A Brief History of Saint Philip & Saint James Church
The history of the Catholic Church in Phillipsburg dates from the time the first Catholic settled in the community. There are records indicating Catholics were in Warren County as early as 1776. In 1859, the Church purchased a tract of land located at South Main and Stockton Streets and erection of the first Catholic Church in Phillipsburg was begun on that site. Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley of Newark laid the cornerstone of the Church on September 7, 1860. The first Mass was celebrated by Rev. Cornelius J. O'Reilly in the uncompleted church on December 25, 1860. The church was completed in the spring of 1861, and there was a congregation of 500. In 1864, the Rectory was built alongside the original Church. On September 20, 1864, the Church of Saint Philip & Saint James was incorporated as a parish in accordance with the newly enacted civil laws governing religious corporations in the State of New Jersey.
As the industries of the town continued to grow, so did the number of residents and so did the number of Catholics. Less than twelve short years after the completion of the original Church, a meeting was held and plans were made to connect a new Church outside the old. The old Church would not be taken down immediately, but be utilized until the resources of the congregation should warrant the completion of the new Church. In 1873, there were upwards of 3,000 in the congregation, and they set about the erection of a new and larger Church edifice.
On July 1, 1873, land was purchased on the southeast corner of South Main and Stockton Streets for educational use. The cornerstone at the school was laid in 1875. During the years of 1876 and 1877, the Sisters of Charity staffed the new parochial school. During the financial panic of 1877, Father O'Reilly's newly opened school closed. Work on the new Church was temporarily deferred in 1875 so all available effort could be placed on the school.
The Most Rev. Michael A. Corrigan, Bishop of Newark, laid the cornerstone of the Church in October 1873. Work evidently progressed until about one-third of the structure was completed and connected to the old building. Never during the construction were the regular Sunday services interrupted. While the side and front walls of our Chuch were being built, Mass continued to be celebrated in the old Church. On August 29, 1889, an organ made by the House of Roosevelt arrived. The organ was erected late October.
On September 5, 1889, electric light poles were being erected on South Main Street and late in October, wires for the Edison incandescent lights were strung, thus enabling the Church of St. Philip and St. James to have combination electric-gas light fixtures installed in the new Church. By November of that year, the scaffolding was taken out of the new Church. Painters were busy at work beautifying the interior. The large pipe organ was ready for use, and handsome white marble altar railings were being installed. By late November, 204 new pews were being put into the Church.
On Sunday, December 1, 1889, the present magnificent Gothic structure, minus the tower clock, steeple and front facade as they look today, was formally dedicated by the Most Rev. Michael J. O'Farrell, Bishop of Trenton, who gave the dedicatory sermon. Rev. Robert Emmett Burke, who was appointed Pastor of the Church upon the death of Father O'Reilly, had taken up the work that was stopped by the death of Fr. O'Reilly. It took years of labor and anxiety on the part of Fr. Burke. His energy and zeal were aided and encouraged by the cooperation of a faithful congregation, and the result of the two forces was a magnificent Church in which people still worship today.
Father Burke proposed the congregation have bronze medallions cast and sold for $1.00 each to finance the purchase and installation of a Christopher Columbus statue. The statue was unveiled and dedicated October 12, 1892. The statue was originally placed catty-cornered in front of the Church. By the year 1929, the statue had been removed and placed where it now stands. In June 1960, the Warren Council #474, Knights of Columbus, took down the statue for an extensive restoration job. Before the refurbished statue was placed back on its base, the history of the statue and newspaper articles about the restoration was hermetically-sealed in a stainless steel box and placed in the base. The renovated statue was put back on the granite pedestal on September 24, 1960.
By September 1972, workers had begun the job of remodeling the steeple of the Church. Almost the entire interior of the Church was gutted. The original white wooden gothic altar was removed, and the pews were taken out. The Church was closed for many months while the interior work was being done, and Masses were held in the Parochial Hall and at the High School. At 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1973, the doors to the Church opened, and the parishioners streamed in to see their newly refurbished Church. The sight was breathtaking! One of the outstanding new features wasn't in the Church itself, but in a Chapel off the "epistle" or left side of the building, behind and to the right of the screen. The Chapel was to be used for celebration of Mass on weekdays. The first Mass in the newly renovated Church was celebrated at 6:30 p.m. and at midnight Christmas Eve, 1973.
The growing population generated additions to the parish. Mission churches were appended to the parish in 1969 in Milford (St. Edward's created a seperate parish in 1944) and in 1924 in New Village (St. Christopher's, which is no longer recognized), the latter primarily to provide for the spiritual needs of the increasing number of Italian immigrants to the area following World War I. On June 30, 1974, more than 100 years after the cornerstone was laid by the Bishop of Newark, the Church of Saint Philip & Saint James was rededicated by the Bishop of Trenton. Our Parish Family celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2000 and looked forward to our 150th anniversary in 2010.
Msgr. Michael J. Corona came to Phillipsburg on August 30, 1979. He was appointed the 11th Pastor of the Church of St. Philip and St. James by the Most Rev. George W. Ahr, Bishop of Trenton. In 1981, the Church became a part of the newly formed Diocese of Metuhen. In 1997, Msgr. Corona was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Stewardship Council. He also serves as the Executive Director of Catholic Education. During the summer of 2009, Msgr. was offered the opportunity to return to his home parish of St. Ann's in Raritan, NJ. Father John J. Barbella, formerly Pastor of Most Holy Rosary Church and Holy Spirit Church in Perth Amboy, NJ, was appointed as Pastor of Saints Philip and James Church.