UNION, NJ – Monsignor Anselm Nwaorgu was talking about how the congregants at St. Michael’s rallied together and raised almost three times the amount of money needed to restore the Roman Catholic church’s bells.
As he finished making his point about their generosity, a clap of thunder rattled the window inside his office.
It was almost like an exclamation point from heaven.
As St. Michael’s prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary, Nwaorgu said it is experiencing a renaissance in many ways. As put its it, higher highs.
The services are expanding. The religious school is thriving. Finances are promising. Even the church bells are ringing again.
But, in particular, he says, its members grow closer each day.
Even the 90th anniversary dinner-dance scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 30 at 3 p.m. at The Westwood in Garwood is designed to build community and foster a sense of family.
“One of the things I found when I came here was the sense of community was not there,” Nwaorgu said. “People came to church and left. Come in, get your obligation done, and fwwwttt, out of the doors. People didn’t care to know the names of the parishioners.
“The people didn’t know when one group was doing something. I felt that a church this good should also be a family. So, the celebration, apart from being a social engagement, it’s actually a community building activity. It was designed to bring all of us together in a social event.”
The literal face of the congregation has changed since Nov. 28, 1928, when Bishop Thomas J. Walsh of the Diocese of Newark established the parish of St. Michael the Archangel. It’s even changed since Nwaorgu came here from his native Nigeria as a parochial vicar in the early 1990s, when the congregation was about 99 percent white.
Nwaorgu, who returned and became pastor of St. Michael’s in 2017, estimates the congregation is about 55 percent Filipino and 30 percent while. The rest of St. Michael’s, which serves 3,500 families and welcomes about 1,500 people each Sunday for services, is, as he puts it, the “United Nations.”
Using English for all services has unified the people, he said.
“We’re all in America,” he said. “We’re All American. You’ll stay with that language. We will celebrate everybody, but the language of that celebration will remain English. We will celebrate all the feasts of the Filipinos in English. We will celebrate all the feasts of the Indians in English. We will celebrate everybody’s everything in English. The reason is that is where are unity comes from. Our diversity comes from our ethnicity. Our unity comes from our language.”
His efforts to bring his people together didn’t stop there. There were summer picnics where they shared food, held Zumba classes and played basketball. At parish council meetings, the members stay after and talk over coffee and cookies.
Jean Perkins, who along with Ray Pruszkowski, serves as a St. Michael’s trustee, said she has observed a renewed camaraderie among its people since Nwaorgu has been pastor.
“He has a very unique way of being able to bring that out in people,” Perkins said. “He’ll invite them. He’s not shy about those invitations, which people certainly need. And once you have been invited, once you find yourself working on a task or become welcomed, the faith you’ve always felt inside comes back alive because you have people to share it with.”
As much as the 90th anniversary has been a time to celebrate the church’s present and bright future, it has been a time to reflect on its history.
Nwaorgu looked around and noticed that there was no visual evidence of St. Michael’s long line of leadership. So, he asked his staff do some research and find photos of each pastor. Those photos have been hung in the church’s vestibule. A plaque listing each parochial vicar is there, too.
He also wanted to add the story of St. Michael’s history to its website (https://stmichaelunion.org). The research uncovered pieces of the past that had been forgotten, such as the period of time Monsignor Francis Seymour served after Monsignor Ronald Rozniak’s reassignment and Rev. Kenneth Herbster’s arrival.
Nwaorgu met with Rev. Charles McDermott, the pastor at St. Michael’s 2005-2015. Father Chuck, as he is known, helped fill in many of the gaps in history. After all, Nwaorgu said, McDermott was baptized at St. Michaels, had his first Holy Communion here, had his confirmation here, became a priest here, became a parochial vicar here and became the pastor here before retiring.
The result is a detailed and complete history replete with rare photos that have found a home on St. Michael’s website.
“If you read the history on our website,” Nwaorgu said, “it will basically capture a true sense of the journey that this church has made.”
When he looks at the future, Nwaorgu sees St. Michael’s continuing to serve as a “rallying point” for its people — like it was when its pastor called for the bells to be repaired.
Nwaorgu said the bells had stopped working years earlier and efforts to repair them had been abandoned. He said they church bells serve an important purpose in that they can let the community subtly know “in their midst is their God.” He instructed his secretary to get an estimate of how much it would cost to fix them.
During one Mass, he told the congregation he wanted to make the bells ring on Christmas.
“I told them that we have the money to restore them. That’s the good news,” Nwaorgu said. “The bad news was the money was still in their pocket. I asked for $10,000. They gave me $27,000. That simple campaign in the church told me where the spirit of the people was. The bells were ringing on Christmas and they’ve been ringing ever since.”
For more information about the St. Michael’s 90th anniversary dinner-dance, log on to http://stmichaelunion.org or call 908-688-1232.