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Storybook Ending

A chapel built in Vineland, circa 1885, is now the Chapel of Peace at a nearby amusement park.

by Vince Farinaccio

Anyone visiting the six-decade-old Egg Harbor Township amusement park Storybook Land wouldn’t expect to encounter Vineland history on the grounds, yet a remnant of the town founded by Charles K. Landis is one of the sights contained amid the nursery rhymes and rides that entertain visitors throughout the year.

Diagonally from the Old Woman’s Shoe, not far from the entranceway of Storybook Land, sits a small, white structure that bears no trace of the fairy tales and fables that feed a child’s imagination. Its symmetry is perfect, its presence quiet and unassuming except for a sign placed near the walkway to identify it: Chapel of Peace. The door is open, welcoming guests to spend a few moments inspecting the interior and reading a testimony to its origin printed on a placard.

“This lovely chapel was built in 1885 by Andrew Cresci, age 18, for his parents Celestine and Augustus,” we are told. It had been constructed within the Cresci property located at Chestnut Avenue and Union Road in Vineland and was used to honor the feast days of saints.

The chapel came into existence when Vineland was only 24 years old, five years after it had become a borough separate from the surrounding Landis Township. Its original location was in New Italy, a section of the township populated by Italian farmers recruited by Landis to develop an agricultural community. And its purpose reflected the religious faith of those who visited it.

The placard reveals that both the interior and exterior of the building are “in original condition…” We are told that the stained-glass windows, depicting a scene of Christ’s crucifixion, “were molded in sand.” When the Cresci property was sold, the chapel was transported to a Union Road cemetery but was not utilized. It was then purchased by John and Esther Fricano for their children’s theme park on the Black Horse Pike.

Like the Crescis, the Fricanos were from Vineland and their creation, Storybook Land, had its own humble beginnings. According to a 2015 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the park began as “a five-acre wooded site” on which John “built the first attractions – the Little Red Schoolhouse, the Old Woman’s Shoe and Jack and Jill’s Hill.” Admission was 75 cents when it opened in July 1955.

Over the decades, the park expanded, adding new rides and features while retiring others. The original five acres that housed Storybook Land has quadrupled in the 60-plus years since. Jessica Fricano, John and Esther’s granddaughter and one of several family members running the park today, summed up its continued success for the Inquirer by explaining, “Tradition has kept us relevant.”

Family legacies, whether it be the third generation of Fricanos operating Storybook Land or Andrew Cresci’s lineage listed on the chapel placard, inevitably become the narratives that intrigue us the most when it comes to our historical inclinations. For those of us who have visited Storybook Land as children, then again as parents and once more as grandparents, the journey becomes clearer, the connections more evident, the lessons more obvious.

“Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Cresci had five children, Catherine, Joseph, Cecilia, Louis and Mariann,” the chapel’s placard notes. “Catherine was the church organist in Sacred Heart Church in Vineland for 55 years.”

Anyone who attended Sacred Heart grammar or high school or who was a parishioner during the 1960s and 1970s would recall Catherine Cresci’s musical accompaniment during Masses and weddings. The modern age of portable keyboards was still decades away when she majestically delivered the standard hymns of the day on the Sacred Heart Church pipe organ, filling the building and its congregations with song.

Catherine’s recognition, however, was not limited to those who attended services at the parish. A 2004 article by Catherine’s sister Cecilia Mazzoni for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association website reports that “she had performed professionally for such notables as Terence Cardinal Cooke, Archbishop of New York, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the famous ‘television priest,’ and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.”

Today she can still be heard at Storybook Land in the chapel her father built 134 years ago through an organ performance she recorded “in memory of her parents.”

Jersey Reflections