Recalling a Spiritual Heart of the Community
A Journey into River Edge
Its stately buildings still stand on the top of the hill at the corner of Bogert Road and Howland Avenue as a reminder of its distinguished past.
But it’s still hard to fathom that it’s been eleven (now seventeen) years since the church there ceased to be called the Cherry Hill Reformed Church.
That church that is no more can trace its earliest origins in the area to just before the Civil War. As the area’s first house of worship, the church spent close to a century and a quarter occupying the position of our River Edge’s foremost religious institution and spiritual heart of the community.
Before that time, going to church in River Edge meant a horse and buggy ride to either Hackensack (Church on the Green), Schraalenburgh (Dumont/Bergenfield) or Paramus.
The area’s religious roots go back to the early search for religious freedom in the New World – French Huguenots settled in what would become modern New Milford. Dutch settlers established churches consistent with their traditions.
In the Spring of 1858, a group was organized in the New Bridge area for Sunday afternoon readings and discussion of the Scriptures. It was not long before the Sabbath School of New Bridge was started, and soon thereafter Sunday evening meetings for prayer and praise were taking place (A Sabbath School had been started in River Edge in 1846).
It was this start that led to the 1876 organization of the Reformed Church of Cherry Hill and New Bridge. Cherry Hill was the name of the area where the original church stood at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Main Streets (Thus, our local origin for what later became known as the and the now demolished Cherry Hill Shopping Center).
According to church records and local histories, a public meeting was called at the nearby train depot to consider the formation of a church at Cherry Hill.
A local history describes twenty-six original members – twenty-two white and four Black.
John Zabriskie (Zabriskie Place) donated the land that became the site of the original church. Andrew Zabriskie donated the bronze church bell. Monies were raise among the community. Stones were given by the Lozier family (Lozier Terrace).
The place was dedicated in November, 1876. It was a white frame, steepled structure, entrance on Main Street. The Sabbath School fronted Elizabeth Street.
It was all destroyed on August 25, 1892 from a fire that followed a lightning strike. Only 18 chairs and 23 hymn books could be saved.
The church rebuilt and a communion service was held in the new building on May 7, 1893. This new building was severely damaged by the famous tornado of 1895, repairs were made.
Over the years a stained glass memorial, organ and other improvements and enlargements were added, turning the building into the landmark still recalled by old timers – there at the corner of Elizabeth and Main Streets.
The continued growth of the congregation, especially in the post World War II years, prompted church leaders to seek a larger property. It was then that the parcel at the top of the hill was purchased.
A parish house was built in 1952, followed by a parsonage in 1955. It was on June 2, 1957 that the new church itself was dedicated.
The stained glass memorial window, organ and church bell and stones were integrated into the new building.
Reverend Harold Green led the congregation during this period and is still well recalled.
The building at the old site became the River Edge Jewish Community Center, River Edge’s first Jewish house of worship and forerunner to what is now .
In later years, the building served as a beauty salon. Today it is the site of a parking lot to one of the medical arts buildings that dot the area which continues to be slated for redevelopment.
Meanwhile, up the hill, demographics changed, and though the church there remains in use as a church, it does so under a different name.
The successor to the Cherry Hill Reformed Church is the . The name change took place in 2000.
Reverend Ralph Acerno, Pastor of the church, relates that they felt the name confusing and wanted a name that sounded more inviting and inclusive.
The old members are pretty much long gone, he tells us.
Rev. Acerno speaks of the church having undergone a complete makeover, their emphasis now is on preaching the Bible in a contemporary worship setting with rock gospel music with some traditional as well. They reach out with monthly Saturday night rock gospel concerts, a monthly Sunday open mike night and a Thursday evening Jam sessions.
As is common with economics of maintaining many a house of worship in these times, the also calls the church complex its home.
So, the church site is now home to a number of congregations - providing a real sense of diversity.
It’s probably very different than the vision of the Church’s founders back in 1876, and even those who help shepherd the move up the hill. As the name change indicates, times are different. So is our town. But somehow, among all the differences, today’s church and community cannot help be informed and inspired by what took place before.
Acknowledgment of Local Source Histories: The History of River Edge, 1693-1964; Uminski, Hauser Printing Company; 1965; Musket, Anchor and Low, The Story of River Edge, Arno Press, 1976
This article first appeared in River Dell Patch in 2011