The History of St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Long Beach Island, NJ
Early priests from Camden and Philadelphia endured bad weather and tedious boat and train travel to bring the Word of Christ to a handful of people on Long Beach Island. Packet boats, or shallow-draft steamers, plying Little Egg Harbor Bay from Edge Cove two miles north of Tuckerton, the rail terminus, to Dock Street in Beach Haven were the only means of reaching the Island until the first train arrived in Beach Haven via the trestle bridge on July 24, 1886. The first vehicular Causeway was not completed until 1914, when the first gravel road was extended from Ship Bottom to Beach Haven.
Masses were offered as early as 1885 by priests from Camden and Philadelphia in a private home for the benefit of residents and visiting Catholics until a mission was established in Beach Haven, and cared for by priests from Lakewood, NJ.
The Rev. Thomas Healy founded, organized, purchased the land and assumed charge of the mission, St. Thomas Aquinas Church, on July 9, 1893. When Father Healy arrived, there was $843 in the treasury, collected by four priests who preceded him. With this start, he bought a lot for $450 and set about constructing the first church, which, with its furnishings, cost $475.55. He traveled from Our Lady of the Lake in Medford, NJ for two years, until 1895.
The new church at Beach Avenue and Fourth St., Beach Haven, was built at a cost of $4,000 during the pastorate of the Rev. A. Fasonotti, 1899 to 1901. The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, June 11, 1899 and the first Mass celebrated on Sunday, August 6, 1899.
The first resident pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church was the Rev. William A. Gilfillan, appointed in June of 1905. There being no rectory, he lived at the Hotel Baldwin. Not too long after his arrival, Father Gilfillan bought the corner lot at Beach and Third as a site for a rectory. At that time, there were 19 resident Catholics.
Father Gilfillan was succeeded in November, 1907 by the Rev. Thomas J. Whelan, who in 1908 supervised construction of the rectory at a cost of $4,200. Father Whelan was responsible for 160 parishioners in a 150 square mile area from Waretown to the Atlantic County line in addition to those on the Island. He traveled by horseback and horse and wagon, and relied on train or boat to get back and forth from the Mainland. During Father Whelan’s pastorate, the missions of Surf City and Barnegat were attached to St. Thomas.
The chapel of St. Thomas of Villanova in Surf City was built in 1898 through the generosity of a Philadelphian, Thomas Callahan, whose family spent summers there. At that time, the only way to reach Beach Haven was by train, which made one round-trip daily. Prior to the chapel being built, the Callahans, the only Catholic Family in Surf City, spent all day going to and returning from Beach Haven on Sundays and Holy Days. The small chapel, built by Mr. Callahan, was blessed by Bishop James McFaul of Trenton on Sunday, July 10, 1898, when the first Mass was celebrated. Catholics and non-Catholics donated $800 toward the $1,500 cost and the remainder was paid by Mr. Callahan. Priests from Philadelphia came regularly to offer the Holy Sacrifice for the few Catholic vacationers in Surf City until the Chapel came under the care of the pastors in Beach Haven.
Father Whelan was transferred to Camden on June 15, 1913 and was followed by several pastors. In the spring of 1928, the Beach Haven parish was temporarily cared for the by the Friars Minor Conventuals of Seaside Park until the parish passed over to the care of the Franciscans of the Holy Name Province of New York on June 7, 1928. It was then that the Franciscans came to minister to hundreds of Catholic vacationers and permanent residents. From Beach Haven, they served missions and stations on Long Beach Island, and to year-round missions in Barnegat and Tuckerton. Beach Haven is the historical center of Catholicity on the Island.
In October, 1934, Catholics in Tuckerton petitioned the Franciscans to say Mass every Sunday. A store was rented in West Tuckerton, and year-round services began in St. Theresa’s mission church. Prior to that, Catholics from Tuckerton had to go to Barnegat. The Rev. Paul Neville was appointed pastor of St. Thomas that year, and in 1937 began offering two Masses every Sunday during the summer in the Colony Theater in Brant Beach (later demolished in 2003). In 1938, he supervised the most extensive renovation of St. Thomas Church since it was built. Between 1928 and 1938, the number of Sunday Masses on the Island alone increased from two to 10 during the summer.
The summer of 1945 saw five Sunday Masses in Beach Haven, four each in Surf City and the Colony Theater in Brant Beach and two each in Barnegat and Tuckerton.
On Nov. 7, 1947, the missions of St. Mary’s in Barnegat and St. Theresa’s in Tuckerton were removed from the custody of the Franciscans, in whose care they had been for 20 years. The Bishop of Trenton placed these missions under the care of his own diocesan clergy, raising St. Mary’s to the status of a parish, with St. Theresa’s as its mission.
When the Rev. Terance McNally, pastor 1955-1967, arrived there were the two, small churches in Beach Haven and Surf City during the winter. In the summer, there were also Masses at theaters in Brant Beach and Beach Haven. It was during his 12 year pastorate that he built and paid for three new churches. He also purchased and filled-in the land where St. Francis Community Center now stands.
St. Francis of Assisi opened in August of 1958.
In May of 1962, the Friars moved to the new friary at Third and Atlantic adjacent to the new St. Thomas Aquinas Church. From then until 1970 the old friary at Third and Beach was used as a common meeting place, where CCD classes were held, as well as card parties and other social gatherings.
St. Thomas Aquinas at Second and Atlantic in Beach Haven and St. Thomas of Villanova in Surf City opened on the same Sunday in November of 1965. During this time, plans were being made to make the community center a reality.
The transition of St. Thomas of Aquinas as the mother church to St. Francis of Assisi parish, took place in 1970. From 1970–72 the old friary at Third and Beach served as the “Bridge,” a coffee house where young people could come and “rap” with the friars and each other. The doors were open to all - day and night.
The community center opened on July 5, 1972.
In 1973, after extensive renovations, the old friary at Third and Beach became the convent for the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany and Philadelphia who serve the parish.
In the summer of 1978, St. Clare in Loveladies opened.
In 1982, the four parish churches had 27 Masses weekly, an increase of six since 1972, and six Masses in the winter.
Franciscan Friars and Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, NY and Philadelphia, PA staff the four parish churches, with more than a dozen lay people on staff. The parish community consists of four churches: St. Francis of Assisi Church, Brant Beach; St. Thomas Aquinas, Beach Haven; St. Thomas of Villanova, Surf City; and, St. Clare, Loveladies. The three “side” churches (St. Clare-Loveladies, St. Thomas-Surf City and St. Thomas-Beach Haven) close in early fall each year and reopen at Easter time. St. Francis, in Long Beach Township, remains open year round. Despite the casual atmosphere, the parish is very active in the community and extends its hospitality to neighboring island towns as well as the mainland.
As of September 2007, approximately 2,800 families are registered in the parish. During the summer months, that number increases dramatically with seasonal guests from other parts of the state, New York, Pennsylvania and beyond. The four parish churches have 19 weekly Masses in the Summer, 14 in the Fall and 11 in the Winter. The parish has approximately 66 lectors, 116 ministers of hospitality, 200 Eucharistic Ministers, five organists, nine cantors and three choirs with 120 singers, 15 altar servers and six sacristans.
Directly behind St. Francis Church is St. Francis Community Center (est. 1972) by the Franciscan Friars. On a daily basis, the Center is used for many activities including child and adult day care, senior citizen and family services, counseling, violence prevention and recreation. The St. Francis Aquatic Center opened in March 2003, and features a competition size indoor, and two heated outdoor pools. The Center is looked at as a focus of outreach and social concerns. Used as a nutrition site, the Center prepares over 600 meals each day for the Meals-On-Wheels program that serves homebound, sick and elderly individuals in the southern Ocean County area.
‘For I was hungry and you gave me food, for I was thirsty and you gave me drink’ Matthew 25. This mission continues to be fulfilled on a daily basis by members of the parish & surrounding communities.