HIGHLANDS – “Make our parish a part of your life!” the Rev. Fernando Lopez, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help-St. Agnes Parish, told the approximate 75 persons who turned out for his town hall meeting held at the Route 36 church Tuesday night.
The pastor called the meeting to keep everyone informed on the number of changes taking place now and in the near future that will affect the two-church parish, and the physical differences everyone will see within the next couple of months, all of which are leading to a more stable economic base and brighter future for the 2,055-family church community. Father Fernando confirmed there are 2,055 families registered in the parish, and of that number, 1,085 families are active, according to parish records.
Business Administrator Sue Kiley outlined future plans for the demolition of unused buildings which has already started in Highlands and will continue both here and in Atlantic Highlands over the next few months and will provide an immediate savings to the parish in upkeep, repairs and insurance costs.
The Route 36 parish rectory, the early 20th century residence that was the former home of priests at OLPH and has been unoccupied for many years, and the three-car garage behind it, are in the process of being demolished, Kiley said, not only to save costs but also to expand parking for church activities. That is necessary, she told the crowd, because the sale of other church-owned property along Route 36 at Miller st. will be finalized in September. That property includes not only parking but also two residences, one a convent, former home for the religious sisters who used to teach in the now closed parochial school. The other is an 19th century residence, known as the Morse property, the church had acquired many years ago and currently uses for the church’s thrift shop. The property has been purchased by the borough for construction of a municipal building, something the borough has not had since Hurricane Sandy destroyed its Bay avenue facility.
In addition to the Highlands rectory being demolished, Kiley said the same contractor will begin demolition of the former convent in Atlantic Highlands which is also vacant.
The business manager also pointed out other changes in progress, all designed to cut costs, make the parish more effective, and eliminate waste. She confirmed the former Mother Theresa school in Atlantic Highlands is for sale, but added that while there has been interest, there have been no serious offers to purchase the property. The St. Agnes Thrift shop is currently closed for some minor renovations, improvements and an overall cleaning, and will re-open shortly. Kiley confirmed that while that building is also up for sale, even should a buyer appear tomorrow, no closing would take place for at least two years and the thrift shop will remain open.
The religious education classes currently held for elementary school age children at the Atlantic Highlands school will be moved to the Highlands school building when classes begin in September, Kiley continued, saving the cost of upkeep of the larger, more expensive building.
Kiley also showed actual figures of income and expenses at the thrift shops at both churches in the parish. “There are rumors the thrift shops are a cash cow and making lots of money,” she said, “but the actual figures show a different picture.” The OLPH Thrift Shop for the last fiscal year, realized more than $46,000 in income, she showed, but the maintenance, insurance, and employee costs reduced that figures to an actual profit of just over $15,000 for the year. At St. Agnes, income realized was over $86,000, she said, but costs reduced that figure to an $18,000 profit. “The thrift shops are a great source of income, a great benefit for residents in the community, but certainly now the profit makers some are saying they are.”
While all these changes and modifications will mean reduced costs for the parish, Father Fernando pulled no punches in telling those attending the meeting, “this is your parish! You have to do your part as well!”
The priest was highly critical of Facebook postings and common gossip about the community that are not inviting to new parishioners. He stressed the lack of truth in stories being circulated, drawing laughs when he said one of the things he has heard mentioned for use of the Atlantic Highlands convent site is “either a swimming pool for seniors or a cemetery!” While neither story is true, he pointed out, “neither is helpful!” Disparaging remarks about him, he said, “I don’t mind, I don’t care, it’s you I’m caring about, but none of this is a good thing.”
“You have the right to know everything that is going on,” he said, “all you have to do is call me, e-mail me, text me, stop and visit, whatever you want. I’ll tell you everything that is going on, you have the right to know it and I welcome your questions, your input, your suggestions.”
Father also conceded past parish practices which he discontinued shortly after he was assigned here three years ago, created too much expense to a parish, which, like all churches, is facing higher costs and smaller communities. “There are 17 thrift shops run by churches in New Jersey, “ he said, “and we were the only one paying not only a salary for part-time workers there, but also paid benefits and vacations.” He decried the fact that while demolition has only begun recently at the Highlands church, “already someone came during the night and stole some doors.” However, because of cameras and police action, that theft will be resolved, he indicated. Further noting that parishioners need to become more involved, he said that when calling for volunteers to move furniture from the religious classrooms in Atlantic Highlands to their new site at the OLPH school, “not one person volunteered.” He said he is paying teenagers to do the work. “But,” he added, “the move will take place Aug. 6 if anyone still wants to sign up and help.”
The pastor urged the churchgoers “think about the future you want. People are always asking me will the church close. I promise you, we will be here, I will be here, we will work together. This isn’t all about money, this is getting involved, making the parish a part of your life, being the family we are meant to be.”
The parish’s motto, One Family, Two Churches, means “we can’t only go to the same church each week, sit in the same pew, see the same people, attend the same mass; we have to make some changes ourselves and see the rest of our parish family.”
Parishioner Tom Gaffey reiterated Father’s wishes to have the community work more closely together. He said he is initiating plans for an open-air mass in the fall, and a community breakfast afterwards, “so we can all get to know each other better and see each other besides just in the pews during mass.”
Gaffey said “I’m going to need all the help I can get to pull this off, and I’m asking you now for your support. Let me know how you want to be a part of what will be a great opportunity for all of us to pull together.”