Monday, October 10, 2011

The Miraculous Survival of St. Brigid's Church -- 123 Avenue B

St. Brigid's in 2006, just as demolition commenced -- photo by David Shankbone

In 1883 James D. McCabe, Jr., in his New York by Gaslight,” noted that “Tompkins Square constitutes the only breathing space in the terribly overcrowded tenement house districts of the eastern side of the city.”  It was to this area that the desperate Irish immigrants came, fleeing the Potato Famine of 1845-1849.  The area was known as the Dry Dock District, where ships were built and repaired along the East River.  Many of the Irish immigrants were able to find employment here among the shipyards.

On the eastern edge of the Square, Irish shipwrights began constructing a Catholic church for the swelling population.  The parish was named for the Irish saint Brigid.  Saint Brigid carried the unwieldy burden of being patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, Ireland, mariners, midwives, nuns, poets, printing presses, scholars and travelers.

The Irish-born architect Patrick Charles Keely was commissioned to design the structure.  The cornerstone was laid on September 10, 1848 and construction completed 15 months later.  Keely produced a restrained Gothic Revival church with little flashy ornamentation other than the tall, lacy spires that rose above the corner towers.    Keely personally carved the Gothic five-pinnacle reredos and designed the organ case.

photo by Willens, Associated Press

Using their shipbuilding knowledge, the carpenters fashioned the vaulted ceiling as, essentially, an upside-down ship’s hull.  The corbels supporting the roof are decorated with sculpted faces which, reportedly, honor the shipwrights who did the construction of the church.

Tall, Gothic spires originally graced the corners -- photo

St. Brigid’s congregation, from the start, would have money problems.   The New York Times reported that the Civil War “made a great difference in its progress out of debt.”  Following the war, the shipyards which had been the chief industry in the area were plagued with labor strikes.  The John Roach Shipyards were relocated to Chester, putting hundreds of men out of work.  By 1878, the parish had a debt of $72,000 and it was not until 1889 that the church building could be consecrated—even then with an outstanding debt of $32,500.

Reportedly, Patrick Charles Keely personally carved the wooden, five-point reredos -- photo

Financial worries would be a constant consideration at St. Brigid’s.   Completion of the interior would take decades.  Not until the 1870's would the Bavarian stained glass windows be installed.  The stations of the cross, possibly the work of Theophile-Narciss Chauvel of Paris, were not purchased until this time, as well.   A wooden altar served for three decades before being replaced by one of beautiful carved marble and Caen stone; the work of Theiss & Janssen.

Work continued in the 1880's when the ceiling and walls were frescoed, carved ash pews from Cleveland were installed and a new Georgia pine floor was laid.  At this time the aisles were raised five inches to improve the sight-lines.

St. Brigid’s welcomed all worshipers and on April 19, 1890 the first Greek Catholic Mass in New York City was celebrated in the basement by Rev. Alexander Dzubay.  As the neighborhood changed, so did the face of the congregation.  By 1914, the neighborhood was more Italian than Irish and as the 20th century progressed, St. Brigid’s became home to the city’s largest Hispanic congregation.

In 1962, the attractive spires were removed because of safety concerns, leaving rather stumpy unfinished towers, and the faƧade was slathered over with a cream-colored stucco.

The Archdiocese designated St. Brigid’s an “experimental church” in 1967, and installed a team of three priests who worked together as peers, rather than the traditional organization or a senior pastor with subordinate associates.  The pastors—Dermod McDermott, John Calhoun and Matthew Thompson—staged block parties, neighborhood clean-up projects and opened the rectory to drug addicts and troubled teens in an effort to make a meaningful connection between church and community.

A Mass was celebrated in Spanish, Puerto Rican music was added, and outdoor processions, traditional in Puerto Rico, were initiated for the Stations of the Cross.    The innovations increased attendance by some; but were highly contested by others.  Older parishioners vocally objected to the new music, liturgical dancing and the absence of the traditional Catholic liturgy.

But arguments over liturgy took a back seat when, around 1992, the east wall began separating from the building.  The church hired a contractor to erect three concrete buttresses to shore up the wall; however the work was badly done and never corrected.   Then another crack on the north side began widening; presenting the possibility of collapse.

Cardinal Edward M. Egan investigated the problem for himself and, in June 2001, closed the church.

The parish began a restoration drive and little-by-little the fund grew.  Behind the scenes, however, the Archdiocese quietly filed with the city to convert St. Brigid’s Church into apartments.  The filing was never, apparently, in genuine because according to Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling in 2007 “By this stage there was general consensus with the archdiocese that St. Brigid’s would not reopen as a church and would probably be demolished.”

In the meantime, parishioners, kept in the dark, continued to donate money in envelopes marked “My Donation to Rebuild St. Brigid.”  The fund rose to more than $100,000.  But their money would not be used.

In August of 2004, Bishop Robert Brucato visited Sunday Mass in the school cafeteria and, without explaining the cost of repairs or the safety concerns, abruptly told the people assembled that there was no longer a St. Brigid’s parish.

St. Brigid’s had now stood empty and neglected for four years.  The church estimated a restoration at nearly $7 million and ordered the donations to the “unauthorized” building fund returned.  Demolition began in 2006.  While the parishioners filed suit against the archdiocese, temporarily halting demolition.  Nevertheless, the organ, the crucifix, the Stations of the Cross, the stained glass and even the sculptured faces of the Irish shipwrights were stripped from the church.

The parishioners lost their law suit and Joseph Zwilling stated “It is still our plan for the building to come down.”   The fate of what was possibly the oldest standing Charles Keely church seemed sealed.

But then a miracle happened.

On Wednesday, May 21, 2008 The New York Daily News reported that “Historic St. Brigid’s Church in the East Village was saved from the wrecking ball Wednesday by a $20 million donation from an anonymous angel.”

Edward Cardinal Egan confirmed that the gift had been given after a “private meeting” at the cardinal’s residence.  The cardinal, in a tone significantly different than parishioners and preservationists were accustomed to, said “This magnificent gift will make it possible for St. Brigid’s Church to be fittingly restored with its significant structural problems properly addressed.”

The interior of St. Brigid's in 2011.  The pews, windows, essentially everything is gone -- photo Committee to Save St. Brigid's Church

Restoration continued at St. Brigid’s Church for years.  The entire edifice was shrouded in scaffolding and netting, to be finally resurrected in January 2013.  Whether the lost architectural treasures – the carved pews, the marble altar, the magnificent stained glass and those Irish shipwright heads—will ever be returned is questionable.

However, the 1848 church, so important in New York immigrant history, has miraculously skirted demolition.

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  1. I was fortunate to attend the rededication of St.Brigid's on January 27th along with several of my "59" classmates from St.Brigid's school.It was quite a feeling turning the clock back 53 years.We had a great time and really thought the restoration was very nice,however the real TREASURES of St.Brigid's that we remembered and you addressed in your Oct.10th 2011 article were not present.The organ,stations of the cross,the brillant stained glass which we and our parents cherished were not to be found.The efforts to save the church by a few courageous people,and a anonymous donor shall live in the neighborhoods history forever.Do you have any idea what happened to the church treasures? Surely the architects just didn't decide by themselves to discard them,they were priceless.My classmates and myself really would like the answer to this mystery...What happened to the TREASURES of St.Brigid's ?????? Our ultimate goal would be to return them to the place where they belong...123 Avenue B...St.Brigid's.Your help is greatly appreciated.

    1. The organ, the stations of the cross, and the original statue are out in a warehouse in Staten Island. My question is what happened to Saint Brigid's parish which used to be a mix of neighborhood people, Hispanics, artists, NYU students, etc. It seems to be now a church which is totally Hispanic. The stature of St. Emeric is up in front and a dilapidated statue of Saint Brigid is in the back of the church on a low pedestal. All the saints have vigil lights except St. Brigid who has nothing. The parish priest Father Ato can barely speak English and is hardly ever there. I wrote to Dolan and he wrote a nasty letter back saying I was prejudice against Hispanics. If you have any ideas feel free to email me.

  2. Mary Ann you are a racist, plain and simple. Quick fact Jesus didn't speak english

    1. how dare you condemn anyone as a racist. Jesus didn't speak Spanish either. The church is mainly Hispanic due to the ethnic population now in that area. Mary is right in that St. Brigid is a minor saint in her own named church.

  3. I would hope the Diocese would do the right thing and return the interior elements and stained glass to the church, however since they are help bent on closing churches left and right in NYC and encouraging demolition elsewhere I would not be surprised if the architectural elements have not been sold off. Sad very sad when you cant even trust the word of the cardinal sitting at Saint Patrick's. Its all about money and deals these days not about religion or parishioners.

    1. I believe those artifacts were salvaged off to other churches. No proof of this but my own personal "feeling"