St. James Episcopal Church pastor retires after 35 years

Staff Writer

 The Rev. William Gerhart has retired from St. James Episcopal Church in Edison after 35 years of service. The Rev. William Gerhart has retired from St. James Episcopal Church in Edison after 35 years of service. EDISON — The Rev. William Gerhart led his last service Dec. 29 at the St. James Episcopal Church on Woodbridge Avenue, where he served for 35 years.

Gerhart said because of the church’s financial decision to go from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor, he and his wife Karen decided it was best to take an early retirement.

“We have experienced the same trend as others, where fewer and fewer people are going to church,” he said, adding another factor is the demographics in the area have changed. “I have noticed a decrease in the basic knowledge of God in society. … I’m not sure why this is, but there are many different answers.”

Gerhart came to the historic church in April 1978 after answering an opening for a position at the congregation.

“It was a fairly large congregation of 120 people at Sunday service,” he said.

In recent years, Gerhart said he is likely to see 40 people on a good Sunday when everyone is healthy.

“We have experienced several cycles of ups and downs over the years,” he said.

Gerhart grew up in Philadelphia. He said he received his calling into the priesthood when he was 7 years old.

“I never changed my mind, even when I went into high school,” he said.

After high school, Gerhart attended La Salle College, which is now La Salle University in Philadelphia, and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. He attended Episcopal Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky., and received a master’s degree in divinity.

Shortly after, he was ordained a deacon and then a priest, and served his Diaconate at Grace Church for almost two and a half years in Merchantville before coming to St. James.

The church, which has been in the community since 1704, sits on the Piscatawaytown Burial Ground, which is owned by the township.

“The church is considered a historic building, but is not considered a historic site,” said Gerhart.

A certified plaque from the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., is displayed on the wall in the church and states that St. James Episcopal Church is a historic building and sits in the Library of Congress.

“If this was a historic site, we wouldn’t have been able to have put an addition on the church, which went on in 1913 and provides space for our soup kitchen,” he said.

Gerhart said when the natural gas pipeline explosion occurred at the Durham Woods apartment complex in 1994, the church was one of the places where people could drop off food and clothing, which were then distributed at Edison High School.

“That is around the time our soup kitchen began,” he said.

Since he came to the church, it has celebrated two milestones — the 275th anniversary and the 300th anniversary, in 2004, Gerhart said.

“For the 275th, we dressed in colonial wear and arranged the altar and prayer books to look like they were from that time,” he said.

Gerhart said St. James even had someone dressed as President-Elect George Washington, who passed the church on his way to his inaugural address in 1789, since Woodbridge Avenue — known as Old Post Road at the time — was one of the main roads.

During the American Revolution, from December 1776 to June 1777, St. James was taken over by the British for use as a barracks and hospital. In 1835, the church was partially destroyed by a tornado.

“From what we gather, the church was reconstructed with the wood in the 1700s,” he said. “In 1836, the porch was added on.”

As for the future, Gerhart said he passes along the hope nurtured in recent talks about creating a parish hall where Sunday classes can be held.

Gerhart said he was leaving the church after one of his favorite services.

“My favorite Mass is the midnight Christmas Eve service,” he said. “It’s very special, where we have carolers singing, and for several years we have had one of our parishioners, who is an award-winning poet, do a reading.”

Gerhart said he will miss all the pastoral aspects of serving at St. James, a place he called home for so many years.

He and his wife are moving to North Carolina, where he said he hopes to continue ministry.

During his time at St. James, Gerhart also served as chaplain to the Middlesex County Auxiliary Police Academy.