This was the assignment given on February 9, 1953 by Archbishop Celestine J. Damiano to Father Bernard P. Hewitt, then pastor of a seashore parish in Longport, N.J. Approximately 500 families were divided from the five surrounding parishes of St. Rose of Lima, Haddon Heights; St. Aloysius, Oaklyn; St. John’s, Collingswood; Holy Savior, Westmont’ and Christ the King, Haddonfield, and a 35 acre plot of land on the old Van Sciver Tract was designated as the site.
The problems to be faced were many. Provisions had to be made for a place to live-finances to begin-a place to meet-a hall wherein to offer Mass. It was a challenge to unite into one parish family people formerly attached to churches in five different communities. With help from old friends in the area, Father Hewitt initially held a series of “coffee klatches”-one in each area to meet representative families and to formulate his plans. Father accepted the hospitality of Monsignor Ladislaus Bazela for three months at St. Aloysius, until he was able to rent a small redwood home on 1101 Lakeshore Drive.
Permission was obtained from the Haddon Township Board of Education to use their High School auditorium for Sunday Masses. The invitation of the Santa Maria K of C Council to utilize their Home for daily Masses and parish meetings was accepted. Little over a month after the parish was formed the first Mass was offered-the first vital step toward unifying the parish had been taken. Parish business began. “Secretary Ladies” were stationed after each Mass, so that Father could arrange Masses and Baptisms, visits to the sick, etc. etc.
In order that parishioners could meet their pastor and each other, a “Get Acquainted Party” was planned at Kenny’s Suburban House. The affair was a grand success-over three hundred attended. At this meeting, held only one month after the parish was formed, Father Hewitt presented a complete state of officers for the Men’s and Women’s Clubs, the Parish Trustees, an Usher Captain, a Commentator’s Captain, an Altar Boy and a CYO President. For preliminary finances Father declared a “Pioneer’s Club”, and each area of the parish voluntarily ran small affairs to raise additional funds.
A thorough survey of all his people, active and inactive, was next on Father’s agenda. Thus, the first activity of the newly formed Men’s Club was to conduct a “48 Hour Survey”. The result showed 505 families in the parish. To help the parish financially, the men organized weekly Bingo as well as Dances, Picnics, and Thousand Clubs. The Women’s Club begin its activities with the memorable “Cabaret Night” Dance. This first activity was to be followed by an annual array of Card Parties, Luncheons, Raffles, etc. to help collect funds for the Parish; nor were the spiritual needs of the parish neglected, but fostered by guest speakers, retreats, visits to the sick and Communion Breakfasts. An anniversary party was held in January of 1964. The highlight was Father’s announcement of the building plans. All present were astounded to hear that on the 35 acre Van Sciver Tract would be built a 2000 student Diocesan High School, a five story convent, and an 800 seat capacity Church with Rectory to house four priests. The services of J. Armand Nasuit, a local architect, were contracted. He conceived a beautiful complex of modern buildings.
An initial Building Fund campaign was organized to defray the Church construction cost estimated at $651,000. A total of $132,000.00. was solicited in pledges from 305 families. During these first four years, the needs of the parish expanded. Father Leon J. Kelly, who served as assistant priest for three years, was appointed a missionary to Brazil. Subsequently, Father Ambrose Bryce, Father Vincent Leone, and Father Thomaas Jarka were appointed. The history of four years of the founding of a parish cannot be told on a few pages.
The real story is that of a community of people-determined in purpose-united by a common faith and love of God. The details of that story, with all its joys and sorrows, laughter and toil, trials and mistakes, are etched in the hearts of the pioneers of St. Vincent’s. For those who gave so freely of their time and energy, the richest reward will be knowledge of a job well done-The Church is built. Praise and recognition should be given. To single out any certain individual, however, would be an injustice; for there were many who worked and sacrificed. And with the grace of God, through the intercession of St. Vincent Pallotti, this story of labor and devotion will continue.