many Sunday Masses it is standing room only.
That completes the first fifty years of the Parish of Mary, Mother of God. It was a period of tremendous growth in which God has greatly blessed us. With Mary, Mother of God as our Patroness, the Parish looked forward to the coming Millennium and God's continued love and blessings.