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Rutgers Professors Discuss History of Religion in New Brunswick

Landscape Has Changed Drastically Over The Past 100 Years
Sacred Heart Church
Hundreds gathered at the Sacred Heart Church on Good Friday for a Spanish-language version of the Stations of the Cross. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The religious landscape in the Hub City has been constantly changing, especially due to the arrival of new immigrants, over the past century.

Religious communities helped immigrant families become integrated into American society and provided great resources for new families.

However, the trend of relying on a church or religious community is greatly reducing as people are becoming more connected with one another and banding together, not by religion, but by shared morality.

These topics, and more, were covered during a free lecture held on April 29 at the New Brunswick Free Public Library.

Jim Niessen is a historian of modern Eastern Europe and German and Slavic Languages, Religion, Philosophy, and Jewish studies.

Many people might not be aware of the rich history behind the churches of New Brunswick and the immigrants that started them.

Before the 1900's, the United States could be considered a "Protestant" country. There were few, if any, Catholics in the USA, in part because of the association between the Catholic religion and the Monarchy of England.

The United States of America, newly an independent country, had not forgotten the tyranny of British rule. From 1820-1900, the largest group of immigrants came from Ireland and Germany.

Both groups had a high Catholic population, and when they came to America, they set up their own Catholic churches.

St. Peter's, the first Catholic church in New Brunswick was on Bayard Street consisted mostly of Irish Catholics, and was set up in 1829.

In 1865, German Catholics set up their first church in New Brunswick, St. John the Baptist Church.  It was also located on Bayard Street.

In the 1900's, when Italian immigrants were the largest immigrant group moving to the United States, they set up the first Italian Catholic Church on Sanford Street.  A statue of Christopher Columbus remains outside St. Mary's to this day.

In 1849, after the first Hungarian Revolution, the US saw an increase in the amount of Hungarians fleeing Austrian authorities, and the number of Hungarian immigrants further increased in the years before World War I.

The influx of Hungarian immigrants led to the opening of the first Hungarian Church in New Brunswick, Somerset Street's St. Ladislaus, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

These churches are not just special because they represent a sanctuary for new immigrants to be able to form their own community and carry on their culture, but also because of the rich history behind each church.

Religion was a special part of the community specifically due to the diversity of the immigrants coming to America. However, the trend of relying on religion to form community appears to be dying out.

Professor Joseph Williams of Rutgers University's Religion Department, talked about the increase of the so-called "religious nones," or people who do not identify with an organized religion.

In the 1950’s, only 2% of the American population would identify themselves as not religious, said Williams. This percentage fluctuated over the next fifty years, but always remained in the single digits.

The big change came in 2007 when a survey indicated that a record-high 16% of the population did not identify with a religious group. The trend has continued, with that percentage increasing to 23% in 2014.

It is estimated in 2017 that the number now could be as high as 25%.

One surprising thing about this group is that, while they do not identify with a religious community, many describe themselves as spiritual and some pray everyday.

Professor Williams explained a number of reasons are responsible for this, noting that 19% of Catholics who left the Church cite the reason for leaving to the widespread cover-up of sexual abuse on the part of priests in the church.

Many have also said that the over-politicization of religion has caused them to become disillusioned with religious groups, especially when it comes to the treatment of the LGBTQ community and issues like abortion.