BRADLEY BEACH — Walk into the former First United Methodist Church and she will look at you.
The face of a gray-haired woman with a stern gaze peers from the center of a stained glass window of the historic church that the borough purchased last year to keep from being demolished.
Now, the Bradley Beach Historical Society can put a name to the face.
“This is truly remarkable to finally get confirmation on the identity of the woman in the window,” said Paul Neshamkin, president of the Bradley Beach Historical Society. “But she has been ‘discovered’ before. It just shows how easily things can be lost to history.”
Borough resident Jack Gentempo believes he solved the mystery – the woman is Sarah Jane Corson Downs, a local leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union from Ocean Grove. His research was assisted by Sandy Michlich, a research librarian from Neptune.
“I asked a fellow in Ocean Grove who is very good with local history, and he pointed me to a research librarian in Neptune’s Library,” Mr. Gentempo said. “She sent me a great deal of material and once I went through it all, I knew it was Sarah Downs in the window.”
Mrs. Downs led the New Jersey Women’s Christian Temperance Union from 1881 until her death in 1891, according to the Bradley Beach Historical Society. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement. An Ocean Grove resident, Mrs. Downs’ home at 104 Mount Tabor Way is noted with a historical marker as the ‘Downs Cottage.”
The church, located at 319 Lareine Ave., was built in 1900, but a previous church on that plot of land dates back even further. In 1886, the borough’s namesake, James Bradley, donated the land to the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to build “The Church in the Woods.” The association moved a church from Asbury Park to the location, and it was later torn down and replaced with the current structure.
“I was told by someone associated with the church that the woman in the window was Frances Willard. I had no reason to believe otherwise,” said John Weber, a councilman who lives next door to the church. Mrs. Willard was a New York born suffragette who was the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. “After learning myself, I got a few people aware of and excited about who Frances Willard was, but I’m really glad someone did the research to determine the real ‘woman in the window.’”
Due to dwindling church attendance over the years, the church shut down services in 2014 and fell into disrepair. The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association took over the deed to the church and planned to sell it to a housing developer, who would demolish the structure and build homes on the property.
But in 2019, the borough stepped in to purchase the church and officials are currently reviewing possibilities of what to do with the building, including turning it into a community center.
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