“The very best thing about 1954 is that -I was ten years old 1954. The Earth and I were innocent still. The World was not yet nuclear. The Family still was. There is no home for science in the creative imagination of the young who know instinctively that the Poets are far more fun than the Scientists. Explanations made so clear by adult daylight go bump in the night of the child for childhood is the natural habitat of Mystery. So always it is. So let it always be- Please.”
Tom Hart ’57
The Eyes of Saint Joseph’s
The story you are about to read is true. Saint Joseph Church is located on Baldwin Avenue between Pavonia Avenue on the north and Magnolia Avenue to the south. The area is a relatively quiet neighborhood even as it sits in the middle of its urban environment. It was absent of any indication of what was to occur in the Springtime of 1954.
The church is magnificent with a tall steeple. At the base of each of the four sides of the steeple are three arched openings which face the four directions. There is very little inside the belfry there behind the openings and there is absolutely no source of fight in there whatsoever. Please keep that in mind.
In the early days of May in the year 1954, lights appeared in two of the arched openings at the base of the steeple on the side which faced south. After sunset,when it was dark, those fights gave the distinct appearance of two “Eyes”peering out into the Night. They became known as “The Eyes of Saint Joseph’s” and became front page stories in local and national newspapers. They also preoccupied the minds and hearts of countless thousands of people, all of this due to the fact that “The Eyes” were and remain what all the world loves – “A Mystery”. The attraction was such that experts estimated the crowds during the second week in May at twenty thousand people. 20,000 people.
The “Mystery” centered primarily on what caused the lights to appear. What was the source of the fights ? Why did they appear and then disappear so suddenly ? What happened to the church sexton ? What about the newspaper photograph ? Oh, this wasn’t the first time the eyes appeared. What about 1921? All of this added to the mysterious tenor of those two weeks in May.
The eyes had appeared in 1921. There was little recorded data about that. A few people still remained who had been there at the time and the general recollections were that someone noticed them one night and, several days later, someone noticed that they weren’t there. There was no memory of large crowds gathering, however. What I find wonderfully mysterious is that, while I was doing research on the eyes in 1990, 1 went to the Main Branch of the Public Library. There they maintain microfilmed copies of every newspaper printed locally since the first editions. I went to the card index file and found a notation, “Churches, St. Joseph’s : Stories about lights in tower in Observer, 7/5/21 & 7/7/21 & perhaps other dates as well”. A very helpful clerk gave me the microfilm for the third quarter of 1921 and I went to the audio-visual room. When I opened the box, I found a note which read, “Please note that the editions from the week of July 5 are missing”. I was dumbfounded and overjoyed. The mystery was greater than even I had thought.
So let us go back to 1954. Again, everyone wanted to know exactly “what were the eyes The priests and the police were mightily interested. The priests were being besieged by telephone callers who wanted either an interview or a miracle. The police were genuinely concerned about the real and present dangers posed by crowds of twenty thousand people. They believed that the crowds would continue to grow if something was not done to “get rid of those eyes’. Of course, most people had their own theories. Some believed that it was, in fact, a miracle of sorts. Others may have thought less than a miracle but something unexplainable at the very least. The most common theory was that the eyes were a “reflection” of a light or lights from somewhere outside the belfry.
That was reasonable because there certainly was no light inside the belfry. Many people said that the reflection was of the traffic lights. Some people even said that the eyes changed their hues from reddish to amberish to greenish. However, the fact is that the eyes remained a constant whitish tint, a fact which gave them the appearance of “eyes”. Besides, there were no traffic lights there in 1921. As well, if the source was a traffic light, why hadn’t the eyes shone before ? The traffic lights were there before and after the 1954 occurrence. Others thought that the source were lights from the railroad cut and even went so far as to cover those lights. The eyes remained through that coverup. The point is that there never was proved any theory which stood up. Even the theory of reflection itself is questionable because, while the eyes were extremely clear and visible from many points, from no point of viewing or angle was any stream of light able to be seen shining into or out from the steeple. The eyes appeared to be their own light source. They were, well they were just There.
The church sexton was a wonderful little man named Matthew Guarino. He had two young helpers, one of whom was his grandson. Each morning the grandson would pick Matty up and they would drive to work. On one day during the appearance, Matty went to the rectory at lunchtime and told the priests that he was going up to the belfry to do some investigating. On the next morning, the grandson came to the rectory and asked the priests if they had seen Matty because he wasn’t at home when the grandson went there that morning. They related what had happened the day before and the grandson went upstairs to see what he might find. What he found was Matthew Guarino’s body slumped in a pew in the choir loft very near the belfry. Medical reasons were given for his passing but the timing lent great airs to the mystery. Moreover, on the day when Matty went up to investigate, police also went up to do some of their own looking. Questions remain about why they never noticed the beloved little sexton.
Well..On one of those front pages in The Jersey Journal, there was a photograph of the eyes. The entire picture was eerily black except for two very bright eyes. The photo was uncannily like looking at the eyes in person. However, what I find fascinating is that the newspaper deemed it necessary to write the following caption which they tided “Mystery Lights”. They wrote, “This photograph, taken late last night, shows clearly the two ‘eyes’ of light which have mystified hundreds in the belfry of Saint Joseph Roman Catholic Church. Although it is customary for newspapers to retouch photographs such as this to make persons and objects appear sharper, no such retouching was done in the area of the fights in the picture. The lights are exactly as they appeared”. Phototechnology was nothing close to what it is today. Thus, that photograph is more fascinating with time. So is the fact that the newspaper felt it necessary to make that statement. They were mystified as was everyone else.
Things were truly phenomenal in the second week of May. The police were more concerned as the story went nationwide. So they decided to try something different. They would cover up the eyes with a heavy tarpaulin. Near lunchtime, two officers climbed to the steeple and secured a tarp outside the arched openings, covering them so as to hide any lights. Satisfied with their work, they walked downstairs and to their police vehicle which was parked with two passenger side tires parked on the sidewalk. As they approached their cruiser, the tarpaulin suddenly blew from its moorings and down to the ground. Depending on your recollection or your fondness for mystery, that tarp landed on or very near to the policemen and their automobile. The geography of the tarp’s landing is debatable. The fact that it blew down is fact. Undaunted, they went back up and reaffixed the tarpaulin and this time it stayed.
That evening, the eyes did not appear. They did not reappear and, rather more quickly than the police anticipated, the crowds dwindled until no noticeable number of people came after sunset when it grew dark. Very good police work, they said. I wonder. Since there were no lights or light source inside the belfry, what did the tarpaulin cover up ? As well, if the eyes were merely a reflection of an outside light source, why didn’t the eyes reflect off the tarpaulin ? That was as dark as the steeple at night and any light would have reflected from it as surely as it would have reflected from anything else up there.
Well, I was driving down Baldwin Avenue one night in 1991. 1 made a right hand turn onto Newark Avenue to go to The Court House Pharmacy. As I pulled to the curb next to Fred’s ( I still call it Fred’s. You may call it The Court House Luncheonette, McDonald’s, or anything else you please. I was pulling next to Fred’s) Unexplainably, I turned and looked up at the steeple. I did not do it with any forethought. I only know that I did it and I know that I saw the eyes. A flash and they were gone. I backed up. Very slowly. There they were again. I realized that there was a small space of some four feet within which they are visible. They were on the north side this time. But they were there. It was 1954 for me al over again. The world had become so scientific and technological. The world has reasons and causes for everything and it’s all cold hard fact. Nonsense. What I have come to know is that there are just fewer Poets right now. Ah, but the wonders and the mysteries are all the better because so few of us believe anymore. Thus, our reward is even greater. I told Rick Know about the eyes. He worked for The Dispatch then and he sent a reporter who did a story which they headlined, ‘Church’s ‘cat eyes’ return”. “Cat eyes” ? Some folks simply don’t get it. A photographer called me and I met him so that he could take a photograph. I met him on a rainy, foggy night and we stood on the Court House lawn, within a spare of four feet, and he said that he didn’t think the picture would come out because of the weather. I told him to have faith. He laughed.
They ran that photo on the front page with the story. Nice photo. No captions. He was nice enough to send me an eight by ten glossy. It was an incredible shot. The photo was dark but you are able tom see the steeple. The clarity is surprising. Then there are the eyes. Very large. I stared at those eyes staring out into the darkness. It came to me that I always had noticed that about the eyes. They always stared out into the night, out into the darkness. They always stared straight out, always looking above the crowd. They always seemed to be looking out to some infinitely distant somewhere. It came to me that, even in the bumpy nights of my childhood, the eyes had a sadness, a melancholy in their appearance. Now, they looked sadder than ever I remembered. I @ I understand them. I feel that same way a lot these days. I always resented those who gave explanations for the eyes. I always wanted them to be something which nobody could explain or understand. We humans know too much. Or we think we do. I really like the idea that the humans aren’t in control of everything. Want to know something ? The eyes have won. Eighty years after their first appearance, or at least the first we know, and as we enter a highly sophisticated Millennium, nobody has provided a single sentence of explanation for the eyes. I’m glad about that. My wish is that everyone would grow old without ever growing up. However, only a few of us actually do. If you have a theory about the eyes, whether then or now, please, please keep it to yourself. if you would like to talk about the mystery, however, please, please give me a call. I’d love to see you.