History of Our Parish
Originally, the Richfield section of Clifton was owned by a tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians. By 1943, however, it was an accumulation of nursery and farmlands with a few scattered neighborhoods. The only large unit of homes was Acquackanonk Gardens, a defense housing project erected during the war to house the many workers in the defense industry.
A small group of people including Emily and Raymond Witcomb, Hugh and Margaret Williamson and Mary Frechen sought to have Sunday Mass said in the Community House, a restructured barn located on the site of the present VFW Hall on Valley Road Mrs. Frechen, secretary to the project manager, wrote to Bishop Thomas J. McLaughlin and Monsignor William F. Louis celebrated the first Mass on June 6, 1943. Fewer than 100 people attended. In an interview, Dr. Andrew Chambers recalled those early years when a portable altar and folding chairs had to be set up every Sunday morning and then taken down after the two Masses.
Monsignor Philip Coyne succeeded Msgr. Louis. Because Msgr. Coyne was also pastor of St. Agnes Church in Paterson, St. Philip became a mission attached to St. Agnes Church. By 1946, membership had grown to such an extent that the parishioners were convinced that they needed their own church. A two-story wooden building was erected at the corner of Van Houten Avenue and Valley Road. A second-hand organ purchased and kept in Ann Baer’s home was moved to the new church. The diocesan newspaper, the Beacon, is now housed in what was the first St. Philip the Apostle Church.
The end of the war was the cause of an unprecedented building boom. Hundreds of houses seemed to crop up overnight on the vanishing farmland. Eager young veterans and their new brides took advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights and bought the homes as fast as they were built.
In September 1949, Bishop Thomas J. Boland assigned Fr. Thomas J. Molloy to serve as the first full-time pastor. St. Philip had grown so quickly that it could no longer be considered a mission parish.
Msgr. Molloy dedicated the parish to the Blessed Virgin and asked the people to pray to her for guidance and spiritual strength. At the same time, he urged and encouraged the parishioners to help themselves. Organizations flourished. The Holy Name Society, whose first president was James Peters, recruited new members, while the Rosary Society saw its ranks increase each month under the guidance of Mrs. J. Kelley, its first president. In May of 1949 the 50/50 Club began under the leadership of Dr. Andy Chambers. Committees from all three organizations, later know as the St. Philip Building Club, provided the nucleus for the building fund. Boy and Girl Scout troops were formed. With the arrival of the baby boomers, parishioners realized that they needed a much larger church and a parochial school as well.
While Msgr. Coyne was pastor, he purchased a site for a new church at the junction of Routes 3 and 46. During the ensuing years, however, heavy traffic developed along both roadways, rendering them unsuitable for a parish church and school. The tract was sold and eight acres on Valley Road were acquired.
Msgr. Molloy established the St. Philip Boosters, an organization that was unlike any of the traditional societies. The new group, encompassing all the parish societies, was charged with the responsibility of fundraising. Edward Foster became its first president. The initial first phase of the building fund campaign began in 1953. Its goal was to raise$150,000. More than $200,000 was pledged when the drive closed.
Arthur E. Rigolo, a parishioner, was appointed architect for the new church and the Romagnino Construction Company was hired as the general contractor. Before the building foundation was laid, the NJ Society of Architects gave the Award of Merit for “excellence of design” to Mr. Rigolo. He also received second prize in a national competition sponsored by the Church Architectural Guild of America. St. Philip Church was said to be “an architect’s dream.” A passageway to give the feeling an appearance of one long, low unit ties five separate buildings, all in redwood and brick, consisting of the rectory, church, recreation center, school and convent, together. Only the tall slender cross mounted on the shrine dedicated to Mary rises against the New Jersey skyline.
During construction, eleven Masses were offered each Sunday in the VFW Hall and the basement and upper floor of the Valley Road Church. Instructions for Confirmation and Communion and CCD classes were held in nearby homes.
Although construction was not completed, the first Mass in the new church was celebrated on Christmas Eve in 1953. Eleven hundred hardy souls braved the rigors of a windy winter’s night to pick their way through a mixture of mud and gravel, splinters of wood and pieces of slate that surrounded the church. A sense of accomplishment produced by a task well done, feelings of friendship kindled by the Christmas spirit, and appreciation of beauty mixed with Te Deum of Thanksgiving permeated the air. The impossible dream was now a reality. St. Philip the Apostle Church had grown from a small mission to what was soon to become the largest parish in the diocese.
While work progressed on the new church, Masses continued to be held in the old church and the VFW Hall. On February 28, 1954, at the beginning of the Lenten season, all Masses with the exception of the Children’s Mass were held in the new church. The formal dedication took place on May 25, 1954 with Bishop James A. McNulty officiating. Archbishop Boland dedicated the new church, blessed the convent, and took part in the laying of the cornerstone.
In September 1954, the parish welcomed its first students – all 662 of them – to the new eleven-classroom St. Philip School. Five Caldwell Dominican sisters, including the principal, Sr. M. Corita O.P. And five lay teachers became the first faculty. The school began with the first six grades and added one more grade in each of the next two years. At one time, there were more than 1200 students in the school. The Dominicans served the school for twenty-five years.
The period between 1955 and 1961 was one of growth and development. In 1956, thirteen new classrooms, a library, a faculty room and a youth center were added. New associate pastors became members of the staff (Fr. Leo P. Ryan, Fr. John B. Wehrlen and Fr. John A. Sullivan). New families continued to move into the parish; new programs were created. St. Philip was one of the first parishes to organize a complete CCD-program.
During the summer of 1961, Msgr. Molloy entered the hospital and died a short time later. The parish experienced its first real loss. The dynamic force behind all that symbolized St. Philip the Apostle was gone.
On September 7, 1961, Monsignor Francis H. Murphy was assigned to St. Philip. It is never an easy task to take over the position of a popular leader, but Msgr’s kind spirit endeared him to many, and before long the parish began a new era of change and growth.
One evening in May of 1963, St. Philip’s Church caught fire. By morning all that was left of the once award-winning edifice was an ugly, twisted skeleton of charred steel. Ironically, the church burned down on the day before the newly named Bishop of Paterson was to come to New Jersey for the first time. Bishop James J. Navagh had been most anxious to see the much-publicized St. Philip Church. What he saw instead were the ashes and remains of what “the architect’s dream” once was.
Msgr. Murphy’s energies were directed toward rebuilding the church. Because the rectory was also severely damaged, the sisters moved back to their Motherhouse in Caldwell so that the priests could live in their convent during the restoration.
Arthur Rigolo was hired again as the architect. The new plans were almost identical to the original. Work began in the spring of 1964 and St. Philip Church was rededicated on October 31, 1965. This monumental effort required the unanswering devotion and faith of a dedicated community.
During this time, Pope John XXIII opened a window to areas that had remained closed for years. Vatican II was the topic of the day. English was in; Latin was out. Meat on Friday was put on the menu; popular saints were removed from the calendar. In some cases, the organ began to play second fiddle to the guitar. Altars were turned around and statues were removed.
St. Philip was among the first parishes in the diocese to implement many of the changes directed by Vatican II. It was one of the first to have a Parish Council, among the first to use the laity, men and women, as lectors and it reached out to the youth by having Folk Masses. The year 1979 was one of the more memorable in the annals of St. Philip. Msgr. Murphy resigned due to a decline in his health. The Dominican Sisters of Caldwell left St. Philip School in June and the Franciscan Sisters of Peace replaced them. Bishop Frank Rodimer appointed Msgr. Joseph J. Gallo as the new pastor. In September of 1981 the parish celebrated a momentous event: the burning of the mortgage! By the end of the year, there were 2500 families in the parish. On June 15, 1991, Msgr. Gallo celebrated the forty-fifth anniversary of his ordination. The following December, he retired. Bishop Rodimer then appointed Fr. Peter J. Doody as the new pastor.
A Long-Term Facility Planning Project was initiated by Msgr. Peter J. Doody in December 2001. A direct result of this project was the conversion of the convent into the Msgr. Thomas J. Molloy Center. Phase I of the project was the 2nd Floor Conversion into parish offices; Phase II consisted of the 1st Floor Conversion and new entrance. Both were a result of conscientious stewardship and sound investing. Phase III began in April, 2004 with Continuing the Legacy – a capital campaign for the construction of of a multi-purpose space accomodating 150 – 200 people. Construction began in the Summer of 2005 and Marian Hall was dedicated by Bishop Arthur Serratelli on May 21, 2006.
In June 2007, Bishop Serratelli appointed Rev. Paul S. Manning, the 7th pastor of St. Philip’s. Since Vatican II, our Parish has become a prime example of how lay people can actively participate in ministry. The pastoral staff has grown from a single priest to eight members responsible for a wide variety of ministries. Today, St. Philip’s has over 2400 families.