Overlooking the Hackensack Meadowlands, from the highest geographical point in Bergen County, Madonna Chapel is also the county’s oldest catholic church. For 165 years this beautiful chapel has been watching over the lowlands of North Jersey. Although the insidious encroachment of the high-rise apartment buildings threatens to dwarf and blot it from view, the chapel still stands by its cemetery, visible to millions, as they swiftly travel the superhighways to and from New York. It stands as a reminder of a simpler past when such spires were of greater significance to those who made them and saw them from afar.

We would like for a moment to step back and take a slow look at Madonna church, to feel its presence, its significance and the weight of its years. Perhaps we can all gain a sense of perspective from this look. one of these in Hindustan during exploration of the Himalayas, October 19, 1875.

Celebrating 165 Years!

Madonna’s History

The land upon which Madonna church now stands was part of one of the first grants bordering the Palisades. Given to Samuel Moore by British Army Major John Berry in 1726, this land remained in the Moore family’s possession until 1829 when, as county records indicate, Jacob Riley purchased it and started construction on the chapel which was subsequently completed by Henry James Anderson in 1854. A few years later, a rectory was erected at the rear of the church.

Most Reverand John Joseph Hughes, first Archbishop of New York, appointed Father A. Cauvin pastor of the Fort Lee mission in 1851, a position which Father Cauvin held until 1859 when he delegated his work to an assistant, Reverend Annelli. This decade saw the Catholics from Hackensack and Lodi gathered weekly at Fort Lee for mass and spiritual instruction.

The most important individual in the young church’s history, however, was neither of these priests, but a layman, the already mentioned Henry James Anderson, whose remains today lie beneath the church’s floor with those of his wife and son. Anderson, a convert to Catholicism, was truly a remarkable man. While seeing to the church’s completion, he served as a surgeon and professor of astronomy and mathematics at Columbia College (now University) in New York City. His energy and persistence won Madonna, her first resident priest, Father Cauvin. The author of various scientific tracts, Anderson died suddenly (and to us mysteriously) while gathering information for one of these in Hindustan during exploration of the Himalayas, October 19, 1875.

“The seated Madonna”

Sunday after Sunday, for a century now, parishioners of Madonna have worshiped under the contented gaze of a mother and child. This particular union of mother and child is familiar to many throughout the world because of Raphael’s “Seated Madonna,” a Renaissance masterpiece, of which our own version is a virtual duplicate. Looking upon this treasure, one cannot help but wonder how it arrived at a quaint New Jersey chapel. Nevertheless, it belongs; the chapel wouldn’t be the same without its Madonna and although its history can only be guessed at, its beauty can’t be denied. Hanging over the Sanctuary, in its Baroquely gilded frame, this painting represents only one of the many varied elements which make up our “Chapel on the Hill.”

The Architecture

The design of Madonna Church is a blend of classic styles typical of American architecture in the early 19th century. Constructed in the years 1830-35, its unknown architect was doubtlessly influenced by the wave of Romantic eclecticism that washed over into this country from England at that time. (Indeed, up until World War II, all American art and architecture lagged about 30 years behind the trendsetters in Europe.) The church is basically done in a style known as Gothic Revival though it has elements of Romanesque, Italian Baroque, and English colonial.

The exterior has many Gothic details in its arched windows and patterned trim around the steeple, but the thick walls are reminiscent of the stately fortresslike aspects of medieval Romanesque. The walls are made of basalt gathered from the foot of the Palisades in Fort Lee and bordered with red sandstone. Three foot thick all around, they are made even stronger by two foot thick buttresses. Needless to say, the church was built to last forever.

The bell tower was obviously inspired by the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe. It is over eighty-five feet high and from its hilltop location is visible for miles. The original bronze bell, weighing over 300 lbs., was removed from the belfry in 1983.The bell was replaced by a Carillon bell music system. In 2019 the original bell was hung and can be seen next to the Historic Church in the Priest circle.

Inside the church, one’s attention is first gathered in the Sanctuary area around the altar. The marble altar, dating from 1903, was at one time secured to the wall behind it but in recent years it has been moved forward to concur with modern liturgy. The walls above and around the altar are covered with original hand painted frescoes, done in a late-Gothic manner similar to that of Giotto, the great Italian master. Two complete scenes from the Blessed Mother’s life are depicted in the frescoes, “The Annunciation” and “The Assumption into Heaven.”

Join us for Mass

The 11:00 Mass on the last Sunday of each month offers a special remembrance for all who are lying within our mausoleum awaiting the resurrection. You are invited to attend this Mass whenever you like, and to add your prayers to those of the community.