All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
St. John the Baptist is ghostly, towering moribund over a row of vinyl-sided apartment houses on Willoughby and Hart Streets. The 120-year-old granite edifice lies a stone’s throw from the Myrtle-Broadway stop in Bushwick — you can spot its cross-topped cupolas over Bed-Stuy’s roofs as the train pulls into the station. The Tablet called it “a castle out of the past.” And that was in 1968.
Now plywood boards cover the windows and heavy padlocks forbid access to the holy grounds. Bed-Stuy may have risen, fallen and risen again with the decades, but this monument to eternity has followed a straight trajectory of decay. I long presumed this specter dead and awaiting final judgment. Me of little faith. I had missed a pair of cheerful wooden signs staked into the lawn by a side entrance, “Spirit Driven, Gospel Livin’!” and the trickle of parishioners that passed through the rusty gate each Sunday morning. There is life in the old leviathan yet.
The Brooklyn Diocese erected the church for the thousands of Irish and Italian immigrants who poured into Bed-Stuy in the late 19th century — its pews could (and did) accommodate 1,200 parishioners at any one of the 12 Masses held in a typical week. Those immigrants took up residence in the stately brownstones left behind by wealthier Dutch and German occupants, boosting the population with two and three families to a single home. The Vincentian fathers who established the parish had no reason to doubt that their awe-inspiring house of God would last forever.
But by the 1930s, the numbers of tithing Catholics who had filled the church’s pews each week for more than 30 years began to dwindle. It was not shortsightedness but faith that had prompted them to build a church with walls thicker than most people are tall, an edifice erected to “weather the ages.” Eventually, however, time and poverty played their cruel tricks on the vision of the building’s architects and planners.
In the mid-1950s, the ills of the neighborhood began to seep through the six-and-a-half-foot granite walls and by the 1970s, Bed-Stuy had achieved full-blown slum status — a place one of the community’s developers, Barry Stein, dismissed as “the largest ghetto in the country.” The still formidable citadel stumbled into disrepair. The stretch of green lawn in front of the church, where priests once played football, was parceled off and sold to a developer. Housing projects went up around the neighborhood and police began patrolling. What place could there be for a vast, gilded tabernacle in a neighborhood plagued by poverty and violence?
Behind the boarded-up hull and rusting wrought iron, the Vincentian order is still in residence at St. John the Baptist. While the demand for marble and gold has diminished, the need for a bulwark in the community remains.
I meet Father Emmet Nolan in his small, bright office at the rear of the church. I am surprised at the coziness and warmth given the outward appearance of the place. He rifles through a filing cabinet, pulling historical documents and photos of the church and its parishioners, oiling them on the table before me. A blend of morbid obsession and Catholic guilt had led me to Mass at St. John’s a few days before. After weeks of ogling the sanctuary from the sidewalk, I had to get inside. And my grandmother’s voice was echoing in my head, “What’s the first thing you do when you get to new place? Find the nearest Catholic church and take note of the Mass schedule.”
To my dismay, Mass was not held in the main sanctuary, but in a smaller chapel that looked nothing like the photographs Nolan had pulled out of his file cabinet. I supposed I expected some version of a younger St. John’s, decked out for the holidays, a place where polished marble shone in the light of 36 long taper candles, a small field of poinsettia engulfed the altar in red and angels with a six-foot wing span stood sentinel amidst the flowers. Where a bride and groom were wed, dwarfed by columns and a stone canopy more than three times their height, every carved detail covered in a layer of gold leaf. All that grandeur, but dilapidated and dusty.
This small church was not that. An odd mix of modern and antique furnishings made it seem more like something built in the 1970s. Carpet partially covered the original marble floors and an artist had painted a huge modern mural of Jesus on the wall behind a small tabular altar. Columned side chapels featured gilded lanterns, but there were no soaring heights here. A modern drop ceiling hung overhead. It was only when Father Nolan later gave me the full tour of the building that I realized this chapel was actually a 12-foot-tall cinderblock bunker built smack dab in the middle of the main sanctuary.
It’s not the aesthetics that concern the good priest. Over the past couple of decades, he explained, St. John’s has received more money from the Diocese than any other church in Brooklyn. When faced with spending that money to repair the beast of a building or put it toward food and clothing for a congregation in need, it’s no contest. “Our people are hungry,” he said. His obligation is first and foremost to his community. While the numbers in the pews have dwindled, those at the St. John’s Bread & Life Soup Kitchen on Lexington Ave., which was started by the church and is now under the jurisdiction of St. John’s University, are as high as ever. The largest emergency food provider in Brooklyn, the kitchen feeds thousands of people every day. But there are hundreds of other hungry men and women who work during the facility’s meal hours – for them, Father Nolan has purchased iPads which will be made available for ordering food from a digital pantry. He has also reopened an on-site thrift store for the community. This is where the efforts and money of St. John’s go. The corporeal needs of the people of Brooklyn are more important than those of the old church.
So how did a parish go from pouring money into a building that the New York Times said was “without equal in magnificence in this part of the country,” to devoting its efforts to the chronically poor while the structure perished?
Actually, the disenfranchised were always its focus, from the very founding of the diocese by an Irish-born bishop, the Right Reverend John Loughlin, whose Brooklyn poor were not the tenement destitute of Jacob Riis’ The Other Half so much as they were the working-class Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants of the borough. The Bishop determined that the youth of this community needed a center for moral training, and requested the assistance of the Vincentian Father of New York in establishing this parish.
Loughlin enlisted “an outstanding Catholic citizen of Brooklyn prominent in real estate matters” to select a block of land. Cornelius Dever purchased one of the largest on the city map in a sparsely settled area with a “commanding and elevated position.” The plot, consisting of 60 lots, occupied an entire city block between Lewis and Stuyvesant and Willoughby and Hart though at the time these names existed only on the map. Rustic fencing still sectioned off the land for grazing and grain crops when the Vincentians began using a two-room cottage on the property to hold Mass for a dozen or so parishioners.
Devout Catholic immigrants continued to pour into Bed-Stuy. A larger wooden church replaced the cottage, and by the mid-1880s, it was apparent that better accommodations were needed. Meanwhile, St. John’s College had been established on the grounds and would stay there until its move to Queens in the 1970s. A Catholic architect, Patrick Keely, designed the large grey-brick College Hall in 1870, following that with another, larger building for the school two years later (both have since been sold off and repurposed). As the school’s enrollment and reputation improved, plans for a new house of worship were in order. Keely, who by the end of his life would be responsible for designing at least 600 Catholic churches and hundreds of other buildings for diocese around the country, was commissioned to design it.
The entire parish was enlisted in a fundraising campaign. Before a single stone was laid the quarter of a million dollars – tens of millions today in labor and building materials – had been raised. The granite temple took five years to complete, with a vaulted ceilings soaring 84 feet high and four foot thick marble columns rising from the floor. It was declared, if we are to believe a pamphlet released by the church, “without exception, architecturally and otherwise, the most beautiful Catholic church in Brooklyn.”
The detail work on the interior of the church is the real treasure – it took another 20 years to complete after the building was opened to parishioners. Over 150 skilled mason workers decorated the walls, alcoves and arches. Priceless religious art was lit by fifteen hundred skillfully arranged spotlights. The altar was fashioned of marble and onyx, parts inlaid with orbs of polished translucent stone and graced by life-sized trumpeting angels. Archbishops, bishops, heads of educational institutions and pastors from most churches in the diocese assembled for the dedication of the church by Cardinal James Gibbons while over 3,000 laypeople flooded the streets, held back by police cordons.
Amazingly, all of the majestic interior furnishings, religious icons and adornments are still in place. Dusty, sometimes misplaced, but present and mostly intact.
“There’s a hole there, a hole there. Be careful,” Nolan said as we climbed the wooden staircase to the second level of the main sanctuary, sidestepping spots where electricians have cut into the floor. Work lamps clipped to the balustrade light our path. The organ gallery is crammed with old Christmas decorations, consolidated statuary, and some of the 14 altars that were once scattered throughout the space. The whole floor smells of dusty artificial pine.
Standing in front of the 22-foot high organ, you get a good sense of the sanctuary’s vastness. In the distance, 200 feet away and some dozen feet higher, a larger-than-life Christ opens his arms to visitors. He is flanked by four saints on either side, nestled into the half dome at the head of the church. It is a melancholic space. Bluish light filters through those windows that aren’t entirely boarded up. In the deep darkness above, placid stained glass saints are pierced through with sunlight where shards have broken free as neglected lead disintegrates. The wooden skeleton of the structure peeks through the crumbling grey plaster of the arches that line the gallery. A thin layer of dust covers the organist’s keyboard, untouched for decades.
“They say to me, ‘Father, you don’t know what you have.’” Nolan, who has been at St. John’s for about six years now, is referring to the art historians who wander longingly around the old structure, aching over the priceless statuary, murals and stained glass. As we tour the space, he tells me Otto Heinigke did the windows, an artist of the new school of stained glass and contemporary of Louis Tiffany. Brilliantly colored murals by Leon Dabo cover the walls. “You can see,” Nolan gestures to the ceiling, eighty-four feet above us, “some smoke damage from a fire about eight years ago.” I can barely make out the blackened circular frescos above.
Nolan’s main aim may be maintaining the health of the living congregation, but he admits that he feels a pull to preserve the patrimony. The altar, murals, statues and marble work of this building represent what Nolan calls the “best effort to adorn a holy place.” If he had it his way, he would remove the “bunker,” section off the back half of the church where the main altar is. He doesn’t need space for 1,200 parishioners. No one has needed it for decades now.
Weeks later, shortly before 9pm, a tonal whistle cuts through the Bed-Stuy night as throngs of families, many wearing traditional Mexican clothing, make their way into the side entrance of St. John’s. The sound calls to order figures in grotesque grinning masks with long, sensei-like beards, sequined jackets and black pants jingling with dozens of multicolored bells. Music with a slow, heavy drum beat begins to pound through huge speakers as the performers take their places. The smallest is five, six years old at most with the leaders of the troupe being the tallest and most imposing of the bunch. The show we witness is not performed to the audience – it is an inward, ritualistic choreographed skirmish of shouts, swirling and circling one another with hopping steps. The players move rhythmically, images of San Rafael and the Virgin de Guadalupe glittering on their clothing. The ceremony ends when a lead conchero dancer shouts into the air, “Viva la Virgin!” “Viva!” the group replies in unison.
I am witness to the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration at St. John’s. After a Spanish mass delivered by Father Nolan, wherein he uses the parable of Juan Diego and the Virgin to discuss the disenfranchised (particularly Mexican immigrants) finding their power in the Church, the congregation gathers in the usually forbidden main sanctuary. Massive blue tarps have been rigged overhead, blocking off the vaulted ceilings to allow industrial space heaters to warm the room. Set up in front of the disused confessional and one of four small marble altars depicting Mary and her babe is a buffet of sopapillas, tacos and tortas. Red, white and green balloons decorate the tables where worshippers dine and watch the performance.
Here is the life within St. John’s; a congregation and celebration that early days parishioners could not have imagined. The impulse to gather with a common belief may be something eternal, but it is by no means unchanging. The Church is a living organism – the building a shell. Sanctified, optimistically intended to endure indefinitely, beautiful and awe-inspiring, but a mineral object. Gone are the days of Gregorian chanting and Latin Masses; tonight a full mariachi band played lively renditions of traditional psalms. You are more likely to catch a whiff of mole sauce than incense. The vestiges of a gilded-age Catholicism are chipping, peeling, crumbling away – but this is no tragedy. This is not a ghost story.
The building that time forgot, with that air of morbidity that lends every haunted house its allure, never was the backbone of St. John’s. The community necessitated its construction, and as the needs of community changed so too did the church. When I came to Father Nolan to talk about St. John’s, he spoke about the congregation. When I asked about plans to refurbish the church, he told me about the hungry and disenfranchised. I came to inspect the dead and found the living instead. Livelier, in fact, than any Catholic congregation I’ve ever encountered.
In Brooklyn, nothing is forever. Bed-Stuy has always been in transition, if resistant to change. So the gentrification here will be slow going – though the neighborhood is already officially an “emerging” one. Churches around the city are being turned into apartments and condos; the spectacular old college building next to St. John’s is currently being developed into apartments under the terms of a land lease. Well-off mostly white buyers are making their way into the neighborhood to renovate its hundreds of 19th century brownstones – but they may not be the type to put their money or faith into the church. Where St. John’s church was troubled by too little money in Bed-Stuy, it may now find itself struggling with too much.
Regardless, it is, for all its magnificence, just a building. Desanctify it, divide up the cavern, “reclaim” some wood, fix the stained glass and you’ve got yourself a luxury apartment building. If that rechristening ever comes, the endurance of St. John’s parish will prove itself not with six-foot walls, but with the congregation that manages to carry on.