Newly Renovated St. Anthony Friary in North Jersey

Wendy Healy Features

BUTLER, N.J. – After enduring seven months of sawdust and hammering, the 18 retired friars at the St. Anthony Friary here – located less than a mile from busy Rt. 23 in northern New Jersey — are enjoying their newly renovated space. 

With spruced up bedrooms and a private bathroom for each resident, the Butler friary – one of the Province’s oldest residences – unveiled its facelift in late January. 

John Mahon, OFM, 
guardian and coordinator of the renovation process, said the expansion, redesign and redecorating was necessary for the 96-year-old gray stone building, which has served many uses over the past century.

History of the Project
The project came about, according to Christopher Coccia, OFM, Provincial Counselor, after a fraternal visit to the friary. “John Felice, OFM, suggested at a Provincial Council meeting that we should consider renovations to the Butler friary so that each friar would have a private bathroom,” he said. When John O’Connor was elected Provincial, he asked Christopher to work on the Provincial Property Committee, and Christopher suggested a feasibility study to see if renovations could be accomplished. 

After an architect was found and plans had been drawn up, the bidding process began, according to Christopher. The winning contractor’s bid was presented to the Provincial and the council for approval, and with everyone’s support, work began in June 2007. 

An Easily Accessible Space
With some of the friars getting up in age, the Province wanted to make the rooms more comfortable and safe for residents. In addition, most of the residents were using common bathrooms, and the Province wanted to provide more accessible and private accommodations. 

To create the extra space, some of the bedrooms were turned into adjoining bathrooms and closets. Large, handicap-accessible shower stalls and grab bars were added to better accommodate shower chairs and for residents with walkers. New floors and sinks also brighten up the new space. 

Doorknobs were turned into easy-to-turn latches for the elder friars, according to John. Some of the bedroom furnishings were bought new new, while other pieces were refinished by Pat Fereday, OFM, and his staff.

“Nothing is excessive,” John said. “It’s just good, clean new space.”

While most of the friars are still independent, several use walkers, according to John. The oldest – at 94 – is still getting around okay, he added.

In all, 30 rooms were renovated in the six-story building, according to John.

“It was mostly done for the senior friars,” said Christopher, by phone from his office in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We wanted to make them comfortable. It was a very old building. Everyone who knows Butler knows how it’s built. It’s a sound, but old building.”

A Venerable History
Dominic Monti, OFM, Provincial vicar, said the friary, also has an old and venerable history.

“In 1878, friars began traveling from Paterson on weekends to minister to the Catholic community there and a small frame church was built,” he said. Richard Butler, owner of the rubber factory, donated the present property in 1892. According to Dominic, as the young Province began to attract more vocations, it thought about constructing a new residence that might eventually be a house of studies.  “Francis Koch, OFM, was given the task of raising funds and building a new monastery, as it was then called.”

The building was designed by architect Thomas Duff of New York, who also designed St. Malachy’s Church in Manhattan. When it was opened in 1914, lack of funds made it possible to finish only the first two floors inside, said Dominic. In 1917, the church was enlarged with a new sanctuary and sacristy connecting the friary to the church. In the early 1920s, the rest of the interior was completed, and provided a home for young friars in formation during their second year of philosophy studies. In 1953, the philosophy program was moved to Rye Beach, N.H.  At that time, due to the very high number of vocations, the first-year theology students studied in Butler from 1953 to 1957.  The friary then served as the headquarters of Friar magazine until 1979 and also as a residence for friars engaged in the Ministry of the Word. In the 1970s, it became a retirement house as well.

A Job Well Done
Both Christopher and John praised the quality of the construction crews and their workmanship, and said the renovation created very little disruption. A reception for friars and workmen was being planned. Christopher wanted to especially thank Pat, who assisted with moving furniture and other tasks associated with the project.

“We were blessed with a company that was easy to work with. Everyone could remain here – no one had to move out, except for two friars,” said John. 

 – Wendy Healy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today.