The Past as a Prologue:
There was a time before Red Bank Catholic was a hub of activity in the heart of Red Bank. A time before Casey teams captured headlines; before performances on the Broad Street Auditorium stage became the stuff of legends; before the world became aware of this extraordinary place through the accomplishments of our alumni; a time when Red Bank Catholic was merely an idea. There was a moment when someone imagined what could be. They gave voice to the dream, they rallied support for it and with limited resources and abundant faith, they worked to make it a reality. Throughout the course of the storied history of Red Bank Catholic, at every pivotal moment, when failure was as likely as success, the stewards of this beloved institution chose the dream over the challenges it presented. That is our prized legacy—to imagine big, important dreams for this school and then to achieve them.
We find evidence of this in our earliest roots. In 1856, the very first pastor of the St. James Parish, Rev. Killeen, stood on the banks of the river watching materials for the church he planned to build floating on rafts from Jersey City. He enlisted the aid of his future parishioners to guard those supplies during the night so those outraged by the idea of a Catholic church in town wouldn’t destroy them. Rev. Killeen oversaw the construction of a modest church on the corner of Pearl and Wall Streets. The pews soon filled with parishioners. The new pastor, mindful that teaching the youngest members of the parish about their faith was of paramount importance, asked a parishioner, Mrs. Ann O’Reilly, to help him with that ambition. Mrs. O’Reilly organized catechism classes in her Pearl Street home.
The second pastor, Rev. Salaun, hoped to establish a more permanent school. In 1867, he established a school in the basement of the church and placed it in the charge of a Miss Thompson. The school was short lived though, existing only two years.
In July of 1876, Rev. Michael Kane was appointed the third pastor of St. James. Rev. Kane had big plans for his parish. He dreamed of opening a full-fledged school. He undertook the project with great zeal. Mr. P.C. Keely, a well-known architect from Brooklyn, was enlisted to design the new school. He created a two story Roman style building built of “North River pressed brick with a pilaster front, brown stone trimmings and a slate roof” as was reported in the June 7, 1879 edition of the New York Tablet. The total cost of building the school was $6,000.
The cornerstone of this new school was laid on Sunday afternoon, June 8, 1879. The Right Reverend Dr. Robert Seton conducted the services. He addressed the rightfully proud assembly. “The building of this school was not,” he said, “an expression of dissatisfaction with the system of secular education prevailing in this community, but rather, the consummation of spiritual desire. The Catholic Church has ever recognized the necessity of impressing on the minds of the young that it is not for this world they live, but their mission is nobler and higher.”
It was said to have been one of Rev. Kane’s happiest days when his “handsome school was completed and ready to enroll the children of the parish.” Unable to obtain a sisterhood to run the school, Rev. Kane secured the services of laymen to teach. Records show that “ Messrs. Loughlin, 1880, Rogers, 1884, Odell, 1885, Peter Reilly, 1886 and Maurice Lynch, 1888” ran the school until 1888 when our Sisters of Mercy arrived. Three sisters, Sr. M. Scholastica, Sr. M. Dolores and Sr. Marcella, came from the Motherhouse at Bordentown to take charge of the school. The Sisters of Mercy continue to work in and for Red Bank Catholic today.
In 1891, the St. James School held its first graduation ceremony. There was only one graduate, Miss Mary Reilly. In hopes of establishing both tradition and standards, the Sisters named Miss Reilly the valedictorian. She was presented with a gold medal and gave the valedictory speech. Miss Lillie Hawkins was the only graduate the following year and she too was afforded all of the pomp and circumstance a valedictorian deserved. By 1897, there were five graduates. The valedictorian, James A.G. Wise and the salutatorian, Edward W. Wise, were the sons of a Civil War veteran. In 1913, St. James had its largest graduating class to date with ten students receiving diplomas. The tiny school grew slowly but steadily, the stewards never wavering in their faith or their commitment.
The parish population also increased. Rev. Kane continued to imagine what could be. He envisioned a new church not only to accommodate his growing flock but to stand as a powerful testament to our faith. At a meeting of the Broad of Trustees of the St. James Church held on the evening of August 24, 1887, Rev. Kane enlisted support for a dream. He told his board that he wanted to purchase the property known as the Sickles property on Broad Street on which he hoped to build a new church. The land cost $11,000. The board unanimously endorsed Rev. Kane’s plan. They put up $2,000 in cash and settled the $9,000 balance with a bond and a mortgage. There was a risk in taking on such a project, in relocating the parish and in initiating change. There was also a risk in not advancing a compelling vision.
Rev. Kane died before fulfilling his dream of building a “magnificent cathedral on Broad Street” but he left his parish poised and prepared for this next big step. His successor, Rev. Reynolds, wholeheartedly accepted the torch passed to him and assumed the role of bringing Rev. Kane’s vision to life. Church documents dating back to autumn of 1893, describe the beginning of the church’s construction thusly,
“Ground was broken and the work soon took form towards the building of that beautiful monument that was to stand for generations to bespeak of enthusiasm and far seeing minds.”
The occasion of the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. James Church was one of the most important in both our history and the history of the town of Red Bank. The ceremony took place on an oppressively hot day in June, 1894. Thousands attended wearing their best attire in spite of the heat. Special trains were scheduled from New York exclusively for the event. The last train carrying mainly delegations from Catholic societies arrived a bit late so passengers disembarked quickly and hurriedly formed lines. They marched in parade formation down Monmouth Street onto Broad led by Mr. John Bennett who rode on a majestic gray charger. Mr. Bennett had several aides who also rode on horseback. A seventy piece band from the Immaculate Virgin Mission in New York played lively airs and a fife and drum corps from South Amboy kept time.
A dozen marshals were enlisted to make space in the church yard for the parade. A huge American flag hung between the rectory roof and the sidewalk. The big pillars of the rectory were twined with wide bands of yellow bunting representing the Papal colors. Near the west foundation wall, a stand was built covered with a canopy of purple and yellow, from which Archbishop Santolli, the highest Catholic dignitary in America, would conduct the ceremony.
The ceremony began at half-past three o’clock with a procession of clergy from the rectory to the church. There were priests from South Amboy, Perth Amboy, Keyport, Freehold, Atlantic Highlands, New Monmouth, Bradevelt, Asbury Park, Long Branch, Elberon and Sea Bright. Archbishop Santolli brought up the rear. The impressive procession stopped in front of the church where the ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone was conducted. Afterwards, Rev. McFaul gave a sermon which was so well received, it was interrupted several times by applause. The proceedings concluded with an inspirational hymn. The crowd of thousands lingered long after the waning notes of the hymn relishing in their memories of the spectacular day.
The following morning, masons moved the 800 pound stone into place and etched “June 17, 1894” on its face. Beneath it, they deposited a seven inch copper box containing silver and copper coins, a record of the church, the names of national, state, county and town officials and copies of The Register, Standard, Good Tidings, New York Sun and World, capping an important day of pomp and circumstance and celebration.
Rev. Reynolds remained pastor of St. James until his untimely death at the age of 54 after a brief illness. He was followed by Msgr. Duggan who continued to expand both the vision and the presence of the St. James Parish. In March of 1924, Msgr. Duggan wisely purchased two properties on Peter’s Place which years later would become the site of the St. James Grammar School.
On November 17, 1925, Rev. Doctor John B. McCloskey was appointed as pastor of the St. James Parish. Bishop Thomas J. Walsh laid out an extensive program of expansion for the newly appointed pastor namely the creation of a central high school for the students of all of the local parishes. Msgr. McCloskey imagined not only a space for a new high school but also a beautiful home for the grammar school. The old school on Monmouth Street had outlived its usefulness and had become a bit run down. Msgr. McCloskey dreamed of an inspiring place, a place that encouraged and supported the most modern teaching methods. He enlisted the services of young diocesan architect, Vincent J. Eck, to help him create the dream. On July 3, 1927, just two years after his appointment as pastor, Msgr. McCloskey oversaw the laying of the cornerstone of the” new St. James High School and Auditorium” in a grand ceremony. His vision realized.
The building was ambitious boasting sixteen classrooms including a Science Department described as “fully equipped with all of the necessary apparatus for pupils to prosecute their courses in science.” There was a beautiful auditorium with high arched windows hung with velour draperies and a seating capacity of “at least seven hundred,” a full sized stage and dressing rooms to “accommodate a goodly number of thespians.” The ceiling of the auditorium was of ornamental plaster said to give it a “very rich appearance.” On the second floor, there were two rooms that could be converted into one for the purpose of holding parish meetings. The room boasted a decorative fireplace giving it a “home like feel.” Above the front entrance on Broad Street, the words “Pro Deo et Patria,” “For God and Country,” were proudly etched. The project cost $175,000 which included moving the rectory to make room for the structure. The old church property on Pearl and Wall Streets was sold for $50,000 to help defray the cost.
The ceremony for the laying of the cornerstone and the dedication of the new high school and auditorium was as elaborate and festive as the one marking that same occasion for the church. The affair commenced at three o’clock. There was a large and jubilant crowd gathered. It was noted in church records that the officiate, Right Rev. Thomas J. Walsh, Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, arrived by automobile. The Bishop entered the new school through the magnificent front doors and proceeded to bless each room in the building.
Following the blessing, Mr. John Quinn, the chairperson of the event, announced what the Red Bank Register dubbed “a season of speechmaking” from the beautiful front steps. Speakers included Bishop Walsh, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore, Mayor of Red Bank William H.R. White, U.S. Senator Edward L. Edwards, Msgr. William I. McKean of Bernardsville, John A. Matthews of Newark and finally, Msgr. McCloskey.
The entire event was broadcast on Robert Johnson’s radio station WJBI. One Jack Casey was enlisted to fly his small plane over the crowd gathered outside to drop hundreds of tiny American flags. The boys’ band of St. Michael’s Orphan Asylum of Hopewell entertained the crowd. An intimate dinner for 150 followed in the auditorium. Mr. William Sweeney served as toastmaster. It was very much a celebration.
In time, the high school spread out throughout the entire Broad Street building and became known as Red Bank Catholic. Expansions and additions were celebrated with the same pride and decorum that those early moments marking progress were. The dedication of the grammar school and gymnasium in December of 1960, the blessing of the high school addition in May of 1967, the dedication of the new convent on Drummond Place in June of 1968, the dedication of the magnificent Vincent J. Eck Student Center in September of 2011 and the purchase of the Fine and Performing Arts Center on Monmouth Street in 2011, each told the world of outward change, of apparent seamless, unbroken progress. Yet, the thousands who have the privilege of calling themselves “Caseys,” know the underlying story. Each purchase of property, each laying of a cornerstone, each dedication of a new building, happened because people took a leap of faith. People who believed in the projects, who believed in the dreams that inspired them and who believed that they could play a part in making them come true. Every building on Red Bank Catholic’s campus stands as a testament to enthusiasm, vision, imagination and enduring faith. Our campus has continually evolved but through it all, it has kept one soul.
The story of the creation of Red Bank Catholic’s campus is compelling. The stories of the people behind that creation, as well as the stories of the people this beloved institution has produced, are even more extraordinary. Before each addition or renovation, stewards of Red Bank Catholic have always asked, “Who do we want to be?” rather than “what do we want to build?” The answer is always the same. This is the Home of the Caseys and we want to embody all that being a Casey requires.