This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
On a recent Sunday, right after Spanish-language services, an eight-piece mariachi band streamed into the St. Nicholas Catholic Church in East Williamsburg. Guitars and trumpets blended together in a musical homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe, a venerated figure who symbolizes devotion throughout the Latino community. Just below in the main hall, a feast was on the tables and flowers, flags and banners surrounded the virgin’s likeness.
At St. Nicholas, East Williamsburg’s changing demographics have prompted more focus on Spanish language services and cultural tributes. In fact, in September, the church did away with its English-language Sunday mass, as fewer people were coming to hear the word of God. Data from the New York City Department of City Planning indicates that nearly 24 percent of Community District 1—incorporating much of Williamsburg, and parts of East Williamsburg and Greenpoint bordering the East River—are foreign born. Latinos make up the largest portion of the population among its 173,000 residents.
That Sunday, sunlight flooded the church through its vividly colored stained-glass windows, which number over a dozen. One depicts the birth of Jesus and another shows him preaching to his disciples as a young man. But bring yourself closer and the names memorialized on the windows, such as Regina Schmitt’s, come into clearer view. She arrived in the United States in 1846 from Germany at the age of three, and later married Jacob Schmitt in 1869. Another couple memorialized on another stained-glass window named Anna and Matthias Paulus also emigrated from Germany, the 1910 US census shows. The Schmitts and the Pauluses belonged to the original German community at St. Nicholas over 150 years ago.
The once-German church stands at the juncture of Greenpoint and East Williamsburg, emblematic of the change that has characterized New York City through the successive waves of worshippers that have occupied its pews their distinct languages and cultures changing with the passing of time and reshaping the fabric of the community.
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The church’s roots can be found in the violent conflicts overseas that defined the 19th century. It was further propelled by the 1848 revolutions across the continent that fueled the exodus of over a million Germans to the United States. Many of them settled in New York, transforming the city’s demographic makeup. By 1855, New York had the third largest population of Germans in the world, outranked only by Berlin and Vienna. More than 800,000 Germans passed through or settled on the Lower East Side, establishing vibrant Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” and making German the second most-spoken language in New York City. Stores in Little Germany had German signs, beer halls were abundant as were schools where children could learn and speak their parents’ native tongue. Within what was then the Irish-dominated Catholic church, German-Americans Catholics clung fast to their homeland traditions.
In the decade that followed, second-generation German Americans began to populate what is modern East Williamsburg, another foothold for the community on the northern bank of the East River. The neighborhood soon flourished with German craftsmen, bakers, wood workers and shop owners. Williamsburgh dropped its final “h”that distinguished it in Dutch pronunciations.
Along with businesses, the German-Americans brought their churches to Williamsburg, including St. Nicholas, which was founded in 1866 by 39-year-old Rev. Michael May. The formidable pastor in the area before May was the Austrian-born Rev. Johann Stephen Raffeiner, a master fundraiser, pivotal in building the German Catholic communities of both Brooklyn and Manhattan, the local diocese history notes. The Bavarian-born May was Raffeiner’s pupil until his death in 1861. May was known for his youthful vigor, having collected $939 in the fall of 1859 — or $28,609 in today’s dollars — for a set of bells that weighed over 2,800 pounds. May’s effort, however, was a humbler undertaking at first. When St. Nicholas opened, it had only one multipurpose structure that functioned as a church, rectory, convent and school, all on its rectangular plot.
The building now at Olive and Devoe Street opened in 1886 and was designed by the architect William Shickel. A devout Roman Catholic, his life epitomizes the successful life of German immigrant of the era — one eager to leave an imprint on his adopted land.
Shickel arrived in the United States at the age of 20 in 1870. Fifteen years later, he started William Schickel and Company, an architectural concern prominent for its ties to well-heeled German-American families in the city and to the Roman Catholic Church. He was known for infusing his church designs with a Bavarian influence. Some of his churches look like “Gothic barns” for their elongated length and Medieval style. St. Nicholas has a similar architectural character, although its red brick exterior facade is plain and austere. It’s not the only church in the neighborhood with Schickel’s influence: He designed the Most Holy Trinity Church on Montrose Avenue, only a 15-minute walk from St. Nicholas, and the German-Baroque edifice for the St. Ignatius of Loyola Church on the Upper East Side, which is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
St. Nicholas was also the site of the funeral of Barbara Reig, a young woman who a police officer killed in 1908. The case drew headlines across New York City. Furious at her death, huge crowds gathered during the services to demonstrate against the police department. The New York Times reported on the unrest, noting “the crowd jeered and hooted at the policemen and yelled many vile names at them. It seemed a test for the discipline of the officers whose anger was apparent, but made no reply.”
The local Standard Union newspaper also chronicled the turmoil: “As the casket containing the remains was carried… a number of women who had gathered in the street in front of the house, and as many snore from windows of nearby houses shouted at the police guard, ‘There go the dirty ‘cops,’ the beasts!’” The newspaper pointed out that more than two-thirds of the crowd of 3,000 were women.
Better times lay ahead for the church. In May 1916, St. Nicholas had a boisterous parade for its 50th anniversary to pay tribute to its vibrant role in the community. With cadets, fifes, drums, and 2,500 men and women marching through “all the thoroughfares of the parish, the church celebrated its half-centennial with a parade through “all the thoroughfares of the parish,” reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Yet it was only a brief reprieve in a period of growing suspicion of the country’s German-American community during World War I, a conflict sparked by imperial rivalries. As Europe plunged into war, many German-Americans like George Sylvester Stiereck advocated neutrality and were perceived to be enemy agents by the federal government.
However, that started to change after April of 1917, when the United States entered the war on the Allied side, provoked by Germany’s sinking of the British steamship Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. It precipitated an outpouring of support from the city’s German-American community and a race to demonstrate loyalty to the U.S. government. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage,” hamburgers were turned into “liberty sandwiches.” In Brooklyn, it led to the disbanding of the neighborhood German-American Alliance organization, with its membership of 12,000 people.
“The German-American alliance here is a thing of the past,” said Henry Weissman, the organization’s leader. “It has not been charged with disloyalty,” the New York Times quoted Weissman as saying. “We bear it no grudge but accept the situation in the spirit of brotherhood and with the resolve to preserve our unity as a nation and our internal harmony at whatever cost.” The alliance further acknowledged the American public’s “tension as to all things German,” swore allegiance to the United States and counseled German-Americans in New York to avoid being part of similar organizations while war raged in Europe.
The church continued to serve as a religious anchor for the growing Williamsburg community, though sometimes it encouraged the spread of racial stereotypes characteristic of early 20th-century America. One 1918 advertisement in the Standard Union newspaper’s “social world” section highlighted an upcoming minstrel show, blackface and all, organized by the St. Aloysius Young Men’s Society, whose director, the Rev. John Mathais and his committee were “working very enthusiastically and a good programme is assured.” the advertisement read.
The demographic character of Williamsburg continued changing. The 1930s saw an influx of European Jews fleeing Nazism and establishing a Hasidic enclave of their own. Public housing projects were springing up throughout the neighborhood, replacing buildings in decay.
In 1948, the church’s plot of land came under the ownership of Josephine Grazys, a woman who was at the center of a federal bail profit investigation only two decades prior. Yet that troubling aspect is contrasted with Rev. Adolph Erhard, a St. Nicholas church reverend who suffered a fractured leg while “comforting victims of a three-alarm fire,” reported the New York Post in April 1958. Some 28 families were left homeless, but nuns of the St. Nicholas parochial school provided food and gave emergency shelter, the Post said.
In the 1970s, Manhattan fell into a period of urban blight and crime. (It drew jokes from comedians like Johnny Carson: “New York is an exciting town where something is happening all the time—most, unsolved.”). Brooklyn was in no better shape. Williamsburg suffered similar ills that had twists with its own deadly public consequences. In 1974, a fire destroyed a row of buildings on Powers Street, leaving 18 families homeless. Officials blamed a gas leak.
It was about this time that a blend of Hispanic and Italian congregants from St. Nicholas established the St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation, better known as St. Nicks. Under Monsignor Walter Vetro – the New York Times described him as a “silver-haired, pipe-smoking pastor” – the organization set out to help turn around a neighborhood blighted by poverty and unemployment. Williamsburg’s woes reflected the broader trend in a city where unemployment hovered at around 10 percent in 1976, according to data from the New York State Department of Labor.
The same Times article heralded the church’s role spearheading the turnaround: “The dramatic changes in the blocks around St. Nicholas are testimony to how forcefully a church can work to improve its surrounding community.” It goes on to describe the pastor and parishioners’ efforts to transform a center for juvenile delinquents into housing for the elderly, among other achievements.
Now known as St. Nicks, it has since ballooned into a non-profit organization focused on economic development in Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
In January 2011, three parishes merged: St. Cecilia, St. Nicholas and St. Paola. Vassalotti’s arrival in the parish coincided with the merger. A raft of administrative and financial problems led Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas Dimarzio to consolidate the number of parishes to reflect the changing needs and habits of the local Catholic community. At the time, the Brooklyn Diocese itself — which oversaw 187 parishes throughout Brooklyn and Queens — was $21 million in debt.
“People were angry about the merger and people protested that it shouldn’t take place,” said Rev. Tom Vassalotti. But he backed the move since he said it ultimately didn’t lead to the closing of churches in the area.
Despite the 2011 merger, the church is still fighting shrinking attendance, said Rev. Rafael Perez, another priest who conducts mass there several times a month. Gentrification is another factor that is weighing on the church community.
“Gentrification has been happening here for the last 15 years and there’s no signs its slowing down. In fact, it’s picking up speeds in certain areas,” said Perez as we sat in the main hall. After speaking with every congregant, he left the church feeling fulfilled. Just outside, the church’s classroom building was being repainted, a fresh layer to weather the uncertain elements ahead.