‘Faith Moves Marble’: An Easter Story of Renewal

Rescued century-old altar transforms a New Jersey parish.

Bishop David O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton (right) stands beside Father Brian Woodrow on March 30, 2023, during a Mass at which the new altar was consecrated at St. Dominic Church in Brick, New Jersey.
Bishop David O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton (right) stands beside Father Brian Woodrow on March 30, 2023, during a Mass at which the new altar was consecrated at St. Dominic Church in Brick, New Jersey. (photo: John Batkowsk / Diocese of Trenton)

BRICK, N.J. — The way Father Brian Woodrow imagines it, Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen instantaneously, in a bang or a flash, but slowly, like a sunrise.

That’s the dramatic effect he wanted for the unveiling of St. Dominic Church’s new marble sanctuary at last year’s Easter vigil Mass.

With the church in darkness at the beginning of the liturgy, except for the candles the congregation held in the pews, the two side altars, one for the Blessed Mother and the other for St. Joseph, were illuminated first.

Then, while the choir sang the Gloria and the brass altar bells rang out loudly, the lights gradually brightened around the main, multitiered altar area until its brilliant beauty was on full display.

Eyes popped. Jaws dropped. Tears fell.

It was a moment St. Dominic’s parishioners wouldn’t soon forget. (You can watch the altar being illuminated at the 58:15 mark of the livestream video.)

One year later, Catholics in this part of the Jersey Shore are still buzzing about it. “Have you seen St. Dominic’s?” they’ll ask.

The novelty of walking into the church hasn’t worn off. Those who remember the former spare, contemporary sanctuary are half-tempted to reach across the new altar rail and wave their hand around, just to make sure it’s not a hologram.

altar rail
Detail of the altar rail at St. Dominic Church, Brick, New Jersey. (Photo: Jeffrey Bruno)CNA/Jeffrey Bruno


The Mother Church

How this all came about is an appropriate story to tell at Easter because it’s about rebirth and interior transformation. It’s the story of one parish’s gigantic leap of faith and another’s enduring legacy of devotion.

It begins with a death, of sorts.

St. Dominic’s new sanctuary isn’t new; it’s 112 years old. It came from a decommissioned Catholic church 12 miles up the coast in Asbury Park.

If you think St. Dominic’s altar is stunning, you should see the rest of Holy Spirit Church.

Opened in 1912, the Gothic Revival landmark has soaring stained-glass windows, hand-carved Stations of the Cross, and bright-white buttresses rising to a vaulted, sky-blue ceiling. There’s marble everywhere you look.

holy spirit
Exterior of Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which opened in 1912 and was decommissioned in 2021. (Photo: Jeffrey Bruno)CNA/Jeffrey Bruno

The early parishioners who built the stout, granite-and-limestone edifice, located a few blocks from the beach, were a mix of mostly Irish immigrants — many of them employed in the resort city’s grand hotels — and the wealthy clientele who vacationed there.

A New York heiress, Elizabeth O’Connor, donated $20,000 — equal to $627,000 today — for the full, three-section marble sanctuary and the candelabras, crucifix, altar linens and chairs that went with it, according to a history of the parish written by John King, a St. Dominic’s parishioner and Jersey Shore historian.

First incorporated in 1879, Holy Spirit is the mother parish for a host of other churches in the surrounding area, part of the Diocese of Trenton. But while those suburbs prospered, Asbury Park gradually declined, the victim of racial strife, white flight, and rising poverty and crime. In time, new waves of immigrants from Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean replaced the Irish at Holy Spirit, but they were too few and most were too poor to keep the parish above water.

Artist renderings of a developer’s plans to repurpose Holy Spirit Church as an arts venue with adjacent apartments. Courtesy of Mode-Architects
Renderings show an exterior shot of a developer’s plans to repurpose Holy Spirit Church as an arts venue with adjacent apartments. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

It wasn’t just a matter of finances. Between 1990 and 2010, Mass attendance at Holy Spirit fell 45%, the Trenton Diocese’s newspaper, the Monitor, reported. Eventually, Holy Spirit was folded into a consolidated three-church parish under a single pastor. The smallest of the three churches, St. Peter Claver, a historically Black parish on the west side of Asbury Park, was soon shut down and demolished.

Holy Spirit hung on by a thread. Finally, in 2020, deeming the church too costly to maintain, the pastor announced that it would close. A developer later purchased the property for $1.7 million. Initially, the plan was to tear down the church and replace it with six luxury houses. A recently revised mixed-use proposal would repurpose the church as an arts venue with adjoining apartments.

Artist renderings of a developer’s plans to repurpose Holy Spirit Church as an arts venue with adjacent apartments. Courtesy of Mode-Architects
Artist renderings of a developer’s plans to repurpose Holy Spirit Church as an arts venue with adjacent apartments. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

The final Mass was held on June 6, 2021. Among those who cried in the packed church that day was Elizabeth O’Connor’s great-granddaughter, Marjorie Penrod.

“It was the centerpiece of their community life and family life,” she told the Monitor of her family’s deep ties to the church. “My parents were married there. The babies were baptized there and made their first Communions there. Life revolved around the church.”

Last Mass celebrated at Holy Spirit Parish.
The final Mass at Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on June 6, 2021. Photo by Vic Mistretta/Diocese of Trenton. (Photo: Vic Mistretta)

King, the historian, said Penrod stayed behind after the Mass to take a final photograph of the empty church, still as breathtaking as the day it opened in 1912.

“It was always just ‘The Church,’ and everyone loved it,” she told the Monitor

“No matter who you were, you were always welcome at Holy Spirit,” she said. “The community has changed over the decades, but that welcoming tradition was always there for you.”


‘I Knew It Was You’

Brian Woodrow’s dad always told him to leave a place better than he found it.

That’s what he set out to do when he became St. Dominic’s new pastor in 2018. Though his predecessors had undertaken various improvement projects over the years, the church, attached to an elementary school and a parish hall, still retained much of the utilitarian character that was popular in the 1960s when it was built.

As Trenton Bishop David O’Connell’s liaison to Catholics who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass, he arrived with a reputation for lofty aesthetic and liturgical standards. 

St. Dominic’s now offers a noon Mass in the older form each Sunday that draws many young families who have come to love the pre-Vatican II liturgy.

Father Woodrow at home inside St. Dominic's Catholic Church.
Father Brian Woodrow, pastor of St. Dominic Church in Brick, New Jersey, stands in the choir loft overlooking the church’s new altar. (Photo: Jeffrey Bruno )

One of the first changes Father Woodrow made was to relocate the tabernacle from a side alcove to the center of the sanctuary. He built choir stalls in the choir loft and started a schola cantorum (choir for sacred music), and he renovated the chapel with an altar rail and original paintings he commissioned of St. Joseph.

He was just getting warmed up. When he learned that Holy Spirit was set for demolition, his wheels really began to turn.

One night in 2022, he shared his vision with a select group of parishioners who agreed to meet him at Holy Spirit. If we don’t save this beautiful altar, he told them, it’ll wind up in a salvage yard, or worse.

“Father, can I share something?” one of the St. Dominic’s parishioners interjected. “I spent eight years of my life at this altar.” 

It was Peter Phillips. Father Woodrow had no idea this was his childhood parish; he’d made his first Holy Communion at that altar rail.

St. Dominic's altar before the restoration.
The altar of St. Dominic Church as it appeared before the 2022-23 renovation.(Photo: Courtesy photo)

Phillips knew something about being given a new lease on life. He died once.

Plagued by health problems related to a severe case of Lyme disease, Phillips, 73, has suffered seven heart attacks in the past 35 years. After his wife died eight years ago, he used alcohol to cope with his loneliness. He says he “died” after one particularly bad binge, but his daughter had an ominous feeling something was wrong and asked the police to check on him, and they revived him.

“Obviously, it was not God’s plan that I stay dead,” he told the Register. “I immediately had clarity of mind, realized what I had done, how far I had fallen away from what God wanted for me. And I made peace with God, got right with him, rededicated my life to the Lord, and since that time, I have been functioning within St. Dominic’s parish in an incredible way.” He’s now involved in several ministries, including Alcoholics Anonymous.

Phillips saw Father Woodrow’s ambitious project as a powerful symbol of his restored childhood faith. But not everyone at St. Dominic’s was on board with the plan.

The parish’s altar might not have been anything as grand as Holy Spirit’s, but longtime parishioners associated it with memories of their families’ baptisms, weddings and funerals. Besides, how would it fit with the church’s contemporary style?

Father Woodrow knew there were a lot of doubts. At opportune times, though, he seemed to receive the assurance he needed to press forward.

One of the biggest of these moments came when Brett Rugo, the owner of Rugo Stone, the Virginia company hired to dismantle, transport and reassemble the altarpieces, measured St. Dominic’s sanctuary to see if the Holy Spirit marble would even fit in the space.

Afterward, Rugo sat down and shook his head. “Father, I’m a Catholic, I’m a praying man, I’m a man of faith, but I can’t believe this,” Father Woodrow recalls him saying. “You realize this fits to the inch of your sanctuary?”

“That was a very fun, exciting kind of moment where you kind of look up to God, you look to the heavens, you look at the tabernacle, and you go, ‘Hah, I knew it was you,’” Father Woodrow recalled.

The work took place in semi-secret, behind an enormous, sealed curtain of opaque plastic in an ostensibly off-limits construction area, in front of which a temporary altar was set up. 

Father Woodrow lost count of how many parishioners he caught snooping around back there. He laughed, recalling the determined grandmas on walkers who would peel back the plastic and march right in, as if they owned the place, which, he came to realize, they actually do.

“And they wouldn’t apologize. They never apologized to me,” he said. “They’d see me and they’d just go, ‘Oh, we’ll be out in a minute, Father.’”

Father Woodrow wanted the project completed in five months so it would be ready for Easter. The Rugo crew installed and polished the last pieces the day before the vigil Mass.

Bishop O’Connell consecrated the new altar before the formal unveiling, and he returned to St. Dominic’s to say Mass on Pentecost Sunday.

“When I first saw the renovations in their new home, I was moved to tears,” Bishop O’Connell told the Register.

“St. Dominic Church,” he said, “is a model of the best of the Catholic liturgical imagination at work, using the norms currently in place. Repurposing the past by creating a new present and future is not only an example of good stewardship of Church resources but an example of the truth of St. Augustine’s words, ‘beauty ever ancient, ever new.’”

Many of the project’s skeptics have told Father Woodrow they feel the same way now. For him, the project was a testament to God’s providence.

“God’s always telling us faith can move mountains. We read that in Scripture,” Father Woodrow said. 

“Well,” he said, “faith can also move marble.”

New marble altar perfectly proportioned inside St. Dominic Catholic Church.
Bishop David O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton (right) stands beside Father Brian Woodrow on March 30, 2023, during a Mass at which the new altar was consecrated at St. Dominic Church in Brick, New Jersey.(Photo: Jeffrey Bruno )

Counting the Costs

But all that moving and reassembling? It cost … a lot. 

Father Woodrow won’t give the exact amount, but a major fundraising campaign, called “Living Stones,” is now underway.

It won’t be easy to raise the money; it wasn’t easy for Holy Spirit’s parishioners more than a century ago. But Father Woodrow is confident that St. Dominic’s will rise to the challenge.

bruno st dominics altar
The new altar at St. Dominic Church, which was moved from Holy Spirit Church in Asbury Park, New Jersey.(Photo: Jeffrey Bruno)CNA/ Jeffrey Bruno

He has completed yet another beautification project, renovating the electric candle room in the back of the church to house a shrine to Blessed Carlo Acutis, featuring real candles and a first-class relic of the Italian teen: a strand of his hair. Acutis’ mother attended the shrine’s dedication last October.

And he’s already thinking about his next moonshot: “I want a bell tower.”