The history of St. Francis parish can be traced back, in a sense, even further than 100 years, when Italian-Americans of Hoboken, New Jersey worshiped at the old St. Joseph’s Church on Ferry Street (now Observer Highway). Many of these people, mostly of Genoese extraction, had been in this country only a short time, and the language barrier was a genuine problem for them at English-speaking St. Joseph’s. They wanted their own Italian Catholic Church with instructions, services, and confessions in their own tongue to unite them more fully with their holy faith. Their common backgrounds and goals helped establish St. Francis and build the spiritual presence that it is today.
On May 5, 1888, a group of dedicated Italians living in the neighborhood surrounding Third and Jefferson Streets, site of the present St. Francis Church in Hoboken, met in a schoolroom of St. Joseph’s to consider building such a church. Also present at the meeting was Father Dominic Marzetti, O.F.M. Conv., the pastor of St. Joseph’s, himself an Italian immigrant who had been caring for their spiritual needs. He recognized and was sympathetic to their position in the New World. By a unanimous agreement, it was decided to begin the necessary preparations for the establishment of an Italian Catholic Church.
With the approval and consent of the Most Reverend Winand Michael Wigger, Bishop of Newark, a corporation was formed and trustees appointed. Bishop Wigger was President “ex-officio” of the Board of Trustees and the other members were the Very Reverend W. Salt, Vicar General, and the Very Reverend Dominic Marzetti, O.F.M. Cony. D.D. The first lay trustees of St. Francis were Mr. Charles Guaraglia and Mr. Eugene Seville. Father Dominic was appointed the first pastor of this new parish under the direction of the Conventual Franciscans.
BUILDING THE CHURCH
The new parishioners’ first priority was a church building of their own. A parcel of land measuring about 100 x 100 feet was purchased for this purpose at Third and Jefferson Streets for $4,885 and construction began on June 13, 1888, the feast of St. Anthony. The project’s rapid progress was owed to popular support. On August 12, the feast of St. Clare, Foundress of the Second Order of Franciscans, the cornerstone of the new St. Francis church was laid by Bishop Wigger. An architect, Mr. S. Manner designed the church. The building was completed at a cost of $15,000, a small amount by today’s standards, but it was one that required extreme sacrifices of those first parishioners. The new structure was dedicated to the service of God by the Most Reverend John J. Conroy on May 26, 1889, a little more than a year after the initial meeting. Except for minor changes and refurbishment’s, the church design of late Gothic is substantially the same today as when it was built. Additional exterior doors were later installed, one to the west of the main entrance on Third Street and another on Jefferson Street. In July 1889, the first bell of the church was blessed and began calling the faithful to services. By the end of 1890, the new church was more or less completely furnished, since the wooden main and side altars, as well as a communion rail, had been provided. A baptismal font and confessional had been installed, pews had been furnished, statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saint Anthony of Padua, and the Sacred Heart were in place, as were Stations of the Cross and stained glass windows of Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic.
Father Dominic then added statues of Saint John the Baptist, Saint Anne, Saint Roch and several oil paintings.
In the following 10 years, other colored stained glass windows were added: Our Sorrowing Mother, Saint Peter, Saint Clare and Saint Lucy, Saint Augustine, Saint Catherine, Saint George, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Mary Magdalen, and the Sacred Heart. These beautiful windows and statues prove to be suitable adornments to the traditional setting provided by the Gothic arches.
THE FIRST FRIARY
For some time, Father Dominic had been living at St. Joseph Friary on Monroe Street, but the new parishioners of St. Francis were anxious to provide suitable quarters for their pastor. Therefore, a two-story frame house on Adams Street between Second and Third Streets was purchased on November 5, 1890, to be used as a Friary for St. Francis parish. Purchased from the Hoboken Board of Education for only $50, the house was then moved to a one-story brick foundation on Third Street near the church. After necessary remodeling, the residence was blessed as the first St. Francis Friary. Because the parish grew quickly, Father Dominic found it necessary to request aid in the form of an associate pastor. In the decades since that time, St. Francis has been fortunate to have been served by a long line of committed and caring associate pastors, beginning with the Reverend Father Jachetti in 1894. Father Dominic had many reasons to be satisfied with his ministry as our first pastor, including a sincere mutual love between him and his parishioners. On April 12, 1902, he died at the age of 60, was buried from St. Francis, the church he built, and laid to rest in Our Lady of Lourdes Cemetery, Trenton, New Jersey. On April 16, 1902, Reverend Ambrose Rheiner O.F.M. Conv, was appointed pastor. In August 1902, Reverend Carnillus Eichen-laub, O.F.M. Conv., later to become St. Francis’ longest-serving pastor, was assigned as an assistant to Father Ambrose. With the dreams of a church and friary realized, the priests and people of St. Francis parish now directed their attention toward the building of a parish school. They believed strongly that the fundamental formation and education of the children should begin at home and continue in a Catholic school environment. For this reason, the people of St. Francis decided to organize the school immediately and conduct classes in some suitable place, with hopes of building their own school at a future date. In the fall of 1902, the first floor of the building at 215 Jefferson Street was rented from the George Focht Estate. St. Francis Parochial School opened in that location on September 8, 1902, with 154 pupils, staffed by the Sisters of St. Francis, Third Franciscan Order, of Syracuse, N.Y. The first two sisters in charge were Sister Ferdinand, a parishioner of St. Francis, and Sister Constantia. Lacking a convent of their own, they resided temporarily with the Franciscan Sisters of St. Joseph’s School in Hoboken.
Under the leadership of Father Ambrose, the parishioners never lost sight of their original goal of building their own school. With this in mind, in 1902, the friary was moved to 303 Madison Street in order to free the ground adjacent to the church on Third Street. A contract for the new school was signed in June 1903 and the cornerstone was laid during that summer by Father Leopold Hofschneider, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Hoboken. During the construction of the new school building, increased enrollment forced the relocation of classes to larger quarters at Martin Busanich’s Imperial Hall on Third Street between Adams and Jefferson Streets. The new school, a one-story red brick building with four classrooms, was completed at a cost of $16,000. In June 1906, the first graduation class, which numbered only two, was a small but eloquent testimony to the devotion and sacrifices of the first parishioners and Franciscan Friars and Sisters of St. Francis parish. In August 1903, Father Camillus was transferred to Jeffersonville, Indiana, not knowing of course, that he would return and serve the people of St. Francis for a total of 32 years. Father Ambrose, the pastor, was transferred in January 1905. He was succeeded by Reverend Edward Burgard, O.F.M. Conv., who remained only a short time before being succeeded by Reverend Seraphin Pierotti, O.F.M. Conv., as pastor.