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Santa Filomena.

Catacombs of St. Joseph (In Transition)

Field review by the editors.

Newark, New Jersey

The catacombs of Europe endure as travel destinations, symbols of the secretive, subterranean growth of early Christianity. Catacombs offer an appeal that any labyrinth with dead body shelves and niches has for tourists. Yet the United States suffers from an almost complete lack of publicly accessible catacombs.


The absence of walkable underground cemeteries obviously bothered the Rev. Father Mateo Amoros, who was the assistant pastor at St. Joseph's Church in Newark, New Jersey. Father Amoros reportedly took a trip to Montreal, saw some catacombs, and decided that his church should have them as well.

Father Amoros may have never intended his catacombs to serve as a functioning cemetery, but the state of New Jersey certainly frowned on burying the dead in warrens beneath public buildings. That didn't stop Father Amoros. He opened his catacombs anyway, in 1937, but instead of bodies he filled it with wax replicas of the favorite martyrs of St. Joseph's Church. The Franciscan father had created a Greatest Hits catacombs, and by accident he'd also created the first wax museum in the U.S. It's the continental ancestor of every wax Last Supper and house of horrors currently scattered across the country.

As if the saints were having a sleepover in the catacombs...
As if the saints were having a sleepover in the catacombs...

The catacombs of St. Joseph are small, and are more resembling an oddly finished basement than a Roman city of the dead. Old porch lights are mounted into the cement ceiling; the niches are fronted by glass fogged with age and lit by big Christmas bulbs. It's easy to imagine handyman Father Amoros laboring in his catacombs with the same after-hours energy that his parishioners used to build bird feeders and brick barbecues at their homes.

St. Cecelia.
St. Cecelia.

The entrance to the catacombs is easy to miss, marked only by a small sign -- Catacumbas in this Spanish-speaking parish -- above an equally small metal door that opens to the sidewalk. The building above is no longer a church, but an annex of the Immaculate Heart of Mary school. Visitors have to walk to the rectory and ask someone to open the door (it helps to know a little Spanish) then walk back outside, through the door, and down a short flight of steps.

The catacombs' sunflower-yellow cement walls and ceilings give an unexpectedly cheery counterpoint to the replica remains. The cacophony from small feet running overhead make this an unrestful final resting place.

Each wax effigy is accompanied by a gold-framed bilingual biography. A Recumbent Christ sprawls at the base of the stairs, "tired of sharing so much love," according to his sign. His famous visage needs no explanation, but the rest of the gang, who date mostly from the early A.D. heyday of Christian martyrdom, benefit from their accompanying bios.

Down the hall from Jesus is the niche occupied by St. Tarsicio, a 12-year-old altar boy who was beaten to death for refusing to surrender his Eucharist. Around the corner is St. Genaro, who was "thrown into a lighted oven" and "thrown in with wild beasts" for choosing Christianity over paganism. Two crypts down is St. Ines, "obedient girl and role model," who refused to marry a Roman -- she said she was already married to God -- and then escaped vengeful murder because she was a virgin. So she was dragged to a brothel, deflowered, and then vengefully murdered.

Original fresco - Jesus over the rainbow.
Original fresco - Jesus over the rainbow.

All of the martyrs lie peacefully, their heads on lovely pillows, although several of them have deep gashes in their necks to denote that they were decapitated. In fact, their bios suggest that martyrs, like zombies, are tough to kill without removing their heads. St. Genaro's trial by oven and beasts failed to do the job, so he was decapitated. St. Cecilia, who has the largest crypt in the catacombs, was condemned to death by steaming; it didn't work and so she went to the chopping block. Tough-as-nails St. Filomena was scourged, shot with arrows, and drowned with an anchor, all without success, and so she was beheaded as well. Her wax figure holds a small anchor as a memento.

A metal plaque on the wall near the stairs notes that Father Amoros left St. Joseph's in 1945. The drive to improve or expand the catacombs seems to have halted with his departure. A central altar is still set for mass, and is watched over by a large, framed photo of Pope John XXIII, personally signed by him in 1959. This suggests that the Catholic hierarchy appreciated Father Amoros' bit of the Old World in New Jersey, even if not many other people knew about it.

The catacombs received a makeover in 1984 when an artist named Nina Tamburro painted religious frescoes on the walls. Her broad-faced, olive-skinned people contrast with the willowy Caucasian corpses, and reflect how much the congregation had changed in 50 years. Despite her earnest attempts at art, Nina's most memorable work is the dripping cartoon blood that she painted on a wall below Jesus' hands as he hangs from a mounted crucifix.

As far as we know, Father Amoros' catacombs have only one rival in the U.S., or at least only one that's open to the public. It was also built by Franciscans, who are still very much around. This offers hope that catacombs construction in the U.S. is not dead, but merely sleeping on lovely pillows.

Catacombs of St. Joseph

Immaculate Heart of Mary Church

114 Prospect St., Newark, NJ
At the Immaculate Heart Of Mary Church, in the Ironbound District, on the southeast corner of Prospect and Lafayette Sts. Ask for permission at the rectory next door, at 114 Prospect St.
Currently closed for repairs; call before visiting. (Call to verify)
In Transition
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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