New Jersey removes old swastika symbols from diocesan building’s floor

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted May 28, 2024

[Episcopal News Service] Work is underway to remove 1920s-era tiles bearing swastikas – once a symbol of welcome and prosperity – from the floor of a Diocese of New Jersey building.

There were about 14 tiles with swastikas in a building on the Diocese of New Jersey’s campus in Trenton. Photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of New Jersey

“Regardless of its history, the continued existence of a symbol of hatred and oppression in one of our primary meeting spaces is unacceptable,” Bishop Sally French wrote to the diocese earlier this month. “It is harmful to those who have experienced racism and bias. It is shocking to guests and newcomers who do not expect to see such a symbol at the heart of our Diocesan House.”

The centuries-old holy symbol was historically used by Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and some Indigenous peoples before Nazis adopted it as a symbol of racial hatred.

Fourteen swastika tiles were set into the floor of what once was a pool house but is now a building used for meetings. The removal work came at the prompting of the diocese’s Reparations Commission. French asked Sexton John Conte to figure out a solution. The work involves grinding out each tile, while preserving the surrounding floor. No decision has been made on what will replace them.

The diocesan property, just across the street from Trinity Cathedral in Trenton, includes the main building, a converted 1912 Victorian home, and the former pool house at the rear of the lot. The swimming pool was were covered over to make room for the diocesan archives, as well as a rumored Prohibition-era speakeasy. It was built in 1927, six years before Hitler and the Nazis came to power. The diocese bought the properties in 1943. The Mueller Mosaic Tile Company in Trenton made the tiles from local red clay. The floors also include tiles with crosses, fleur-de-lis, anchors, diamonds and circles.

The swastika tiles are not unique to the Diocese of New Jersey’s building. Swastikas were often included as decorative elements in private clubs, monuments, universities and churches built in the late 1800s and into the 1920s. For instance, they are embedded in an aisle at St. James’ in-the-City Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, California. The church was built in 1926. The congregation has filled in the symbols with latex paint as it discerns what to do with them.

Another Episcopal church, Church of Our Saviour, in nearby San Gabriel, California, features what might be a more understandable use of the swastika. Its St. George window depicts World War II Gen. George S. Patton, who grew up in the parish, as the saint slaying the dragon. The dragon’s scales are swastikas.

Sexton John Conte is grinding out each tile while preserving the surrounding floor. A decision on what will replace the tiles is pending. Photo: Courtesy of the Diocese of New Jersey

Seven of the 14 tiles have been removed so far from the New Jersey diocese’s building. There may be more under furniture and on the areas of floor that have been covered over, French told Episcopal News Service.

“The tiles are small, but their impact has been significant,” she said.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg retired in 2019 as senior editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service.