A Brief History of St. Thomas of Aquin R. C. Church
It has been held that Catholicity in Sussex County was introduced by some of the early settlers of Newton, settlers who had come from Ireland before the Revolution of 1776. During the early colonial times priests were scarce. Therefore, the spiritual needs of the early Catholic settlers in northern New Jersey had to be attended to by the sporadic visits of priests from distant cities such as New York and Philadelphia. These priests were known as the "circuit riders" who came through the area every year or two. There was a small brick building on the farm of Samuel McKernan, a Catholic of the area, where these priests said Mass in Ogdensburg. This building was located on the west side of Main Street across from the present grammar school recreation field and bore a marking of "1812". The building existed there until about 1950.
By the early 1800's, the Catholic population, though still relatively few and scattered, began to increase. To provide for an increasing population, it became necessary to establish parishes with resident priests. The Parish of Madison was formed to attend to the needs of Morris, Sussex, and Warren Counties. About the year 1821, Rev. F. Bulger, resident of Paterson attended to the spiritual needs of the populace of this county. In the after-years, occasional visits were made to Sussex County by Rev. John Callan, of Dover, Rev. L. Seney, the Rt. Rev. B. J. McQuaid, and Rev. M. A. Madden.
During the mid-1800's, the formation of expanded mail and railroad routes, and the increasing importance of mining in the area resulted in a further surge in population growth. To meet the increased spiritual needs brought about by this group, Rev. Philip McMahon was made the first resident pastor of Newton in 1854. He was succeeded by Rev. James McKay in 1857, and by Rev. Edward McCosker in 1861.
During his administration, Rev. McCosker saw a need to better serve the increasing populace of the county, and so established missions in Andover, Hunt's Mills, Branchville, Deckertown, Franklin Furnance, and at a few other points.
By the efforts of Father McCosker a plain brick edifice was built in Franklin Furnace (on what is now known as Cork Hill Road), a place picked for its convenience to both Franklin and Ogdensburg residents, in 1864. The congregation of 600 was partly composed of Ogdensburg villagers. Services were held on alternate Sundays, as the pastor had to divide his duties between this church and his residence in Newton. He was succeeded by the Rev. George Corrigan.
By the last quarter of the 19th century, mining had become an important, prominent industry in this area. Many immigrants came here to be part of- the labor force of this industry. At one time during the height of mining operations, about 22 nationalities were represented. By 1880, because of the growth of Catholicity in the area, two priests divided the labor, and by 1881 construction on two new churches, one in Deckertown (Sussex) and one in Ogdensburg, was begun.
The new church of St. Thomas of Aquin was incorporated in May of 1881, as a mission to Immaculate Conception, Franklin, with construction beginning immediately. Though hampered by difficulties, including a damaging storm, the church was completed before the winter cold. The first Mass was said by Father Kammer, with assistance by Newton's St. Joseph's Choir, on November 4, 1881 -thus beginning the church's first 100 years.
For over thirty years this new wooden church was in regular use. However, on Saturday, January 27, 1912, a fire being tended in the church got out of control. The pastor at the time, Father McGuiness, was told that the fire started in the eave of the roof at 5:15 P.M., and by 5:55 P.M. the wooden structure had been completely destroyed. Though the church itself was destroyed so quickly, the people were able to save everything movable except two organs and a piano. The bell was preserved, and along with the altars, would be put to use in the new church. When news of the fire reach the towns-people, it was as though "a shadow of gloom" had been cast over the entire town.
The next day, Sunday Mass was said in the meeting room of the Knights of Columbus over Mr. P. J. Dolan's storeroom at the regular hour of 9 A.M. At that Mass an appeal was made to the people for donations. Father McGuiness promised to contribute $1000 to build a new church, if the parishioners would raise a like sum. The en-thusiasm of their pastor inspired the parishioners and their friends, so that in less than two days the requisite sum was pledged.
On August 11, 1912, the church was solemnly blessed by the Most Rev. J. O'Connor. The new building of stone and pressed brick was dedicated with a High Mass and impressive ceremonies witnessed by a very large gathering of parishioners and visitors. (Father McGuiness had noted that "the church was filled and there were more people outside than within the church".)
A newspaper article of that time stated: "The members of the church as well as the townspeople are justly proud of the magnificent edifice, which stands as a monument to the generosity of the members and their friends here and elsewhere, and of the generosity and executive ability of the Rev. M. F. McGuiness."
From 1881, St. Thomas was served by the resident pastors of Immaculate Conception in Franklin, but on May 28, 1940, Rev. George A. Brown was appointed the first resident pastor of St. Thomas. He served here until 1949, when Our Lady of the Lake, Sparta, until then a mission of St. Thomas, was made a parish.
Since that time the pastors have been:
1940-49 - Rev George A. Brown
1949-54 - Rev. Msgr. James J. Doyle
1954-67 - Rev. Msgr. Stanislaus J. Durka
1967-75 - Rev. Sigmund E. Rovinski
1975-93 - Rev. Msgr. Francis J. Bischoff
1993-2005 - Rev. Stanley C. Barron
2005- - Rev. John P. Pilipie