A Student of History

July 29, 2006

More history paved over-in NYC

Filed under: Historic Preservation,Ireland — John Maass @ 7:32 pm

A historic pre-Civil War church in NYC is being demolished to make room for high-priced housing.  According to the Village Voice, St. Brigid’s Church is set to be wrecked unless a last minute appeal is granted.  

A local committee to save the church has a website, from which the following is taken:

St. Brigid’s has been standing since December 1849, and is one of the first religious structures Patrick Keely, a self-taught architect, and an Irish immigrant, designed. Built by shipwrights, it is also known as the Famine Church because most of its original parishioners were Irish displaced by the Great Famine.  The rich history of St. Brigid’s begins in the 1840s, with the increased influx of Irish immigrants escaping the Great Famine. Many settled in the area then known as the Dry Dock District (stretching east-west from the East River to Avenue B and north-south from Houston to 12th Street), and found employment as laborers at the East River Shipyards. When a temporary chapel at East 4th Street soon proved inadequate, plans were made to build a new church on the corner of 8th Street and Avenue B, dedicated to “the Mary of Gael,” St. Brigid, and designed to serve the burgeoning Irish-American community.

The choice of architect for St. Brigid’s was Patrick Keely, an up-and-coming Catholic Church architect. Born in County Tipperary in 1816, Keely emigrated to the U.S. at age 25 and settled in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn, where he worked as a carpenter. Because Keely’s formal training in architecture is undocumented, it is believed he learned design and construction from his father, a builder. After completing an altar and reredos (altar screen) for St. James Pro-Cathedral and going on to build St. Peter and Paul’s Church in Brooklyn in 1846.

Keely’s services became highly sought after, ushering in a “new era in Catholic building,” to serve growing immigrant communities. At his death in 1896, Keely was said to have built over 600 churches and religious edifices, stretching north to Canada, south to South Carolina and west to Iowa. Locally, one can see examples of Keely’s work at St. Francis Xavier on 16th Street and Mary, Star of the Sea on Court Street in Brooklyn, among others; major works elsewhere include Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston and the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany.

St. Brigid’s may in fact be the oldest Keely church still standing. Its corner stone was laid on September 10th, 1848, and construction was completed in a somewhat astonishing fifteen months. Designed in the Carpenter’s Gothic style, the building is without transepts or apse (that is to say, it is rectilinear rather than crossshaped), and features a nave (center seating area) flanked by a north and south aisle, each with a second-story seating gallery fronted by elaborate wainscoting. The vaulted ceiling above the nave is said to have been fashioned by shipbuilders as an upside-down boat; and indeed, one student of architecture sees this theory borne out in the “extraordinary flattening of the nave vaulting,” which resembles the hull of a ship. Sculpted faces that abut the corbels supporting the roof are said to honor the shipwrights who built the church.

The stations of the cross were purchased in Paris in the 1870s, and one source lists them as the work of Théophile-Narcisse Chauvel, a French painter and printmaker active during that time. The statue of St. Brigid was made by an unnamed Munich artist and installed in 1884. Also during that decade, a new floor of Georgia pine was laid; the church’s ceilings and walls were “frescoed in light colors by A. Ertle [sometimes seen as “E. Ertle”], the church decorator”; carved ash pews from the G. Faulhaber factory in Cleveland were put in; and the aisles raised five inches for better sight-lines.

The stained glass windows, imported from Bavaria, were also installed at that time, and a carved marble and Caen stone altar built by Theiss & Janssen was made to replace the wooden altar; an original wooden altar holding the blessed sacrament is still to be seen at the east end of the north aisle. The stations were restored at that time, and new chandeliers added. Throughout the church interior are numerous reminders of the church’s Irish immigrant roots, with windows and plaques dedicated in memory of its 19th century parishioners and rectors. Also in the church is a magnificent organ, with the original Keely organ case and intricately stenciled organ pipes, and the towering five-pinnacle reredos, which was carved by Keely himself.

The exterior of St. Brigid’s, though adapted over time, still bears much of its original architectural integrity. Its two steeples were removed after 1962 due to maintenance and safety concerns, and the building was stuccoed perhaps around that time. The original Gothic-revival fence is intact.

The fortunes of St. Brigid’s have risen and fallen over the years. In its most robust days the parish ranked as high as third in the diocese in providing funds toward the building of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As the Irish population on the east side declined, St. Brigid’s served newer immigrant populations, such as Slavs and especially Italians during the late 19th century and, mid/late 20th century onward, the growing Latino community.

During the Depression, Sunday mass attendance was documented at a mere 350 people, and the total revenue of the parish fell to about $60 a week. The number of parishioners later increased under the care of a new rector, and in 1951 there were more baptisms at St. Brigid’s than in any year since 1890. Such vicissitudes may be important to keep in mind when assessing the current state of the parish – which, given the right care and tending, could once again become a beacon for those who keep the faith.

1 Comment »

  1. How utterly sad. And ironic. On my blog, on August 22nd, I was bemoaning the fact that over on *this* coast, people are trying to demolish OUR St. Brigid’s – in San Francisco.
    Permalink: [http://beautifulbuildings.wordpress.com/2006/08/22/st-brigid-survived-the-1906-earthquake-cant-we-save-it-now/]

    What the hell is going on in this country? Demolishing ANYTHING that was built in 1848 is just plain disgusting. I am relieved to read that your St. Brigid’s might have a second chance…..
    Permalink: [http://adowntownreporter.blogspot.com/2006/07/fighting-irishmanst-brigids-demolition.html]

    Good luck with everything my fellow preservation people, and keep fighting!



    Comment by Jennifer — September 13, 2006 @ 7:24 pm | Reply

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