The 15-year-old church that has served as the place of worship for the community of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Freehold will be formally elevated to the status of a co-cathedral for the Diocese of Trenton during a Mass set for Feb. 19 at 11:30 a.m.
The Mass will be celebrated by Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and will begin with the signing and reading of the “acta” or decree, officially recognizing the elevation in the presence of invited Church leaders. Some 1,300 St. Robert parishioners and members of the diocesan community will take part in this historic event, and thousands more are expected to witness it via live video stream on diocesan websites. The event will mark the final step in the process of being granted a co-cathedral, which was formally begun by Bishop O’Connell in April, 2016.
A co-cathedral is a secondary worship site supplementing the mission and ministry of a diocese’s cathedral, or Mother Church. Fewer than 10 co-cathedrals in the United States have been approved by the Vatican.
The characteristic that best distinguishes a cathedral or co-cathedral is its cathedra, or official seat of the bishop, upon which the word “cathedral” is based. The new seat that is being installed in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral is a reproduction of an 1880s cathedra out of Europe, and is composed of American Black Walnut. According to the cathedra’s Mercer County-based craftsman, John Hans Martini, the wood was harvested from downed trees following a storm that struck the area.
St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral will support St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton, and different events will be held in one of the two locations depending on the specific needs present. Centrally located in the approximately 2,600 square miles that make up the four-county region of the Diocese (Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean), St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral offers another option for the scheduling of diocesan Masses, conferences and other events when a closer location is needed.
In a Dec. 28 message to the Diocese, Bishop O’Connell explained his rationale for petitioning the Holy See regarding the elevation of St. Robert Bellarmine Church. He noted that he moved the annual Chrism Mass – held on the Monday evening of Holy Week – from St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral in Trenton to the centrally located St. Robert Bellarmine Church two years ago to more easily accommodate the priests and their very full liturgical schedules at that time. The central location was also a benefit to the lay persons coming from each of the 107 parishes around the Diocese who have a role in this annual Mass during which the holy oils used in the sacraments for the year ahead are blessed and distributed.
Bishop O’Connell said, “Having attended so many events there and having read about all of the other diocesan activities that used St. Robert’s as their chosen venue, I considered the possibility of seeking its elevation as a co-cathedral for our vast Diocese.”
The architecture and environment of St. Robert Bellarmine Church was also notable, the Bishop said in his message: “Although the building is a new construction, it contains many traditional elements that make the nave and sanctuary warm and welcoming.” Bishop O’Connell pointed to the beautiful windows that let in light and “bring a sense of transparency and flow between the life of the church and the life of the community.” He also noted the beautiful marble appointments in the sanctuary and the construction of the nave (worship space) that required no pillars and gave congregants a clear view of all that was happening throughout the church.
The Bishop also acknowledged the exemplary cooperation the St. Robert community has consistently shown in facilitating numerous diocesan events. He said, “The faithful of the parish take seriously the ministry of hospitality to their brothers and sisters from around the Diocese, and our mission to receive all who come together in Christ’s name.”
The St. Robert Bellarmine Parish community was notified on Christmas Eve 2016 of the honor and responsibility that it was being given by the Holy See and the Bishop. The parish was established in 1971 and has grown in response to a burgeoning Catholic community in western Monmouth County. It now numbers more than 4,400 registered families.
Upcoming diocesan events scheduled for St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral include the Rite of Election (a step in the conversion process for new Catholics) set for March 5; the Mass for Law Enforcement (Blue Mass) on April 18; and the ordinations of deacons and priests, set for May 20 and June 3, respectively. Events for the winter and spring that will be held in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral are a conference for catechists (religious education teachers) March 11, and the Chrism Mass April 10. Check dioceseoftrenton.org for more information on these events.
The Diocese of Trenton is a community of more than 700,000 Catholics worshiping and ministering in 107 parishes across Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties.