My Grandfather, a Small Church, and Italian Immigrants

The playground where this story took place is behind the Silver Lake Baptist Church (as it used to look) in Belleville, New Jersey.

The church in Belleville, New Jersey.

A  church in Belleville, New Jersey, will celebrate its 100th anniversary in November 2014, and my grandfather, Benedetto Pascale, founded that church in 1914. Several years earlier, in 1909, he had traveled from Naples, Italy to Boston and eventually to the mills in Lawrence, MA, where he labored just in time for the Bread and Roses workers strike (I’ll be writing more on this later in a later post).

The manifest from the White Star Line ship Canopic, which brought my grandfather to the United States. arriving on March 23. 1909.

The manifest from the White Star Line ship Canopic, which brought my grandfather to the United States, arriving on March 23. 1909.

Immigrants arriving from Italy and looking for a Catholic church often found their way blocked by large Irish congregations (I learned this at a Lawrence Massachusetts Museum that focuses on the textile mills and the immigrant experiences).

One of the old mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. My Grandfather worked in one of these buildings (and today  there dozens of them still stand).

One of the old mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. My Grandfather worked in one of these buildings (and today  there dozens of them still stand).

When northeastern United States evangelical Baptist leaders observed this situation they took action. They began welcoming immigrants into their churches, identifying young men with leadership potential. They helped the men learn English and finish high school, guiding them through the naturalization process, and encouraging a select few  to go into the ministry. Grandpa Pascale was one of these men, eventually attending seminary at a small Colgate University storefront on Deitz Avenue in Brooklyn.                                      

A group of men from the seminary. My grandfather is in the front row, second from the right.

A group of men from the seminary. My grandfather is in the front row, second from the right.

The small program sent ministers to Italian immigrant churches in areas around Newark, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia. My grandpa ended up starting a small church in Belleville, just outside of Newark, and sponsored by a larger church in nearby Bloomfield, New Jersey. He continued his ministry for 70 years right up until the day he died.

Silver Lake Baptist Church eventually welcomed hundreds of people into its community. It held worship services, English classes, all sorts of musical programs, and Bible lessons meticulously illustrated by hundreds of stereo optic slides (I even have one of Grandpa’s old slide readers).

Grandpa and Grandma were married at the church in 1918.

Grandpa and Grandma were married at the church in 1918.

Grandpa at the front of the church in 1918.

Grandpa at the front of the church in 1918.

The church offered social events for adults, a playground for their children, boy scouts, and athletic teams of all kinds. It soldiered on guiding its members through the year after World War I, the Spanish Influenza, the Depression, World War II, into the 1950s, and beyond.

In 1918 Grandpa married Rachael Corbo, a sister of one of his seminary schoolmates, and she played the organ, directed the choirs, organized countless other music activities, guided women’s projects, and cooked for dozens (all to support her husband) until she died in 1957.

Dad alba gpa

Grandpa, my dad, and his sister Alba.

Three children were born, but one died, we believe of influenza, in 1921. The other two, Alba who inherited her mother’s musical gifts and Elmo who followed his father into the ministry, are both in their 90s in 2014.

If Benedetto Pascale had just started a church and welcomed members, it would be a fairly routine story in the history of American immigrants. But he did far more.

The Sliver Lake Friendly House, built in the mid-1930’s

The Sliver Lake Friendly House, built by members of the church in the mid-1930s.

The church sponsored medical and dental clinics, clothing cooperatives, and even built Belleville’s first recreational building — called The Friendly House. Among the project’s contributors was Thomas Edison, who send along a note that Grandpa kept for years, but it was lost after he died.

Many members of the church — carpenters, plumbers, electricians, brick layers, and cement masons — worked on the Friendly House. Grandpa knew that many of them needed work and the construction, he decided, could give them some. The building had a printing press, bowling alleys, a swimming pool, and a regulation size gym where Bloomfield college played its basketball games.

Children playing in the sprinkler outside the Friendly House.

Children playing in the sprinkler outside the Friendly House.

Grandpa was a Sermon on the Mount Christian, and these Bible passages served as the model for his ministry throughout his career. He helped people find jobs, visited the sick, visited individuals who went to prison, aided their families, and assisted them after their release.

During World Was I and World War II he regularly wrote to the young men who were serving and attended to their needs when they returned home or their family’s needs when they didn’t. My grandfather encouraged people to think positively, but spoke out if he observed a person mistreating another individual and generally saw himself as a shepherd with church members as his flock.

Sunday School picture taken in the drive way on the side of the parsonage. Grandpa is on the far right in the front with daughter Alba.

Sunday School picture taken in the drive way on the side of the parsonage. Grandpa is in the front second from the right with daughter Alba.

The church had a huge Sunday School that, in addition to Sunday morning lessons, sponsored picnics, choirs, athletic teams, field trips, music lessons, visits to cultural events. and much more.

Benedetto Pascale could have preached fiery sermons picking out scary or apocalyptic Bible passages that frighten and threaten people, but he didn’t. He could have told people to convert “or else,” but he didn’t, instead using compassion and love in even the most trying circumstances. My grandfather could have enriched himself and purchased big cars, but he didn’t, and several times over the years church officers had to convince him that it was more than past time to purchase a new one. He still did not want to purchase the car so the church bought it for him. Note: Today, the little church’s webpage is sometimes full of political as well as religious messages. My grandfather, Benedetto Pascale, NEVER used the church to condemn or denigrate people or leaders, despite disagreeing with them often.

Grandma and Grandpa in the early 1950s.

Grandma and Grandpa in the early 1950s, standing by the parsonage and in front of the gate to the Friendly House playground.

My grandfather could have been angry and vocal when he strongly disagreed with other people — be they other church leaders or politicians or other members of the community —  but he didn’t. Instead he treated with respect wrote about. “Martha,” Grandpa would say, when I bickered with him or some other person, “No matter what a person does, it’s not right to hurt others.” He knew the meaning of  “… to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with his God,” (from Micah 6:8) and led his life accordingly.

Two ministers- my grandfather and my dad in the mid-1940s.

Two ministers – my grandfather and my dad in the mid-1940s.

From my grandfather, along with mom and dad, I learned my first lessons about never, ever talking about or treating adversaries with hate. And Grandpa knew it was important to believe in immigrants. How come? The United States had given him, his family members, and the members of his church family so much opportunity, so why not offer the same advantages to others? He also respected the beliefs of other people in churches.”There’s one God,” he often said, “but lots of ways to believe.”


Grandpa at the church’s 58th anniversary.

Grandpa had a huge library, some of the books in the church and many more in his parsonage study. He owned several treasured copies of Dante’s Inferno and countless Bibles, some in Italian. And every book my grandfather read — as a child I used to sneak into his study and look around — was well used and filled with his handwritten annotations and questions, sometimes in English and sometimes in Italian.

People would come up to us and tell us how he was always there for them. My dad recalls how, on the day his wife, my grandmother, Rachael died, Grandpa walked out of the room in great distress, only to meet a parishioner who was about to go into surgery. The woman waved to him, asking for news of my grandma before being wheeled into her own surgery. Grandpa took her hand, said the Grandma was better, and offered a prayer.

I remember his funeral — I was in my early thirties with a three-year old daughter — watching one person after another come up to my dad and my aunt, speaking with emotion of the life-changing support my grandfather — the Rev, they called him — had offered, some pointing out that he even offered the assistance when they were complete strangers to him.

Don’t get me wrong. He knew how to laugh and loved jokes. He could lecture his children and grandchildren if he thought that they were not making enough of the opportunities that came their way.  He liked to give somewhat long descriptions about the books that he read. Yet he knew how to play and enjoy time with family. Our family days on the Jersey Shore were always special, although as Grandpa got older he came to the shore less and less.

The Congressional Recorded from February 22, 1963 when Rev. Benedetto gave the opening prayer in the United States Senate.

The Congressional Recorded from February 22, 1963 when Rev. Pascale gave the opening prayer in the United States Senate.

In later life Reverend Benedetto Pascale offered opening prayers at the United States Senate and also in the U.S. House of Representatives. He did the same for governing bodies in New Jersey.

He was a police and fire chaplain and a regular visitor at most of the area hospitals where he would ask specifically who did not have visitors and go to see them. I remember that once when I was a little girl and waiting (and waiting) for an interminable time in a hospital lobby, Grandpa finally came down, but as we were about to leave a woman came running after him to thank him for visiting her husband because no one had visited him for weeks.

Grandpa and me in 1952.

Grandpa and me in 1952.

Grandpa died in 1984. The Silver Lake church has experienced some rough patches, but now has a dynamic minister who has helped the congregation and the building itself thrive. Once again the church offers all sorts of classes and opportunities for its parishioners (though I wish the church blog posts read a bit more gently).

In May 1984 at Grandpa Pascale’s funeral my dad offered the homily, concluding with these words about his father:

M.y family at the front of the church at Christmas 1982

My family at the front of the church at Christmas 1982

Here was a devout man fulling St. James’ insight concerning pure religion. Here was a person earning the words of Jesus, “Well done thou good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of many things.”

Grandpa loved others, let his light shine, and glorified God, and he spent all of his energy helping others to see, understand, and do good works. (from Matthew 5:16)

6 thoughts on “My Grandfather, a Small Church, and Italian Immigrants

  1. Hi Martha, I enjoyed your story about the Rev and your family. As you know we are celebrating 100 years this Sunday. I sent an invitation to your parents and to Alba, but I know they are up in years and traveling might be a bit too strenuous. I remember when you were born and your brother too. I babysat for David. I love your stories about the church and I am going to share your site with other old timers from the church. Your grandparents were very special people. I have wonderful memories growing up in SLBC I have life long friends from the church and we have a great time sharing our memories. I don’t know if your dad remembers me but i do remember him and your mother.


  2. Hi Marti,
    I am Rebecca Yewell Witjas, and you are mty second cousin. Your grandmother Rachel, was my great aunt who I never got to know. My grandmother was her older sister, Donitella, who married my grandfather, John F. Yewell. I am trying to find out where my grandmother was born (she was born in Dec. 1891), and if she was born in New Jersey, then where my great grandparents were born, (Maria and Rocco Corbo). Their gravestones are also in Bloomfield cemetery along with your parents. I am especially interested in birth places. Your grandfather for instance was born in Presenzano, in Campania (a region) in Italy, southern Italy to be exact. I want to find out about my Italian roots even though apparently my grandmother (who died in 1943 before I was born) seemed to not want to connect much with her own family.
    Thank you for helping me.


  3. Pingback: Caregiving in the Time of CoVid-19: #5: My Grandmother & Church Caregiving During the 1918 Influenza | As Our Parents Age

  4. Pingback: The Photos and Paperwork That Document a Life | As Our Parents Age

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