Greek religious group seeks expansion approvals for church property

Holy Institution Panagia Soumela Inc., at 253 Marshall Hill Road, has submitted an application to the West Milford Board of Adjustment (BOA) requesting approval of “volume and usage variances” and a “preliminary and final site plan for new proposals on their property.

The 3.8 acres of land and buildings, on the original site of the Church of the Incarnation (Episcopal), changed ownership in the fall of 2005. After membership numbers and attendance had dropped significantly, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had put the property and buildings up for sale. Now it has been purchased by Holy Institution Panagia Soumela Inc., a Greek Orthodox shrine church dedicated to bringing a 1,500-year-old tradition of honoring the Virgin Mary of Mount Mela to America.

According to the Holy Institution Panagia Soumela website, several key calendar events include “The Dormition of the Virgin Mary” each year on August 15. According to the site, many people travel there to spend weekends at campgrounds that have been established – playing music, dancing and doing theatrical re-enactments about the genocide and daily life in the historic homeland. Holy Institution Panagia Soumela is a religious, educational, and nonprofit corporation organized under IRS Section 501(c)(3).

The application to the BOA seeks an authorization to use for the expansion of the existing non-compliant place of worship, including an addition, as well as the construction of a pavilion, bathhouse and storage sheds . Bulk variance setbacks are also requested between accessory buildings, particularly because the pavilion is 6.2 feet from the place of worship, where 20 feet is required, and the bathhouse is 15.5 feet from the sheds storage, where 20 feet is also required.

Episcopalians built their first church on the site in 1954. It served as a church and multipurpose building from 1954 to 1967. While Reverend Ava Decker was a priest, from 1963 to 1971 a second new church was built. The first and second church buildings, as well as a house where the priest lived, are still the main buildings on the property. For the Episcopal Church, construction costs were reduced, most of the interior work – from painting to making the altar and lecterns and laying the floors – was done by Episcopal parishioners. The new owners have made extensive renovations to the church to make it a Greek facility.