Whether it's tutoring kids from the Hoboken Housing Authority or supporting the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, Rev. Geoffrey Curtiss has been there from the beginning, and next Saturday the congregation will celebrating Curtiss' silver anniversary at the parish.
Humble but certainly proud, Curtiss sat in the spacious main room of the Jubilee Community Center on the city's west side early Wednesday, reflecting on his quarter century of service in the mile-square city. The Jubilee Center itself is a result of his church's good works, a facility for the youth of the Hoboken Housing Projects that the All Saints parish built for community service.
"We believe that the through our strong faith, the church has a role to play in the city," Curtiss said. "We set the bar high when it comes to what the church can do."
And while Curtiss deserves a lot of the credit for All Saints' rise, he's someone who would rather deflect that praise to his congregation.
"There is no way that any of this could have been accomplished without the hard work and leadership of a committed congregation," Curtiss said.
In the beginning...
Curtiss was commissioned in the fall of 1979 by the bishop and convention of the Diocese of Newark to be the missioner to Hoboken. "I was interested in urban ministry, so they thought that Hoboken might be a good place to cut my teeth," said Curtiss.
But the situation in Hoboken was far from rosy. At the time there were three Episcopal Churches in the city, Trinity Episcopal Church (1853) and Church of the Holy Innocents (1876), and St. Paul's Episcopal Church (1832); but all were in dire straights, and the structural condition of the church buildings was deteriorating. According to Curtiss, the total congregation of the three churches combined was about 50 parishioners. "Suffice it to say, there were a lot of problems at the time," Curtiss said.
His first task was getting the churches back to being solvent. In May of 1983, the three churches consolidated, which has enabled the Episcopal Church in Hoboken to revitalize and retool itself.
The new consolidated church was renamed the All Saints Episcopal Parish, with the main congregation at the Trinity Church at Seventh and Washington streets.
Today the congregation is nearly 300 strong, and its works reach out throughout the Hoboken community.
A progressive parish
One of the first steps that Curtiss took was to make the All Saints Episcopal Parish a shining example of "progressive Christianity." According to Curtiss, this meant that people of all walks of life were welcomed to participate, whether they are believers, agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, and persons of all sexual orientations, including those who are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
All Saints was one on the first churches in the state to welcome openly gay and lesbian members to join the clergy and the church's leadership. Gays and lesbians have served on the vestry, the parish staff, the altar guild, the worship committee, and in the choir. They have been welcomed as greeters, ushers, lay readers, lay healers, ministers and sub-deacons.
In 1989 All Saints opened its doors to the controversial ordination of Robert Williams, who is openly gay, as the first missioner of The Oasis, which is the Diocese of Newark's ministry to gays and lesbians. All Saints Parish has housed The Oasis for many years and remains a sponsoring parish.
Helping the homeless
Curtiss has also built All Saints upon a strong foundation of service to the community. Hoboken in the early 1980s was a very different place. The city was transiting from being an industrial town full of dock and factory workers to a mostly residential city. At the same time, the city outlawed "single room occupancy" which forced many of these former laborers out onto the street during tough economic times.
"Homelessness was a very big problem at the time, and we knew it," said Curtiss.
In 1982 Curtiss and Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel were the catalysts in bringing together a number of city churches to form the Communities of Faith for Housing, Inc. a non-profit housing corporation.
For over two decades, the Hoboken Homeless Shelter has been a staple of the community, providing hot meals, temporary shelter, and job training for those who need it the most. Also over the years, thousands of volunteers cooked and served meals.
"We've always been concerned with Hoboken's quality-of-life issues," Curtiss said. "Our congregation is interested in social justice; we're interested in the issue of homelessness; we're committed to taking on these types others might want to avoid."
Mayor David Roberts said Thursday that Curtiss is one of the major reasons that Hoboken has become revitalized as a city.
"If I had to assemble a list of the 25 most important people in Hoboken over the past 25 years in Hoboken, Rev. Curtiss would certainly be part of that small group," Roberts said. "His sense of social justice and compassion for the less fortunate is unrivaled and his presence has made life better for all of our residents."
All Saints Episcopal Day School
Also under Curtiss' oversight, the All Saints Episcopal Day School opened in 1985 with an enrollment of 16 students. By the second year, enrollment was growing.
Today the school has more than 100 students in nursery school through sixth grades, located in the building adjacent to the Trinity Church on Washington Street.
The Jubilee Center
More recently, in the mid-1990s, most of Hoboken was undergoing a development driven renaissance, but there was still little outreach from the more affluent community to the residents of the Hoboken Housing Authority. In many ways, Hoboken was a community divided.
There were few services for young people in Hoboken; particularly in the west side neighborhood. There was no affordable childcare in the neighborhood and only a few services for children within safe walking distance. In 1996, the All Saints Community Service and Development Corporation had assisted lifelong public housing resident and mother of three Melvona Hicks in starting up the Homework Club tutoring program in one of the Housing Authority's community rooms.
The club has been running every year since.
However, at the time, the community rooms were cramped and were not open late.
Curtiss and Laurie Wurm, director of ASCSDC, obtained a construction loan and permanent mortgage from the Thrift Institution Community Investment Corporation in Cranford, which is funded by a consortium of Hudson County banks.
April of 2003 saw the opening of the three-story, 9,000 square-foot building, located across the street from the projects. In addition to the Homework Club, the new center offers tutoring, computer literacy, entrepreneurial training, cooperative learning and problem solving activities, drug-prevention education, health and nutrition workshops, and opportunities for creative expression through dance, visual arts, creative writing, music, and theater for young children and teens.
An average of 50 children between the ages of 5 and 16 make use of the center each weekday afternoon. "For me it's all about building relationships, and building bridges into the community," Curtis said. He added that the Jubilee Center has become a crossroads where those in the larger community have been able to use their resources to help others.
Wurm, who joined the parish in 1992, said Thursday that one of Curtiss' greatest attributes is that his mission does not stop at the threshold of the church door.
"He's someone who has always believed that his Episcopal Parish is a geographical area and not just a single building," Wurm said Thursday. "He doesn't think of the congregation so much as a group that needs to be given things, but rather as a group of co-workers that are empowered to go out and do ministry in the community."
The next big plans
The next big project on the horizon is the renovation and reopening of the Church of the Holy Innocents at Willow and Sixth streets. According to the officials from the Hoboken Historical Museum, the church was completed in 1876 and dedicated to Julia Stevens, the daughter of Martha Bayard and Edwin Stevens, who had died in Rome at age 7 from typhoid fever. Built to serve German and Irish immigrants, it did not charge the people a fee for a seat on a pew.
One of the truly unique churches in Hoboken, the banded arches emphasize the polychromatic exterior of brownstone and white and red sandstone. The choir was added in 1913, and the baptistery in 1932. Though no longer in use, the exterior details of this Episcopal church remain largely intact.
Curtiss hopes the building can be reopened within the next five years and operate under the umbrella of the All Saints Parish.
"We have a bright future and we hope that next 25 years are as successful as the last 25," Curtis said. "This is a community that is still growing and there's still a lot that we can do to serve it."