This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
Since 1909, the generations of working-class immigrants who have worshipped at St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church in Bushwick have known their share of hardship. Over the church’s 108-year history, congregants have grieved thousands of deaths, from members lost to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s to victims of the collapse of the World Trade Center twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
In 1977, when the neighborhood suffered a massive wave of lootings and arson spawned by a several-day power outage, the congregation prayed for those whose homes or businesses lay in ashes. In the early 2000s— burdened by rising rents and the influx of young college-educated artists and professionals—St. Barbara’s congregants confronted the uncertainty of their place in a changing neighborhood.
Today, Bushwick, replete with tiki and wine bars, industrial warehouse nightclubs and yoga studios, is the kind of neighborhood that’s synonymous in New York City with gentrification. But step into St. Barbara’s during Sunday mass, and a different Bushwick comes into focus.
Before the service begins, teenagers sell empanadas, pink cakes, and rosaries to arriving congregants. Elderly Mexican women in knit-shawls and long black skirts arrive early and pack in near the altar, greeting each other in soft voices. As the clock approaches the hour, working-class parents in their 20s and 30s, bearing signs of fatigue, settle their hyper-active children and crying babies into the back pews. St. Barbara’s, like much of Bushwick, is still a largely working-class Latinx community. Indeed, Bushwick’s white population has risen from 3 to 15 percent over the past 15 years, but nearly two-thirds of its residents identify as Latinx, more than one-third foreign born, and a quarter live in poverty.
Like most old churches, St. Barbara’s cake-like façade often hides behind an opaque wall of scaffolding but when unobscured, its baroque Spanish revival architecture—golden brick and white terra cotta facade, Corinthian columns, and dazzling bell towers—conjures visions of Mexico or the American Southwest more than New York City. In fact, St. Barbara’s is one of the first (and one of the only) Spanish-style churches in the eastern seaboard.
The same architects who conceived Prospect Park’s Boathouse in 1905 and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank in 1906 designed St. Barbara’s. Inside, in typical Spanish colonial style, large unornamented walls are juxtaposed with elaborate frescoes, ornate statuary, carvings, and bas-reliefs. Twenty-five stained glass windows inspired by the scriptures adorn the clerestory, and the space for the choir houses one of the largest organs in the diocese of Brooklyn.
The original parishioners of St. Barbara’s in 1883 hailed from the Prussian Empire, and served the “almost exclusively” German population of Bushwick at the time. In the late 1800s, Leonard Eppig, Bushwick’s wealthiest resident and owner of the Germania Brewery— one of 44 breweries in the neighborhood– sectioned off a plot of land near the present-day boundary between Brooklyn and Queens to build the church for arriving German Catholics. Its earliest congregants were factory workers and beer barons, who, like the Eppigs, lived in mansions along Bushwick Avenue.
Over the coming century, St. Barbara’s, with its Latin influences, would stand out as a flamboyant anomaly in a neighborhood of plain row houses and gray industrial expanses. Over the past 35 years, many of its congregants have been drawn from adjacent Hope Gardens, a plain low-rise brick public housing project completed by the Reagan administration in 1981.
In the late 1800s, the parcel on the northwest corner of Bleecker Street and Central Avenue, served as home to two smaller wooden churches also by named St. Barbara’s. The first church reportedly burned seven days after its completion, and the second was quickly replaced by the third. In 1909, the completion of the present-day iteration of St. Barbara’s, bell towers standing at 175 feet tall, could be seen from miles away in Brooklyn and Queens.
In the first half of the 20th century, St. Barbara’s stood as a center of social life for northern Brooklynites. Religious ceremonies and funerals attracted hundreds if not sometimes thousands of attendees. In 1908, Peter Chang, the first Chinese priest of the Roman Catholic church to visit the United States, led high mass at St. Barbara’s. In 1910, the citywide celebration of the arrival of an Italian cardinal attended by 300,000 Catholics included a stop at the church.
Tragedies also attracted large crowds. In 1937, some 3,500 people attended the funeral of Einer Sporrer, a nine-year-old student at St. Barbara’s parochial school who was molested and killed by a 26-year-old barber. At his trial, the barber admitted to luring the child into the rear of his shop on Irving Avenue, “with the promise of a few pennies.” He proceeded to violate her, bash her head in with a hammer and dump her lifeless body into a burlap bag and leave it on a nearby stoop. After Sporrer’s death, 500 people, including her 40 classmates at the parochial school, gathered to fill the pews of St. Barbara’s and sing a requiem mass. Outside, a throng of 3,000 people assembled on Central Avenue to pay their respects.
Mirroring the succession of immigrant communities that arrived in New York throughout the decades, working-class Catholic immigrants of different ethnicities and nationalities have worshipped at St. Barbara’s altar. After the German brewers came the Irish textile workers and Italian shopkeepers and the Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican garment workers and food processors. From Schavels to Dennans to Lopezes and Alvarezes, St. Barbara’s belonged to many.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the residents of the parish rapidly shifted from white to brown and black working-class people, and a period of divestment and government neglect ensued. Lured by real estate agents who used racist intimidation tactics to convince white homeowners to sell their properties for under-market values, German, Italian, and Irish families fled to New York and New Jersey suburbs, and black and Latino families moved into those homes. In 1950, the population of Bushwick was 100 percent white. By 1980 that number had dropped to 15 percent.
At the same time, Bushwick’s reputation rapidly devolved from that of a prosperous working-class stronghold to a citywide symbol of decay, depopulation and disinvestment. Enrollment at St. Barbara’s parochial school dropped from 1,100 in 1967 to 610 in 1973 when it closed its doors. Breweries and factories shuttered by the dozens as whites fled the city—and unemployment soared. A decade earlier, the nearby La Rosa Bakery sold 600 loaves on a typical Sunday. By 1977, that number dropped to 20, reports a New York Daily News article.
The year 1977 is undoubtedly the most notable year in Bushwick’s history to date. Throughout the ‘70s, despair and outrage had been brewing in the city’s poor, disenfranchised communities. On July 13 of that year, in the midst of a violent summer thunderstorm that coincided with a major financial crisis, vast swaths of the city lost power for several days after several lighting strikes tripped major circuit breakers. During the blackout, rioters looted and torched entire blocks, including their own homes and businesses, in hopes of receiving compensation from insurance companies.
Desperation hit Bushwick harder than any other New York City neighborhood. There, destruction culminated in the loss several hundred buildings, including 124 structures along Broadway Avenue, Bushwick’s formerly vibrant commercial thoroughfare that has never fully recovered. On the Sunday morning following the blackout, a visiting Ecuadorian priest mounted the pulpit at St. Barbara’s and declared to the congregation, “We are without god now.”
Following these events, the once lively area surrounding St. Barbara’s became a sea of abandoned houses and weed-ridden lots populated by stray dogs, drug addicts and other populations ostracized by the city. In just five years, St. Barbara’s Sunday mass lost nearly two-thirds of its 1,500 attendees, dipping to its lowest in decades.
By Oct. 24 of that year, a headline in the New York Times declared that Bushwick was “Struggling to Avoid Becoming a South Bronx.” In 1979, the New York City Department of Planning ranked Bushwick the poorest neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the fourth poorest in all New York City, after Morrisania, Hunts Point and Morris Heights in the Bronx. “In central Bushwick, the massive, Romanesque St. Barbara’s Roman Catholic Church looks out over block after block of burned and abandoned buildings,” the New York Times reported.
The AIDS crisis left another excruciating imprint. In 1994, St. Barbara’s held 245 funerals, mostly for men and women in their 20s and 30s who had lives lost to AIDS, typically contracted from intravenous drug use. The pastor at the time, John Powis, told the New York Times that some mornings, St. Barbara’s held as many as three funerals, often for young adults who had abandoned the church in their youth. As most families could often not afford to pay for funeral expenses, Powis convinced three dozen older loyal congregants of the church to sing hymns at 9:30am funeral services five days a week. “At the masses, there was never anyone there beyond the family, sometimes not even them,” Powis said. In 1993, Bushwick ranked No. 1 in New York City for AIDS cases contracted among Latinx people, women, and due to intravenous drug use.
Throughout the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, church attendance picked up again as tragedy continued to strike. In 1997, church members took responsibility for organizing a funeral for an unidentified newborn left in a duffel bag atop a dumpster outside a nearby bodega on Evergreen Avenue. In 2000, the church held the services for an 18-month-old toddler whose 16-year-old godmother had forced to ingest a pink solvent in a fit of anger. On September 11, 2001, Arcangel Vazquez, a 47-year-old active St. Barbara’s catechist and janitor lost his life on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center. His funeral was held at St. Barbara’s. In 2003, the Carlotes mourned the loss of their 13-year-old son, Randy, who died of a heart attack while playing baseball.In recent years, St. Barbara’s Sunday mass has attracted a thriving congregation. In September 2008, a free Catholic school opened at the former rectory, and the repertoire of social services available to congregants expanded to include free legal services and English classes.
At a recent service in November, the 12:30pm bilingual mass of the Sunday that followed earlier Spanish and English services, old couples, young families, and the occasional middle-aged man or woman packed the pews. Younger congregants filled the rows further back—one girl with large earrings displaying Obama’s face arrived with several friends, and a lanky teenager who removed only one earphone as he entered the nave sat alone. A short man in a down coat arrived with five young children dropping roses and a palm leaf by an altar. “Es papi, es papi,” his children chanted as he returned to the last pew to sit with them, hushing them to quiet down. Mass runs around an hour, and although nearly all the congregants speak Spanish—the pastor, Joseph Hoffman, delivers the sermon in English. By the end of the service, the church has almost reached its capacity.
The thriving of St. Barbara’s church today defies the narrative most New Yorkers have of Bushwick, as a hipster outgrowth of Williamsburg in full transition away from its working-class immigrant origins. If and when Bushwick eventually stabilizes in its new gentrified form, the congregation of St. Barbara’s will remain a symbol of Bushwick’s continued life as a center of working-class immigrant life in Brooklyn.