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The earliest recorded information reveals that Lithuanian families settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey around 1878. During the years that followed, they attended Mass and religious services at St. Patrick’s Church in Elizabeth.
By 1891, the population of Lithuanians in the area increased considerably. Lithuanian priests visiting at Easter time encouraged them to unite and form a Lithuanian organization. The most diligent in this effort were Rev. Joseph Kaulakis from Philadelphia and Rev. Joseph Zebrys from Waterbury, Connecticut. Their endeavors soon bore fruit.
In the spring of 1892, the first Lithuanian benevolent association was established. It was named St. Casimir’s Society in honor of the patron saint of Lithuania. Shortly afterward, another was formed with St. George as its patron. This banding together strengthened the Lithuanians’ desire to have their own parish.
The following year, Rev. Joseph Zebrys visited the growing Lithuanian colony in Elizabeth. Knowing of their aspirations to have a parish of their own, he suggested they hold a meeting, going house to house, inviting the people to discuss the requirements of establishing a parish. On September 4, 1893, such a meeting took place, and a special Board was formed for this purpose.
Permission was obtained from Bishop Wigger to solicit funds from the local Lithuanians. Another meeting was held on September 17, 1893, where Rev. Zebrys gave a highly emotional and inspirational speech. All who were present responded by each pledging twenty dollars to the “new parish fund”. A name was now to be chosen. The original suggestion was “Our Lady of Sorrows,” but later the final choice was “Sts. Peter & Paul.”
The Lithuanians, feeling a surge of excitement, knowing their dream was becoming a reality, were intent on stepping up the pace. Monthly meetings were scheduled during which contributions were collected. To raise funds, activities and festivities were planned on a regular basis. The life of the Lithuanian colony in Elizabeth became dynamic and interesting. The Bishop was extremely impressed and praised their efforts.
On October 7, 1894, a new Board was elected. As soon as the “New Parish Fund” reached $1,200.00, members of the Board were delegated to purchase a plot of land on Ripley Place for the construction of a church.
In 1895, Rev. Zebrys journeyed to Elizabeth to advise the people on taking the final steps in establishing their parish. A temporary place of worship should be prepared while the new church was under construction. Of primary importance was requesting the Bishop to procure a Lithuanian priest to serve the newly organized parish.
On June 28, 1895, a small store at 80 Bond Street was chosen to hold services. The rooms upstairs would serve as a rectory. On July 31, 1895, the Bishop invited Rev. Juozas Servetka from Pittsburgh, PA, to serve as pastor. After the arrival of Rev. Servetka on August 5, 1895, Bishop Wigger officially established Sts. Peter & Paul Lithuanian Roman Catholic parish in Elizabeth, NJ. Records show the first Mass was celebrated in the small store on Bond Street in August, 1895.
On October 6, 1895, the cornerstone of the church of Sts. Peter & Paul (presently the parish hall) was placed. Present were the Lithuanian and Polish communities of Elizabeth, priests from the city and surrounding vicinity and societies of the new parish, as well as Lithuanian societies from New York, Jersey City and Brooklyn.
Regardless of the cold winter weather, construction of the church proceeded with speed. Sts. Peter & Paul, the first Lithuanian Roman Catholic church in the state of New Jersey was completed and ready by New Year’s Day, 1896. However due to very bad weather, the opening and blessing was postponed until January 12, 1896. As the Lithuanian hymns echoed throughout their new church, the people joyfully realized their aspirations. They had carried the torch of their faith and traditions halfway around the world and here both would be passed on to future generations.
Due to serious health problems, Rev. Joseph Servetka retired. In March of 1896 he was replaced by Rev. Bartholomew Zindzius, a priest serving a Polish parish in Detroit, Michigan. Fr. Zindzius was educated in Lithuania and Rome, Italy. He spoke several languages; Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, German, French and English.
The Lithuanian emigration to Newark increased so rapidly, that in 1902, Rev. Zindzius was able to organize a separate parish on Adams Street, Newark (Holy Trinity). Fr. Zindzius’ zealous efforts helped organize Lithuanian parishes in Bayonne and Jersey City in 1908, and Patterson in 1912. Also in 1906, a Polish parish, St. Adalbert in Elizabeth. The Elizabeth Lithuanian parish was mother to all the Lithuanian parishes in New Jersey with the exception of Harrison.
More and more Lithuanians settled in Elizabeth, and Sts. Peter & Paul church was becoming too small. On November 4, 1907, Bishop O’Connor encouraged Fr. Zindzius and the Board to build a new church. Soon after, 10 lots of land were purchased on Ripley Place and in 1910, a new brick church, in Gothic style, 60 by 137 feet and 60 feet high, seating 1,000 was built and stands today.
Following Vatican II, conscious of the requirements of the new liturgy, the sanctuary was enlarged and construction of an altar, facing the congregation was commissioned. The blessing of the new altar, decorated with portions of the original pulpit (now dismantled) took place in March of 1970. To fulfill the Sunday obligation, the Saturday evening Mass was introduced. The church was redecorated, a new loudspeaker system and carpeting installed. Due to damage caused to the church steeples caused by the constant vibration of low flying aircraft, the towers were dismantled in 1981.
Due to excavations begun in the late 1940’s for a chapel in the basement of the church, which uncovered a natural spring, the constant moisture resulted in dry rot of two major support pillars. The structure was actually sinking. In addition, the effect of the damp dirt floor on the paint and plaster in the main body of the church, particularly the ceiling was disastrous. In the early 90’s, the sinking corner of the church was jacked up, windows and structural pillars replaced. All the damaged wood and debris collected over the past eighty years was removed and the entire cellar floor was completely sealed with cement resulting in a now bone-dry building.
In anticipation of the upcoming centennial of the parish in 1995, the damaged plaster walls and ceiling of the church were repaired as well as the interior painted with re-gilding of the columns.
The stained glass windows were caulked and painted on the outside and the two in the nave were removed, restored, and replaced.
As history indicates, our forefathers established this parish with faith and determination, building a community to serve God and His people while preserving their Lithuanian heritage.