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Mary Benson Park

Mary was a well-known benefactor for Jersey City and a member of the Jersey City Woman’s Club. She was instrumental in establishing the All Saints’ Church in Millington (completed in 1906) and in securing a parkland at Little Italy Park for the city’s children. The ‘Grand Old Woman’ died in New Jersey aged 80 in December 1904. A fountain in the park was subsequently unveiled to her memory and the park itself was renamed Mary Benson Park.

Mary Hudspeth Benson and All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Millington, NJ

The following has been excerpted from: History of All Saints’ Church All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ (written by Mark Alan Hewitt, AIA, Historic Preservation Architect from All Saints’ Preservation Master Plan, March 2006):

“Summer residents in Millington came from Newark, Jersey City and New York.  Many of them built houses on the hill above the Millington Gorge, through which the Passaic River runs.  A clubhouse and tennis courts for the Millington Field Club (started about 1900) were also built on the hill. These summer residents were well-to-do and influential people in the areas of business, law, art and finance: among them Robert S. Hudspeth (attorney, federal judge, state senator from Jersey City and heavily involved in both state and national Democratic party politics); Sidney Norris Ogden (Newark city alderman, head actuary for Mutual Benefit Life, descendant of John Ogden – founder of Elizabeth, and great-grand son of the Rev. Uzal Ogden – the second rector of historic Trinity Church, Newark and the first elected Episcopal bishop in New Jersey, though he never served); Mary Depue Ogden (editor of the Memorial Cyclopedia of New Jersey, 1917, and daughter of State Supreme Court Justice David Depue); Milton J. Burns (maritime painter and illustrator); Mary Hudspeth Benson (Jersey City social reformer and testifying witness at the trials of John Wilkes Booth and John Surrat for conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln).

Mrs. Benson made Millington her permanent home in 1902, after her son Robert and other members of their family began spending their summers in town in the 1890’s.  The house is within close walking distance of the church and is listed as the Boyle/Hudspeth Benson House on the National Register (Reference #75001151, ID # 2137).  It is an eighteenth-century building with two periods of significance: 1750-1799 and 1875-1899.  Her house is also listed on several women’s history web-sites. Mrs. Benson’s work in Jersey City included child advocacy, juvenile justice, sanitary city conditions, the working conditions of trolley operators, education, the Greenville Hospital, and recreational facilities for impoverished children.  The city park and athletic fields she caused to be built were named for her – Mary Benson Park, although recently they have been renamed Roberto Clemente Park.  Mrs. Benson was also very active in the Women’s Club movement.

In November 1864 as a young widow with four children, Mrs. Benson encountered John Wilkes Booth in a train in New York City. He and his companion had been speaking loudly enough for Mrs. Benson to hear their conversation about plans to travel to Washington D.C. When they exited the train, she and her daughter took their vacant seat and discovered an envelope which contained letters outlining the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Mrs. Benson turned the letters over to the US Army and they were forwarded to Lincoln. The letters were found in his files after his death; they had “assassination” written on them in Lincoln’s hand.  They are held in the National Archives, along with Mrs. Benson’s correspondence with Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General for the US Army (National Archives listing RG 110, Provo General’s Bureau (Civil War), Secret Service Accounts, Entry 95, 1867-1870 and Misc. National Archives).  Although the information was not able to prevent Lincoln’s death, Mrs. Benson was called on to testify at Booth’s trial.  The night before she was to take the stand, a strangulation attempt was made on her life.  When she returned home she was shot at.  Mrs. Benson took her children and moved to Canada for a brief period to seek refuge with relatives.  Two years later, she testified at the conspiracy trial of John Surrat, before returning to Jersey City, where she began to exercise leadership in the area of social reform.

While the idea of building an Episcopal Church in the township was first broached in 1886, it took twenty years before plans came to fruition.  During that time local Episcopalians met for worship in each other’s homes, in the Millington Schoolhouse and at St. Mark’s Church in Basking Ridge, across the Passaic River in the Diocese of New Jersey (the dioceses of Newark and New Jersey are divided across county lines; Morris County is in Newark, Somerset County is in New Jersey). No specific plans for building a church in Millington had been made.  A new bishop came to leadership in Newark in November 1903, the Rt. Rev. Edwin S. Lines. A few days after Bishop Lines’ consecration, Mrs. Benson called on him in the diocesan offices in Newark to ask if a new Episcopal church could be built in Millington.  Bishop Lines was particularly interested in building churches where there was new residential development and newly opened transportation.  The diocese had no churches in Morris County south of Madison and the recently opened Chatham parish, both at least 8 miles away on the north side of the Great Swamp. He agreed to meet with Mrs. Benson and other Millington residents to plan a new church. The Ways and Means Committee began meeting in 1904.  It included Mrs. Benson, Mr. Ogden, Mr. Nash, Frederick Taff (Mr. Nishwitz’s son-in-law) and Mathilde Schumacher.  Miss Schumacher was the treasurer at Bishop Lines’ request.  Mr. Taff gave the land for the church building from his father-in-law’s estate, Mr. Nash gave a considerable sum of money for the building (including a second donation for the tower), and Mrs. Benson successfully urged a diocesan-wide fund raising effort from the Sunday Schools specifically for the new church – an unusual occurrence.

Throughout the process of the planning and building, Bishop Lines was actively involved, despite the distance from Newark.  He was eager to insure that some of his concerns would come to fruition, especially having a separate Sunday School room for the children.  In a 1906 article in the diocesan newspaper Bishop Lines made it clear that All Saints’ had been his “test case” for building new churches in the Diocese of Newark.”