A Piece of Grace Church Van Vorst History:

The Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr.

 

 

            The Right Reverend Paul Moore, Jr., an iconic figure in the history of the Episcopal Church, began his illustrious 50-plus years of ministry at Grace Church Van Vorst, where he was ordained to the priesthood on December 17, 1949.  Before he gained national prominence as a well-known advocate and social activist for issues including desegregation of schools and public facilities, fair housing, and social justice, he was one of a trio of young priests who came to Jersey City with the intention of working with and ministering to the urban poor. Before he became friends with Dorothy Day, Thurgood Marshall, and John F. Kennedy and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  in Selma, Alabama, he was making a real difference in the lives of the people in downtown Jersey City,  forging lasting relationships through his tireless advocacy for both the white and black communities. Before he made headlines in 1977 by ordaining the first openly gay woman to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, he embraced the diversity of the neighborhood surrounding Grace Van Vorst. Bishop Moore’s acceptance and welcoming of all people, regardless of race, economic status or sexual identity remains a cornerstone of our parish to this day.

     

Early Years
 

            Paul Moore, Jr. was the grandson of William H. Moore, one of the Moore brothers of Chicago.  The family accumulated enormous wealth through their involvement in corporate mergers at the beginning of the 20th century.  Paul Moore was the youngest child of four children, born on November 15, 1919.    The Moore family resided in New Jersey at their Hollow Hills estate and Paul’s upbringing was not unusual for the son of a wealthy family, even though “as a child, he was sickly and not very athletic.” [1] He attended the Peck School, a private school in Morristown, NJ.   His family spent winters from January until after Easter in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was privately tutored. They also spent time at their New York apartment residence at 825 Fifth Avenue.
 

            From the age of 12, Paul attended the prestigious St Paul's School in Concord,  New Hampshire.  While there, he was influenced by Father Wigram, “a member of the Cowley Fathers, a contemplative order of British Monks founded during the Oxford Movement”[2] as well as a teacher and mentor.  Young Paul was impressed with Father Wigram’s stories of work with the poor families inhabiting London's slums.  During one of their many meetings, Father Wigram asked him if he had thought of being a clergyman as a profession.  “(Paul) said ‘no’, but at the age of 17 had a conversion,”[3] and knew “he wanted to work in a city with the urban poor.” [4]
 

            After graduating from St. Paul's, he attended Yale University.  While there, he was a Boy Scout leader,   a member of Wolf's Head Society, and president of the Berkeley Association, the Episcopal student group at Yale.  Upon graduating from Yale in 1941, he joined Marine Corps rather than become part of the family business. He served during World War II until he was wounded during the Battle of Guadalcanal.  A decorated Marine Corps Captain, he earned the Navy Cross, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
 

            In 1944 he met and married Jenny McKean, the daughter of Margaret Sargent McKean, a well-known painter.  Jenny McKean's family, from Boston, was also quite wealthy.    She had attended the Madeira School, Vassar and Bernard College.     In 1946, Paul decided to enter General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York City.  He and his wife Jenny had two young children at that time. Eventually the Moore family grew to nine children.

The Beginnings of A Ministry
 

            While attending GTS, he met fellow seminarians C. Kilmer (Kim) Myers and Robert (Bob) Pegram.  After many discussions about the kind of parish communities they wanted to serve, they sent out requests to ten Bishops in the Episcopal Church seeking a city assignment where they could work with an urban parish and the poor.    They received only one response - from Bishop Benjamin M. Washburn of the Diocese of Newark. Bishop Washburn agreed to send the newly graduated seminarians as a team to Grace Church Van Vorst in downtown Jersey City, a declining inner-city parish on the corner of Second and Erie Streets.  They arrived in June 1949 with their furniture in a moving van and were met by one staff member who was the sexton.  There were two benches in the front yard and a gate with the words “Enter His Gates With Thanksgiving.” There was also sign that said “Keep Out,” which Kim Myers shattered as they moved in.  They moved into the rectory at 268 Second Street– the Moore’s lived on first and second floors and Fathers Myers and Pegram were on the third floor. 
 

           Some years prior to their arrival, Grace Church Van Vorst had been known as a “whites only” church under the previous full-time rector. It had been a well-to-do parish, whose members were prosperous Episcopalians in Jersey City.  By the late 1940’s the church had fallen into decline as many of those wealthy parishioners moved to the suburbs. The new team was determined to make a go of it in spite of the area’s changing demographics. Father Kim Myers said, “We don't believe the church should be satisfied with following its members to the suburbs.”[5] Their neighborhood was inhabited by mostly blue collar Italians, Polish and Blacks, and word on the street was that “coloreds are moving in all around.” 
 

            At that time downtown Jersey City was predominately Roman Catholic; several Catholic churches sprung up within blocks of Grace Van Vorst, each serving a different immigrant population. When the three priests met their new Grace Church parishioners and others in the neighborhood, they were asked, “You are not going to try to mix things up like the Communists, are you?”  Father Moore replied that they “wanted to do work with the new people providing recreation, summer bible school, trips to parks.”[6]

 

Outreach to the Community: Building Bridges
 

           As part of their community outreach in the early years, Paul, Kim and Bob decided to have television nights and opened the doors of the Parish Hall to both white and black neighbors and church members to watch television, since at that time many households did not own a television set.   Neighborhood boys played basketball in the Parish Hall and several baseball teams were formed. Outreach to young girls involved after school arts and crafts, tutoring for math and reading, and in the summer, a girls' softball team.   There was a very active youth program and trips were planned to beaches, parks, the Museum of National History, etc.  Gradually the congregation grew as more and more families came with their children and relationships developed. Those children, now grown, still consider Grace Van Vorst their home church and recount with fondness of their time growing up with the Moore children and participating in all of the activities offered them.
 

            As more and more minority families settled in the homes and tenements in the area surrounding Grace Van Vorst, Paul began to speak out against poor housing conditions, the denial of opportunities for minority families to move into public housing, and the lack of recreation facilities for those families. He advocated for better public schools and helped church members in finding jobs.  “Father Moore” was asked to intervene and appear in court on behalf of those in need of assistance in legal matters - an illegal eviction, or a teenage son that had been arrested, for examples.  If a family had no access to money for food due to the loss of a job, or needed clothing for a child, or needed someone to speak up for their rights –Father Moore stepped in and offered help and advice. In some instances his appearance as a priest in court made a difference. Local police and the courts would occasionally ask him to follow-up with teen boys and released them to his custody.   The police department developed a reliance on Grace Church to help with services that weren't provided by Jersey City, such as recreation for youngsters. The three priests also found themselves providing services to the homeless (mostly men) who found their way to the doors of the rectory needing a hot meal or cup of coffee.              
      

            Initially the “old guard” church members looked down on the newcomers to Grace, both white and black.  At one point, the neighbors on Second Street petitioned Bishop Washburn that the three ministers should be removed, calling the church a “nigger church.”[7]  Gradually, both the old and new members worked together for the betterment of the church. The complaints from the neighborhood abated and a friendlier atmosphere was established.  Grace Church became interracial.  Many events were planned and held. Fund raisers included card parties, bazaars, and dances.  During the summers, a Field Day with athletic events, cake sales, baby contests were organized. The boys and girls teen club, with the priests and adults as chaperons, held dances in the Parish Hall.  A large yellow school bus was purchased so that parents and/or their children at the local public housing projects could be provided transportation to and from Church on Sundays.
 

            In the early 1950's, the Diocese of Newark bought a four family house (later called St. Christopher’s House) at 278 Second Street, a few doors away from the rectory, for Grace Church to use as offices and living space. Three nuns from the Sisters of St. John the Baptist came to live on the fourth floor. They worked full-time with the ministers.  They visited families, ran Sunday School, and organized summer camp programs and summer bible school.  At one point, over 100 Grace Church youth - boys and girls- went away at no cost to various camps such as Boys Harbor or Eagle Rock for a week or two, or enjoyed a week away with a sponsoring family in the suburbs.
 

            Grace Church Van Vorst began to garner national attention under the leadership of Paul Moore and the others. Paul was asked to speak to many groups about his ministry at Grace Van Vorst; his work in Jersey City with the urban poor was practically unheard of except in a few isolated areas in the mainstream Episcopal Church. 

Moving On.

            After four years of ministry at Grace Van Vorst Kim Myers left Jersey City in 1952. He served as Michigan’s Suffragan Bishop before his election as Bishop of California in 1966. Bob Pegram left to work in Maryland.
 

              In 1957 The Moore family moved to Indianapolis, Indiana where Paul was named Dean of Christ Church Cathedral.    His ministry ended in Indianapolis in 1964 when he was elected Suffragan Bishop of Washington, D.C.  During his ministry in Washington, D.C., he continued to speak out against issues such as racism and the Vietnam War.  In 1969, he was elected bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New York. In 1972, he was elected Bishop of the Diocese of New York succeeding Bishop Horace Donegan, and served in that position until 1989.

The Moore Legacy.
 

               Bishop Moore occasionally visited Grace Van Vorst in the years following his retirement, celebrating the Eucharist and delivering his sermons from the “big” pulpit. He particularly enjoyed preaching to the children, his tall and lanky presence made taller by his Bishop’s mitre and booming voice leaving an impression on not only the youngest parishioners. He died on May 1, 2003, shortly before he would have attended the sesquicentennial (150th year) celebration of the consecration of Grace Church which was planned for mid-May of that year.  Soon after his death, some people who had grown up during those seminal years of Paul Moore’s ministry successfully petitioned the City of Jersey City to name the corner of Second and Erie Streets “Bishop Paul Moore Place” in his honor.
 

               Bishop Paul Moore left an indelible mark on the parish and its members both past and present. His commitment to the disenfranchised and the urban poor and his belief in the inclusiveness of all people continue in the parish’s work within the community and in our acceptance of all who enter our doors. Several books and articles have been written about the Bishop’s life and work and he wrote three books:  The Church Reclaims the City (1965), Take a Bishop Like Me (1979), and after his retirement, Presences:  A Bishop's Life in the City (1997), a memoir of his life.

Grace Church Van Vorst  | 39 Erie Street  |  Jersey City, NJ 07302  |  Phone: 201-659-2211  |  office@gracevanvorst.org

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