PITTSTOWN, NJ - The building known affectionately by members of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Pittstown as the “Little Church on the Hill” may have to get a new nickname.
On April 28, Bishop James F. Checchio presided at a Mass for the dedication and blessing of the expanded St. Catherine of Siena Church, which increased its seating capacity from 96 to 307.
Among the concelebrants were Bishop Emeritus Paul G. Bootkoski and Father Chester Zalubski, pastor, St. Catherine of Siena Parish.
The expansion added 3,500 square feet to the original 2,130, said parishioner Daniel Dawson, who served as chairman of the Steering Committee. It also houses a large meeting room in the basement that is dividable into three smaller rooms, as well as offices for the pastor, parish secretary, religious education director, trustees and deacons.
The original church was built on a site in Franklin Township that allowed for future expansion as the Catholic population grew in the area. It was designed by architect Seth Robins of New York in a Gothic style.
According to a story in "The Catholic Spirit" as the completion of the new church neared, it was originally a mission of Immaculate Conception Parish, Annandale, and served about 200 registered families.
The project began from a casual conversation between Msgr. Immanuel W. Vernon, pastor in Annandale, and John Raymonds, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish who lived in the Pittstown area. Raymonds was inquiring about the purchase of two graves in the parish cemetery and was disappointed to be told that the old graveyard, which dates from 1859, was full. This led to a general lack of Catholic amenities in Hunterdon County and a question about diocesan plans for a parcel of land that Msgr. Vernon had recently acquired on behalf of the diocese at the intersection of Route 513 and White Bridge Road in Pittstown.
“One thing led to another,” Msgr. Vernon said, “and two weeks and two lunches later, Mr. and Mrs. [Catherine] Raymonds had committed to donating the total cost of construction of a Catholic church on the site.”
Construction of the church began in October 1991. St. Catherine of Siena was established as a mission of Immaculate Conception Parish Sept. 25, 1992. Bishop Edward T. Hughes dedicated the new church building the following month for the original 250 mission families. Msgr. Vernon died Dec. 25, 1992.
Msgr. Andrew L. Szaroleta was named pastor of Immaculate Conception and St. Catherine of Siena in February 1993.
As the community and membership grew, Bishop Vincent De Paul Breen established St. Catherine of Siena as an independent parish in June 1999. He named Father Peter G. Suhaka the first resident pastor. Father Suhaka celebrated the first Mass in the new church Jun 8, 1999.
To meet the needs created by its growth, in 2008 the parish bough the former Our Savior Lutheran Church and property in Union Township, about four miles away, in Franklin Township, Dawson said.
It was renovated into a parish center and supplemental worship space that was completed in 2010 with a blessing by Bishop Bootkoski Oct. 31, 2010.
The parish is dedicated to St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th century Dominican tertiary who had a great influence on the Church and the political life in her time. She was the first woman to be given the title Doctor of the Church in recognition of her leadership and enduring contribution to the spiritual and intellectual life of the Christian community.
At the time, Bishop Hughes said of his choice of St. Catherine of Siena as its patroness, “St. Catherine has always been a favorite of saint of mine because of her love of priests and her insistence on the need to pray them.
“She was also an exemplary woman of the Church and a model of Christian womanhood, and an example of the kind of leadership women can and do exercise in the service of the Church.”
Father Zalubski noted that because of limited space in the original church, those who could not fit in it had to watch a closed-circuit broadcast of Mass in the parish center.
In addition, most weddings and funerals that required more seating were held at Immaculate Conception Church, Annandale.
The parish serves about 480 registered families and about 200 children in its religious education program, Father Zalubski said.
Ground was broke for the expansion, which cost a little more $3 million, June 25, 2017, Dawson said. It was designed by the Phillipsburg-based Paul Juliano Architects LLC.
“The addition was primarily to acquire additional seating capacity,” he said. “It went from a rectangular building to a cruciform shape. The additions are called transepts -- the two arms of the cross.”
Among the challenges were matching the cast concrete ornamental stones on the exterior of the original church with the expansion, which was done, and the trusses for the ceiling. “The trusses are a tiny bit different but the color is right on. So are the roof planks,” Dawson said. The only major difference is the slate on the original church is more weathered. Both came from a quarry in New England.
The main entrance, narthex, nave and stained glass windows were retained. “The only thing you can see is an expansion joint in the floor,” Dawson said.
Father Zalubski and Dawson both praised the enthusiasm and commitment from parishioners to get the project done.
Under the Steering Committee were the Campaign; Communications; Design and Construction; Finance; Legal and Liturgical Design committees, Dawson said.
“We had some very talented people in the parish that gave a ton of time,” he said. “More than 50 percent of the parishioners made financial pledges.”
Among them was Dawson, who memorialized his wife, Kathy, on the ambo.
Other new elements in the church are a new altar, which Bishop Checchio and Bishop Bootkoski blessed and dedicated at the Mass; tabernacle table; and presider’s and deacon chairs.
A stained glass picture of St. Catherine made by one of the parishioners, which was originally in the former parish center, was moved into the new church above the prayer candles.
Parishioner Robert Preston donated a statue of St. Joseph and parishioner Diane Corrigan a statue of the Blessed Virgin, Dawson said.