From 12th century crusaders who became hermits on a mountain in the deserts of northern Palestine to the founding of communities in the great cities of Europe and eventually in the Americas and around the world, the history of our Carmelite order is intimately connected to the lives and stories of individual souls who sought out prayerful solitude together in the world.
Unlike most religious orders, the Carmelites have no founder. Instead, we trace our beginning to some hermits who settled on Mount Carmel in Palestine more than 800 years ago. That is a long way from Tenafly, NJ! Our story begins after the Civil War when Catholics began to move into the Northern Valley of Bergen County.
Dutch and English Protestants inhabited this area. An Irish Catholic from Pennsylvania, John Harrold, was hired to construct some new luxury homes for New York bankers and stockbrokers wishing to move out into the country. Harrold recruited Irish emigrant workers by waiting outside the Castle Garden Immigration Center in lower Manhattan. As the immigrants arrived Harrold asked if any of them were carpenters and were looking for a job. He hired men on the spot and brought them to a boarding house in Tenafly. This was the beginning of the Catholic presence in Tenafly.
In 1873 a group of these Catholic families under the leadership of John Harrold petitioned Bishop Corrigan to start a Catholic parish. On July 5, 1873 the Parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was formally organized. The first mass was celebrated in a wooden barn. Soon the families bought a piece of land on the Faley Reservation and built a humble wooden chapel. The parishioners were proud of their church but the bishop was not impressed. He was quoted on his visit as saying, “This is not a fit place to bring a Bishop.”
Father Paganini was the first pastor followed by Father Cornelius Cannon. In 1878 the Bishop entrusted the parish to the Carmelite Fathers of Englewood. The Carmelites have served in Tenafly ever since.
Father Theodore McDonald, O.Carm. became the third pastor. He immediately requested the Sisters of Charity to help establish a school. A strong believer in Catholic education Fr. Theodore told the parishioners, “If I must sell my own coat we shall have Sisters in a very short time, and we shall have our own school.” In October of 1879 Mount Carmel School opened with 30 students. Two Sisters of Charity arrived each morning by train from Englewood and walked from the depot one mile to the school through mud and water, heat and cold. The Sisters of Charity stayed in the parish for 99 years and left in 1978. The school, now an academy is still flourishing and was recently awarded a Blue Ribbon of Excellence by the Department of Education.
Newly arrived Italian families joined the original Irish Catholic families in the 1890’s. Both groups were working people, mostly carpenters or stone masons or servants. Both groups struggled to be accepted. In 1905 Father Benedict O’Neill, O.Carm. bought a plot of land in the center of town. It was the site of the Huyler estate, an old Dutch farm. The little wooden church was moved from an obscure side street to this new prominent site. Some boro citizens were shocked at having a Catholic Church so visible in the center of town. Yet by the 1920’s the Catholic presence in Tenafly greatly increased.
During 1917 and 1918 Mount Carmel parish could boast the largest Catholic congregation in the United States. Camp Merritt was operating those years within the parish boundaries. Each day the camp’s population was about 50,000 and it was estimated that 40 per cent of the soldiers were Catholic. On many a night thousands of the soldiers were ordered to embark for Europe and the pastor Father Fidelis Paulding, O.Carm. would go to the camp in the night for Confessions and Communion.
During the first half of the 20th century parish families prospered. Then in the 1950’s the East Hill of the borough was developed with large and beautiful houses. Young Catholic professionals moved into the parish from New York and from Union and Jersey Cities. What was once called a “swamp mission” became a very desirable location.
In 1952 Father Gregory Bergen, O.Carm built the current Church and School. In the 1960’s Father James McGill built the rectory, convent and new school wing. Father Campion Doyle, O.Carm guided the parish into the new Church of Vatican II.
As an active and progressive parish, Fr. Ashley Harrington, O.Carm. began updating the parish and in the late 1990’s modernized the facility by building an elevator and memorial giving wall. The Very Reverend Father Leonard J. Gilman, O.Carm oversaw the largest renovation project to our parish and school facilities since the 1960’s; our school has been transformed into an Academy and a nationally recognized Blue Ribbon School of Excellence. Under the leadership of Fr. Dan O’Neill, O.Carm. the OLMC community expanded ministries to our Filipino community, Peru Medical Mission, Interfaith dialogue, expanded our Confirmation Program and Family Promise Homeless Shelter program.
Now, Fr. Ashley Harrington is back and what started as a humble country church has grown to 1,300 registered families of varied backgrounds and cultures involved in many outreach and community programs. Making the Catholic Community of Our Lady of Mount Carmel a place that no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’re from, no matter where you’re going, no matter how good or bad things seem, you are always welcome.