We begin our new year of Historic Havens by paying a visit to the remarkable St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Freehold Borough, one of only five 18th century Episcopal churches remaining in New Jersey. This is the oldest building in town, yet this vibrant congregation is at the heart of today’s Freehold.
The first service of this congregation was held on Oct. 10, 1702 at the Quaker Meeting House in Topanemus, near present-day Marlboro, led by one of Freehold’s earliest settlers, the Reverend George Keith. Keith was originally a Quaker, but he became an Anglican minister after experiencing some struggles with the former group. Keith preached at a meeting house owned by a Quaker named Thomas Boels whom Keith converted back to the Anglican faith. When Boels died, he left the property to the “Anglican Church established at Topanemus,” as the congregation was then known. Though that early meeting house is gone, visitors can still see the historic burial ground which is owned and maintained by St. Peter’s.
King George II issued the rapidly growing church a Royal Charter in 1736. In 1738, the present property in Freehold was purchased to allow a larger church to be built. Several decades later, Robert Smith, of Philadelphia, one of the colonial period’s most influential architects, designed St. Peter’s Church. Smith’s credits include Nassau Hall at Princeton University and Christ Church and Carpenter’s Hall in Philadelphia. Construction began in 1771 but was halted in 1775 due to the Revolutionary War. It served as a shelter for the wounded during the Battle of Monmouth and served as a storehouse for the Provincial Army afterward.
The church was completed in 1794 and opened for worship in 1797. The original church building was a 35 by 52-foot gable-roofed structure with two entrance doors on Main Street and a high pulpit with a communion table on the opposite wall. It had box and common pews which were rented annually, a major source of income for the church.
During a visit in 1837, the Right Reverend George Washington Doane, Bishop of New Jersey, saw that the church had deteriorated. That sparked a series of improvements beginning with the windows and the church interior in 1838, followed by repairs to the steeple and an addition to the church on the east end, along with two new Throckmorton Street entrances. In 1841, St. Peter’s was one of the first Monmouth County churches to install a pipe organ. The first gas lamps were used in 1859, followed by a small recessed chancel in 1864. In 1878, architect Henry Dudley, of New York, extended the nave, installed the stained glass windows and created the Gothic interior that we see today. Visitors can still see many important elements of Smith’s design, including nearly all his innovative timber frame system and complex steeple, woven into the renovations.
The church was placed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places in 1997 and underwent another major restoration funded from the New Jersey Historic Trust in 2002. It continues to grow to accommodate the needs of the community.
The Reverand Dirk C. Reinken became the 37th Rector of St. Peter’s Church on July 1, 2014. He is an enthusiastic and passionate church leader, reverent of its past and optimistic of its future.
“Our campus has buildings from four different centuries, and that history is incredibly important to us,” he said. “It keeps us grounded as we reach out to meet the needs of the current times. I think of us as a sturdy Northern Red Oak whose deep roots allow us to spread our branches wide. Today, St. Peter’s is at the crossroads of life in Freehold. We work with ministry partners, especially in the areas of food insecurity and homelessness.”
Reinken shared some other little-known facts. “Our Keith Building, named for George Keith, our founding clergyman, who was also Royal Surveyor, houses our Thrift Shop. The Clubhouse is a meeting space for 12-step groups, from 9 am to 9 pm seven days a week. Open Door, the food pantry, has been serving the food insecure for decades, and our newest ministry partner, the Emergency Housing and Advocacy Program, coordinates safe overnight housing for up to 12 homeless men during the winter months and provides advocacy for the unhoused throughout the year.”
St. Peter’s has always supported the arts, previously through their Downtown Concert Series and currently through music studio rentals for students. The church’s lush acoustics and Yamaha grand piano have made it a favorite site for many recitals.
“The Clubhouse was also the launching pad for Bruce Springsteen who used to play there with his high school band back in the ’60s when it was a teen hangout,” Reinken added.
Also of note as we commemorate Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month is St. Peter’s history with people of color.
“Our first clergyman, the Rev. George Keith, wrote an abolitionist tract against slavery in the late 1600s,” Reinken said. “We were one of the first Main Street churches to welcome people of African descent, some of whose ancestors were enslaved in Monmouth County. We think Ferdinand Gratz Fenderson, in 1956, was the first regular Black member of St. Peter’s. He was a Yale graduate and principal of the Court Street School. Devoted to the town and the church, he attended services at St. Peter’s daily and was active in the community where he encouraged hundreds of Black students to continue to high school and college. He also was the founder of the first chapter of the NAACP in Freehold in the 1940s. We are proud of his legacy and of our current congregation that includes people of European, African, Caribbean, Asian and Hispanic heritage. We take the slogan, ‘The Episcopal Church welcomes you,’ very seriously and seek to make it the reality for all whom God sends our way.”
Reinken continued, “Our newest building, Crossroads at St. Peter’s, is a $2 million commitment of St. Peter’s to provide modern, attractive, accessible space to the larger community. Each day, we welcome far more people to our programs than belong to our congregation. We completed the building during the pandemic and are grateful for the community’s support as we work to pay off the outstanding $1,000,000 in loans.”
One of Crossroads most active users is Kevin Garrison, of Blessing Bags Brigade, who shared that Crossroads has allowed him to dramatically increase the number of people his charity serves while providing meals Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 am to 1 pm.
Crossroads is also quite popular as a wedding and special event reception space, including LGBTQ+ weddings. It has a fully inspected commercial kitchen and can host groups of up to 144. To learn rental details, contact Parish Administrator Samantha Daesener at 732-431-8383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reinken concluded, “We are indebted to the heritage countless saints of St. Peter’s have left us over the centuries. To look at our windows, our memorials and the grave markers on our grounds is to see the names of Freehold’s past: David Lyell (a Lord’s Proprietor of East Jersey), Throckmorton, Vredenburgh and others.”
St. Peter’s welcomes your visit. The church is open daily. The Holy Eucharist (Communion) is celebrated every Sunday at 8 and 10 am, and the 10 am service is livestreamed on YouTube. Music at the 10 am service features a traditional choir and King’s Peal bell choir, as well as Peter’s Rock, the church’s house band. New music members are welcome; for more information, email Director of Music Brit Montoro at email@example.com. Compline (night prayer) is offered on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 pm at Facebook.com/StPetersFreehold.
Important upcoming services include Feb. 22, Ash Wednesday at noon and 7:30 pm; April 2, Palm Sunday at 8 and 10 am; April 6, Maundy Thursday at 7:30 pm; April 7 Good Friday at noon; April 8, the Great Vigil of Easter at 7:30 pm and Easter Day at 8 and 10 am.
The Thrift Shop is open Monday, Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm. The Vintage annex is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm, and proceeds support St. Peter’s outreach to the community. Volunteers are always needed. Call Thrift Manager Stephanie Hill at 732-462-9264.
St. Peter’s gratefully welcomes your visit and contributions so visit in person and at StPetersFreehold.org.
Photos courtesy of St. Peter’s Church