ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — On Pacific Avenue, in the shadow of the row of casinos that line the coast in Atlantic City, stands a church constructed in the style of the Romanesque Revival. With imposing, 120-foot towers, it traces its roots to 1902.
Inside St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church, faithful are greeted by five altars, 18 murals, 52 symbols associated with Christ’s passion and death, and some 142 stained-glass windows that were hand-crafted in Germany and Philadelphia, not to mention an impressive pipe organ in the choir loft.
“The caliber of work in that church — it’s one of the rare things left in Atlantic City that is from the time before casinos,” said Jim Dessicino, who was born in Atlantic City and went on to earn two degrees in sculpture. “Atlantic City doesn’t have anything that comes close to an art museum of the caliber of the work that is inside of St. Nicholas of Tolentine.”
On Sept. 10, the feast day of St. Nicholas of Tolentine and just a week shy of the 118th anniversary of the dedication of the church, Dessicino began leading weekly tours of the church, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in February 2001.
While tours had previously been offered sporadically, and usually upon request, Dessicino has been working with Deacon Mike Bortnowski and others to design and plan tours that will be offered every Sunday at 11:15 a.m. Following the 30-minute tour, guests will be encouraged to stay and participate in the noon Mass with the parish community.
“Visitors who take the tour will learn of the unique historical, artistic and theological significance of St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church,” Deacon Bortnowski said. “Our entire Catholic faith tradition is reflected in the beautiful architecture throughout the church.”
Deacon Bortnowski and his wife, Debbie, both retired in April and finally achieved their dream of moving to the Jersey Shore. When the couple relocated from Cherry Hill to Brigantine, Deacon Bortnowski was assigned by Camden Bishop Dennis J. Sullivan to serve in the Parish of St. Monica. The couple decided to become members of the parish, which also includes Our Lady Star of the Sea and St. Michael churches.
“We have three beautiful churches in our parish that we celebrate, all over 100 years old and so rich in cultural diversity and history,” Deacon Bortnowski told the Catholic Star Herald, Camden’s diocesan newspaper. “That’s what makes our parish so special.”
He recalls being awed and inspired the first time he walked into St. Nicholas. “I have been here three months now, and I experience that each and every time I step foot into the church,” he said.
Much to his excitement, Deacon Bortnowski was tasked by his pastor, Father Kevin Mohan, to take the lead in organizing and scheduling the church’s weekly tours.
There is no cost for the tours, but organizers hope guests will consider making a suggested donation of $20 to support further church restorations.
Tours are led primarily by Dessicino, who brings to his role a wealth of experience — including a stint as one of the few non-Italians to lead tours of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. After college, he worked for a company that supplied guides for Vatican museums — a relatively new approach at the time of allowing outside tour guides into Vatican City.
In addition, Dessicino also has put his academic training to work by restoring statuary. While his professional commissions had not previously included religious statues or sites, that changed a couple of years ago.
“It was like a divine revelation that I was supposed to use my vocation of sculpture to serve God,” he said. “I needed to use my gifts for the church.”
Later that very day, he received a call from a friend about a commission to restore a statue at another church, which he took on as a volunteer. “That was my first time working with the church doing any statuary repair, [and] never before had my work been received with such joy and enthusiasm,” he said. “I knew I was doing something right.”
Dessicino is thrilled to be involved in leading tours of St. Nicholas of Tolentine, and hopes that the beauty of the house of worship will draw more to the church — and the faith. “I am excited to be able to show non-Catholics our faith through beauty, and to use the transcendental of beauty to be able to lead people into the faith.”
Deacon Bortnowski hopes the tours will help bring more visitors to the church community.
“We invite all visitors who come to Atlantic City to take that pilgrimage to visit our parish,” he said. “All are welcome.”