AFTER a long time away, the Rev. Robert Castle visited his old church last year ”” St. John’s Episcopal, the hilltop Gothic with a panoramic view out over the world he did his best to change in the 1960s ”” and the state of its decline left him thinking of another sublime fortress once also thought to be impregnable.
“It was like the Titanic going down, and it was sad to see,” said Father Castle, who was rector at St. John’s from 1960 to 1968. “It’s been almost 40 years, and my heart still aches over that church.”
Other hearts have also been aching over St. John’s, a grand but moldering granite church in the Bergen Hill neighborhood that is at the center of perhaps the only ecclesiastical preservation battle that features cameo appearances by the Black Panthers and a Hollywood filmmaker.
New Jersey’s cities are filled with abandoned monuments to God, the churches and synagogues whose congregations have long since departed for more modern buildings girdled by parking lots in the suburbs. Some of the vacant shells left behind have been reincarnated with new denominations; some have been converted to housing or offices; some have been demolished. And some, like St. John’s, sit empty and await their fate, as each blast of winter, each soaking rain, brings them ever nearer to the afterlife.
“It’s like a fire hose when the rain comes, just a deluge,” said Dennis Doran, a neighbor and a former senior warden of the church, pointing up toward a drainpipe that was once attached to copper gutters that were long ago stolen and sold for scrap. The roof beneath it, over the front section of the south nave, collapsed last winter.