A Catholic Atlantic City Experience? Don't Bet Against It

Atlantic City isn't all oceanfront board-walks, beaches, shops and casinos. In the middle of the resort town, my wife, Mary, and I hit a spiritual jackpot — the majestic Church of St. Nicholas of Tolentine.

Augustinian friars began building the historic church in 1902, and they didn't cut corners. They hired stonemasons from Ireland, imported marbles from Italy, brought in stained-glass windows from Germany and commissioned a renowned Church architect, Edward Durang of Philadelphia. Their aim was to give their sanctuary the splendid grace and presence of an Old World cathedral.

They succeeded. After three years of meticulous craft and artistry, St. Nicholas was dedicated and the first Mass said on Sept. 17, 1905. March maestro John Philip Sousa played for three days to mark the occasion.

Augustinians started this first Roman Catholic parish in Atlantic City well before the boardwalk appeared. They came to Absecon Island, on which the resort stands, to celebrate the first Mass in 1855. The friars stayed until 1997, when they gave the church to the Diocese of Camden.

Father William Hodge, the pastor since then, filled us in on details with firsthand knowledge. He and his parents were born in Atlantic City and grew up in the parish.

Beginning in the vestibule with a stained-glass window of a pelican feeding its young, he pointed out the church's seashore-themed liturgical symbols. At each of the trio of doorways, giant clamshells become holy water fonts.

Father Hodge pointed out 52 shields around the nave; they present articles from Christ's passion and death, from nails and instruments of scourging to the holy face veil. The visual catechism continues along the Romanesque interior, where rounded arches and ornately ribbed marble columns stand like an honor guard leading to the altar. In the sanctuary, many marbles shape into stirring religious art and sacred architecture.

The original main altar, of delicately carved white Carrara marble, radiates like a heavenly vision. The tallest altar spire rises above the central tabernacle; the bas-reliefs under the altar's lace-like Gothic spires and peaks show Christ's burial and his triumphant resurrection.

High in the apse, stained-glass windows of the seven archangels remind us to stand ready as they do to serve God and that our Lord sends them to help us, too.

We found the matching white Carrara side altars no less ornate. One honors the Sacred Heart appearing to St. Margaret Mary, and the other honors the Blessed Virgin Mary accompanied by angels. A mural of the Annunciation fills the dome above Mary.

The baptismal chapel is a jewel within a jewel. We managed several audible oohs and aahs in this chapel, which was added during the Great Depression. It glistens with Venetian gold mosaic tiles bathing walls and ceilings. Symbolic mosaic images hover everywhere — fish, the Burning Bush, the fruitful and barren fig trees, Resurrection symbols like the Easter Lamb.

Meanwhile intricate, medieval-style stained-glass windows portray the seven sacraments, seven deadly sins and seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The head of the Rambusch Studio in New York designed this interior. It contains the church's fifth marble altar, whose resplendent mosaics connect St. Nicholas of Tolentine with the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the holy souls in purgatory.

Father Hodge explained that this is “a highly indulgenced purgatorial altar,” with plenary indulgences attached to it by Pope Pius XI in 1935.

Heavenward, Holy Souls

Behind this altar, brilliant mosaic scenes tell a story. As St. Nicholas celebrates Mass at the moment of consecration, angels escort souls released from purgatory by his Mass. He was so fervently devoted to the holy souls and so powerful in getting them out of purgatory with his Masses that he's named the universal Church patron of the souls in purgatory.

For the church's major murals, the Augustinians didn't find an artist in their European search but found the right one locally. He was Jeremiah Leeds II, the 19-year-old Methodist grandson of the founder of Atlantic City.

The murals begin at a dizzying height along the barrel-vaulted ceiling with individual portraits of the Twelve Apostles. Under each is one of the 12 articles of faith in the Apostles' Creed defended by that apostle.

In the transepts, we thought of the countless parishioners and visitors who have paused here to meditate on Leeds' huge murals capturing dramatic moments in Christ's parables.

Magnificent New Testament scenes adorn the side aisles in eight stained-glass windows framed by Romanesque arches. Here we met the Holy Family in Nazareth as the boy Jesus holds a small wooden cross, and experienced Jesus saving Peter on the Sea of Galilee. Long ago, the city's Mayor Biddle donated the luminous Wedding at Cana in honor of his Catholic wife. He was a Protestant who eventually converted, thanks to the inspiring witness of the Augustinians.

These stunning stained-glass windows are masterpieces from the Mayer Studio in Munich. So are the three rose windows. The one in the choir loft honors a glorious Christ as King circled by the 12 choirs of angels, each holding a different musical instrument.

St. Nicholas has a grand 1916 Moeller theatrical organ, 3,200 pipes strong. It's in need of some repair, but it still makes beautiful music for every Mass here. We wondered what it was like when the celebrated Irish Tenor John McCormack sang at Mass here. Father Hodge told us the vocalist wanted parishioners who couldn't afford his resort concerts to come and hear him sing the sacred hymns for free.

Recent statues of the Infant of Prague and St. Anthony tell of the added devotions for today's 100 parish families The church gets scores of visitors and vacationers. Yes, some even drop casino chips into the collection basket.

“The volume of people coming to worship here was astronomical,” Father Hodge recalls, thinking back to years past. Indeed, the unofficial attendance record was set on Sept. 5, 1926, when 14,000 people attended morning Masses.

Today, there's a major campaign for necessary renovations and repairs. Already all the sacred vessels and objects are replated to a lustrous glow. Once refreshed, the nationally recognized historic church will ask Rome to designate it a basilica. To Mary and me, it seems a shoe-in.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.