Brooklyn’s First Catholic Church Celebrates 200th Anniversary

Before the first Catholic church was built in Brooklyn 200 years ago, residents who wanted to attend mass had to board a ferry and travel to Manhattan.

There were no bridges connecting the two banks of the East River. Brooklyn was just a village, still part of Long Island Municipality, that had no established Catholic church to speak of.

Tired of the travels and looking for a more spiritual connection, Long Islanders opened what years later would become the Cathedral Basilica of St. James, the cradle of Catholic Christianity for two dioceses and 388 parishes.

“The same Holy Spirit 200 years ago inspired a generation of people to want to build the church,” said Bishop Robert Brennan, Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn. “The same Holy Spirit is moving in the hearts of men and women today.”

Brennan will be the main speaker at a special mass Sunday to commemorate the 200th anniversary of St. James, the first Catholic church to be built on all of Long Island.

Back then, in 1822, Long Island consisted of Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties. Although all counties are still physically part of the same island, Brooklyn and Queens have since been consolidated into New York City.

Brooklyn Church was built in response to a request from 70 lay people who petitioned the Archdiocese of New York for a parish in the village.

“In the first place, we want our children to be instructed in the principles of holy religion,” wrote Peter Turner in a letter on behalf of the laity. “We want more convenience to hear the Word of God ourselves. In fact, we want a church, a pastor and a burial place.

A memorial bust of Turner, who died in 1863, sits on a pedestal in St. James Cemetery.

The Rev Bryan Patterson, current rector of St James, said he has always been inspired by the church’s history.

“It was not a bunch of priests,” Patterson said of the original church petitioners. “These are ordinary people who decided they wanted their own church and to raise their children in the faith and a place to bury their people. They needed a safe place to celebrate faith.

From there, other churches began to appear, first in Jamaica, then in Hempstead, until Catholics celebrated Mass and received Communion in Montauk.

“Somebody had to be first,” Patterson said.

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In 1853, Long Island established its own diocese in Brooklyn and continued to grow. Over 100 years later, in 1957, the Diocese of Rockville Center was created, separating from Brooklyn and Queens.

The grand cathedral that stands today at Jay St. and Cathedral Place was built in 1903 to replace the parish church which was badly damaged by a series of fires.

Among the highlights of the church was an unscheduled stop in 1979 by Pope John Paul II during his first visit to the United States.

The pontiff’s procession stopped in front of the cathedral and he got out of his car to greet the crowd.

Legend has it that the steady rain briefly stopped during the Pope’s five-minute visit.

The quick stop is told in more detail in a new documentary, “The Story of the Cathedral Basilica of St. James”, which will premiere on NET-TV on Sunday at 5 p.m.

“This church has seen a lot,” said Patterson, who was ordained at St. James. “Even the parish was part of the Underground Railroad. This space, this church and this community saw the development of New York from an agricultural society to where we are now.

Martha J. Finley