Our Lady Of The Lake Turns 100


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It’s hard to imagine it, but the west side of Lakeside Avenue was once just a rolling expanse of open land with a single house on it. Then 100 years ago, Our Lady of the Lady Church was built, the first in what would become a series of structures for Catholics in the then new town of Verona. This year, the church will host a series of events to commemorate the centennial and showcase what is now Verona’s largest religious institution as it begins its next 100 years.

“The church was not only the place where you went to mass,” says Father Peter G. Wehrle, OLL’s pastor now. “It was also a social hub, where so many things occurred.”

How OLL came to be

Prior to 1924, being a Catholic in Verona meant traveling on Sunday. The Diocese of Newark was established in 1853 and most of the Catholic churches in it were located in Newark until 1892, when Saint Aloysius opened in Caldwell. Saint Cassian in Montclair followed in 1895. Our Lady of Mount Carmel opened in Montclair almost a decade later in 1907, the year that Verona officially became a town.

Many early Veronans made the trek to Saint Aloysius, but there was a growing desire for a local church–and the means to build one. Charles Bahr had emigrated to our area in the 1870s and ran a prosperous lumber business on Durrell Street. In about 1895, Bahr and his wife Emma built a Queen Anne style home at 36 Lakeside Avenue, near what would have been the train line west from Montclair if that were ever to be built. In 1923, Catholic women in Verona launched a fundraising campaign that gathered $50,000 to build a church, the equivalent of about $878,000 today. Charles and Emma Bahr donated a large piece of land to build it on. Another family member. Amelia Bahr, would later donate the land that is now an OLL parking lot on Lakeside.

The groundbreaking ceremony for OLL was held on January 21, 1924. The church was erected in just six months, a length of time that might astound Verona home builders and renovators today, and the first mass there was held on June 15, 1924.

The first First Holy Communion at OLL, in 1925

OLL would grow with Verona. The first church had some classroom space in it, which means that Our Lady of the Lake School is also celebrating its centennial. The congregation added a dedicated school building in 1932 and expanded it in the 1950s, when it also added a convent and rectory. By the start of the 1960s, the congregation stood at more than 2,000 families–much more than the original church could accommodate. So in 1963, OLL began work on a larger, contemporary structure. The “new” church held its first mass on Christmas Eve in 1964. It has been updated and reconfigured over the years, and is one of the largest Catholic churches in Essex County after the Cathedral Basilica in Newark.

A workman laboring on the new, contemporary OLL in 1963

Serving parishioners, the community and the world

OLL wasn’t the first house of worship in Verona. That distinction belongs to the Methodist Church that sits right behind it, which was organized in 1833. First Presbyterian opened in 1894, but the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, which held its first masses in a storefront at the corner of Grove and Bloomfield Avenues, didn’t get its first building until 1932.

But OLL drew on a broader base of parishioners than other congregations in town, in part because it was organized along geographic boundaries and not ethnic or racial ones, like Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Montclair for Italian-Americans or Saint Peter Claver in Montclair for Blacks. The Diocese of Newark included a slice of West Orange in OLL’s boundaries, which meant that the parish encompassed German Catholics, Irish Catholics and Italian Catholics. Over the years, it has added Catholics whose roots lie in many other countries in the world.

As OLL’s leaders began to plan for the centennial celebrations, they issued a call for photos and memorabilia to its parishioners, past and present. They have been flooded with photos of baptisms, communions, confirmations, and weddings, Christmas pageants, religious retreats, Oktoberfests and community building, in Verona and beyond. They’ve also gotten things like the trowels that were used to lay the cornerstones for the first church, the school, the convent and the rectory.

Even priests got to rock at OLL’s Oktoberfests.

OLL’s future hopes–and challenges

There are many centennial celebrations planned at OLL, beginning with a gala on Thursday, March 21, at The Grove in Cedar Grove. Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, will lead the Palm Sunday mass on March 24 at 12 p.m. There will be a golf outing in May and a family picnic in June. There are plans to put together a time capsule that would give the parishioners of the future a window into what life was like at OLL in 2024.

And, of course, there are all the baptisms, communions, confirmations, weddings and funerals that lie ahead. There are now about 2,800 parishioners on the rolls at OLL, making it the third largest parish in the Diocese.

Our Lady of the Lake School teaches students from preK to grade 8 and is a two-time winner of the National Blue Ribbon School award

But like all organizations these days, OLL must think about how it reaches the people who might be interested in it. The church still publishes a weekly bulletin on paper, but has added a website and a Facebook page, and a private Instagram channel for the Youth Ministry. Father Peter is weighing an Instagram for the entire parish (Holy Spirit, Calvary Lutheran and the Congregational Church have them), but knows the limitations of social media. “In this world, there are so many outlets of information,” he says. “Oftentimes, it makes it harder to get information out.”

And, beyond digital outreach, OLL must think about the physical ministries that it needs for the people it serves. Father Peter says that means doing more for and with senior citizens, as well as with teenagers. “How do we get groups of CCD kids to go to things?” he asks, referring to the faith formation lessons for children and young people who don’t go to Catholic school. There was a time in Verona when there were no after-school activities on Mondays so that young people could go to those classes.

“So many things have changed our lives,” says Father Peter. “How do we continue the ministry of ‘when you were hungry, I gave you food,’ ‘when you were naked, I gave you clothing,’ and ‘when you were ill, I visited you?’ We need to change what we’re offering people to get them in the doors now.”

OLL’s teen parishioners have frequently gone on mission trips to rebuild disadvantaged communities

What is not likely is the OLL will join the ranks of Catholic and Christian churches across the United States that have closed. Its size–both in terms of its congregation and building–makes that unlikely to happen. “One of the things that I always say is that what makes sense is to have bigger churches that can accommodate lots of people rather than multiple small churches,” says Father Peter, “as you have diminishing clergy and diminishing staff.”

And so OLL’s centennial year will be filled with reflection on the past and imagining for the future. “A parish needs to stay together,” says Father Peter. “And it needs to be more than just a place you go once a week to mass and then go away and then it’s not relevant to the rest of your life.”

Photos courtesy Our Lady of the Lake

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  1. Hello,

    Why was Immaculate Conception Church in Montclair left out of this article? When it was built in 1856, before all of the other churches that are named.

  2. First, this article is about the centennial of Our Lady of the Lake, not a retrospective on other churches in the Archdiocese of Newark. Second, according to New Jersey Historic Trust, Immaculate Conception Montclair was built in 1908.


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