Brooklyn is still sometimes called the borough of churches but it’s generally more synonymous with the hipster-millennial culture both celebrated and lampooned in the media. The tension is reflected somewhat in religious census data showing that out of the borough’s 2.6 million residents, 23 percent identify as Catholic and 22 percent as unaffiliated (the third largest group, at 18 percent, are Black Protestants). The socio-economic shifts of the past two decades are evident far more concretely in the dozens of churches and parish buildings converted to condominiums and secular private schools, a phenomenon prompting wagers on how long Brooklyn’s ecclesial nickname will apply.
I currently belong to a parish that by many measures is thriving, aided perhaps by the same gentrifying forces that have sped closures, consolidations, and sales of church property in other parts of the borough. We joined it the spring after 9/11, leaving Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen, the old neighborhood parish where my son was baptized. Neighborhood parish: a romantic notion, redolent of the city’s European immigrant past, of holy-day processions through the surrounding streets, of peasant traditions carried from distant southern-Italian villages and exerting their mysterious influence on contemporary worship. Yet it was just those qualities, held in a clannish, crabbed ownership increasingly tinged with Bush-era jingoism and xenophobia, that encouraged our exit. For years I’d thought about going back, if only for one Mass. On a warm Saturday afternoon in late June, I finally did, walking a few short blocks to attend the 5:30 vigil.
The atmosphere, in every sense of the word, has brightened considerably. On the way into the church I was smilingly presented a bulletin with some inserts, a magazine-sized missal, and a smaller but thicker paperback hymnal. Signs outside proclaimed “All Are Welcome,” in keeping with recent diocesan messaging, but the warm greetings I received from the handful of people on hand seemed genuine. It was disarming. Based on those old experiences, I’d come with my guard up. Did I really want to lower it?
The building itself is representative of the late nineteenth-century style of urban church architecture. It’s an imposing structure, towering over the surrounding brownstones and row-house apartment buildings, which at one time were home to first- and second-generation Irish- and Italian-Americans who worked the nearby waterfront, then to their descendants who entered the trades and office-worker class, and then, increasingly, to upper-middle-class professionals lured by the safe streets and well-regarded public schools. Its steeple dominates the sky beyond my living-room window, and indeed is said to have served as a beacon to ships entering New York Harbor. (The Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen website details a rich and colorful history, including the establishment of the associated school by Frances Cabrini in the 1890s, and the merger of the two parishes when construction of the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway necessitated demolition of Sacred Hearts in the late 1930s.)
A grand set of high stone steps leads to a central arched entrance flanked by two smaller doors. Another high set of steps inside leads from the vestibule to the sanctuary, which while striking in its vast, ornate excess manages to feel intimate. Since the sale of its nearby school a decade ago, the church has undergone refurbishing; the interior is well lighted when it once was shadowed, the walls, columns, and soaring ceilings painted in colors that dispel the gloom I’d recalled. The tabernacle is centered high and prominent behind the altar, which in a lingering old–New World touch is fronted by banks of electric, coin-fed votive candles. The pews and floors shine brightly, while the kneelers, appealingly upholstered in burgundy, move silently on their hinges. Restored stained-glass windows alongside the western side of the church filter the light of the lowering sun, which falls in soft bands on the life-sized plaster icons: Our Lady of Sorrows pierced by a dagger, the Infant of Prague, Cosmos and Damian, Our Ladies of Mt. Carmel and the Letters, Frances Cabrini, Maria di Lauro, and Pope John Paul II with staff and mitre. Also, St. Joseph, whom one woman had just thanked “for helping out with that thing with Louie,” as I overheard her reveal to a companion.