Contributors: Terry Satus, Donald Fitzpatrick
In western Morris County in 1956 the growth of the Catholic population had expanded rapidly while the existence of a Catholic community built around a church was stark. Roman Catholics living in the surrounding area of Succasunna either attended Mass at St. Michael's Church in Netcong or St. Mary's Church in Wharton. The increase in the Catholic population was noticed by Reverend James J. McNulty, the Bishop of Paterson. Bishop McNulty sent Father Leo Lambert, an associate priest at St. Therese parish in Paterson, to Succasunna with the responsibility of determining the feasibility of establishing a parish in the Randolph - Roxbury area of the Paterson Diocese.
Father Lambert's work in Succasunna began with assembling a core of Catholic parishioners and to find a facility to offer mass until a church could be constructed. He journeyed through Succasunna seeking any building that would be available on a Sunday.
At that time in Succasunna, the Gay Time Roller Skating Rink was on the east bound side Route 10 in the area where the Cheese Block currently exists. Father Lambert approached the Nelson family, who owned and operated the roller rink, about using the rink to celebrate mass on Sundays. The Nelsons graciously welcomed Father's request and offered the rink free of charge.
To assemble his congregation, Father Lambert placed a poster in the store window of a butcher and grocery store owned and operated by John and Frances Tardive, located on Route 10 where the Valley Pharmacy is now located. The poster informed all people interested that mass would be celebrated on Sundays in June in the Roller Skating Rink. The first Mass was offered on June 30, 1957 with over 200 people attending. Since this was a roller rink, there were no pews or chairs, so everyone stood throughout the service. As news of a Catholic service being celebrated in the area spread, more attended the celebration.
History does not account for how long the roller rink was used. Father Lambert and the Nelson family worked out an agreement to continue to use the Roller Rink on Sundays but only on the condition rent would be paid. When the congregation was presented that a stipulation be made to pay rent, a unanimous agreement was made by all. Now, all Father needed was rent money.
A parishioner by the name of Nona Naegle was the first organizer of a fundraiser for the church at the skating rink. Mrs. Naegle sold greeting cards and turned the money earned to Fr. Lambert. After the success of the greeting card fundraiser, several women of the parish, including Mary Blesdell, Rae Fiorino, Fran Tardive, Cari Negri, Mrs. Ferrucci, Roseann Sortino, Therea Satus and others, formed a monthly bake sale. The success of these events helped pay the rent and purchase folding chairs for Sunday services at the roller rink.
As attendance for Sunday worship increased and the parish continued to grow, Fr. Lambert continued to search for a site to build the church and a rectory. Members of the parish, including John and Elizabeth Eggert, John and Fran Tardive, Frank Satus, Francis Reilly, and Frank and Rae Fiorino showed Fr. Lambert many different locations in and around Succasunna.
After a stout-hearted search, the current church property on Main Street (21.7 acres) was purchased from Kenvil Carriers for $39,000; and, a home at 7 Hunter Street was purchased from Mr. & Mrs. Daniel Costner for $27,000, which was turned into the Rectory.
One day Fr. Lambert was visiting his friend, Rev. James Doyle, who was his Pastor when he was a Curate at St. Therese in Paterson. At the time St. Therese in Paterson was building a new church and school since they too, had outgrown their facility. Fr. Lambert asked his friend what he intended to do with the existing church; a pre-fabricated black wooden starter church made in the 1920's and sold by Sears & Roebuck, once the new church was built. Fr. Doyle kiddingly asked if he wanted it and Fr. Lambert genuinely said he did.
Together, the parishioners from St. Therese in Paterson and the new parishioners of Succasunna joined to disassemble and catalogued the church in Paterson piece by piece. The Seeger Brothers supplied trucks to carry the church and also stored some of the church walls in their garage. Other walls of the church, along with the pews were stored in Fran Reilly's garage on Hunter Street. Statues, the Stations of the Cross and the original Altar were stored in Frank and Terry Satus' basement.
After purchasing the wooded area on Main Street, volunteers staked and cleared the land to build the church with their own tools. With no electrical hook-up for power tools, making a clearing was a slow and tedious process. Then parishioner Ed McGuire, an employee for Jersey Central Power & Light, approached his superiors, explained the situation, and was able to get electrical service to the site.
Tom Blesedell, who with his wife Mary, lived in Ledgewood and had volunteered to help build the church. Tom, a contractor by trade, had his own construction and lumber yard, stepped forward as a foreman for the project.
A foundation with a basement was poured and the church was reassembled. A goal was made to complete the assembly of the church by June 1, 1958 with a mass for children celebrating their First Communion. As June 1 drew nearer, the church roof had yet to be completed. Fr. Lambert said to Terry Satus, "We will never be ready for the First Communion Day. What can we do?" Terry said, "Pray to St. Therese and tell her you are going to put her in the Church without a roof until she helps us get it done. She will not like being in the rain." Fr. Lambert brought in a statue of St. Therese into the unfinished building. St. Therese stood guard in the front of the church and construction flourished.
On May 31, the day before the first Mass volunteers worked into the night securing pews arranging statues, dressing the altar for the big day. On June 1, 1958, 154 families attended mass at their own church and 38 children celebrated receiving their First Communion.
CCD classes were started by Sister Mary Clare, O.P., Fr. Lambert's sister, and Sister James Helene, O.P. Classes were held on Main Street in the garage and living room of Len and Marie Farmer's until the church basement was completed prior to 1959. The first social event there was a surprise anniversary of ordination and covered dish birthday party for Fr. Lambert.
Bishop McNulty constituted the new parish in Succasunna on April 12, 1959 with the legal title of "The Church of St. Therese, Succasunna", and with the Rev. Leo F. Lambert as the first pastor.
With the arrival of Father Pat McDonnell, St. Therese's prayer group was formed. Soon the basement was painted and paneling was added to the upper church. Then Father Pat decided that the black church should be painted white. "That priest is crazy!" many parishioners thought. "It will take thirty coats to cover those black boards."
On a sunny Saturday about thirty people brought their ladders and paint brushes to put a fresh coat of white paint over the old blackened wood. Sister Frances from Don Bosco with her fellow nuns came to bless us and support the volunteers. Fellow parishioner Donald Fitzpatrick remembers standing on the roof and looking down to see the oldest nun standing there offering prayers and support.
The church was witness to First Communions, weddings and funerals. In 1984 it was the focus of a Jesus week. The basement, despite a severe water problem, was used by Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, Alcohol Anonymous, Aerobics and dozens of church related functions. Even modest wedding receptions were held there.
The church was a beehive of constant activity, but soon it was time for a new church to be constructed. It became obvious that with the constant water problems in the old church, it was too difficult to keep it viable. Perhaps the last memory of the church was the meeting that Father Bob Gordon held in the basement. A diocesan church architect had held a discussion on all the liturgical options available for a new church. Father Bob drew up a questionnaire for the parishioners to select their choices, and he scheduled a meeting in the old basement for about forty people, to catalogue the answers.
1985 - 2008 - more history needs to be written, contributions welcome.
In 2008, the church was disassembled. Deterioration due to weather and aging had made the building unsafe.