A Mirror for Brooklyn

Volume 47, Issue 3 :: by Ann Kendall

The Marian Murals and American Saints of St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral

Cross the Brooklyn Bridge to the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush to SHoP Architects’ Barclays Center and you’ll see a crossroads packed with rush-hour taxis and pedestrians rushing for trains gathering in Vanderbilt Yards to speed people into Manhattan or out to Long Island. It is a teeming entry to rapidly developing Brooklyn, that former Borough President Marty Markowitz says, “is no bedroom community.” Today, Brooklyn is the most populous borough of New York City and home to nearly three million people. A diverse hum of business contributes to its prosperous status, yet 25 percent of the population still survives on incomes under the federal poverty line.

Interior of St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral

Interior of St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral has been revived with an eye toward reflecting the ethnic diversity of its urban neighborhood.

 

Turning down quieter Pacific Street, evidence of pending development surrounds the solid and stoic edifice of St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral. The heaviness of the church building embodies all those qualities Joseph represents—the guardian, the protector, and the servant. But when Monsignor Kieran Harrington arrived in January 2008, the then parish of St. Joseph’s sat empty on Sunday morning, a ring of barbed wire wrapping around its perimeter. The eight or ten parishioners who arrived on Sundays worshipped in the rectory where each time they spoke or sang, their breath turned to billows of steam from the cold. The 100-year-old building had witnessed the transitions that take place in any urban center over time: a burst of new immigrants populate a church, people have families and move to the suburbs, a new wave of immigrants comes in to take their places. But the broken windows that allowed birds to fly in and out caused those few parishioners to ask each other how they might spare some of their own limited funds to patch the shattered glass together; but most important, they never allowed the physical disintegration of their church to deter their efforts.

When Msgr. Harrington arrived that cold January and found the baptismal font frozen over, his first decision was to move Mass back into the church, regardless of the temperature; not the cold of winter or the heat of the pending summer would dissuade him from his idea that if you open the church, people will come. He added two Masses to bring the Sunday total to three; some of those devoted eight or ten worshippers from the rectory-worship days would stay for all three Masses so he wouldn’t be alone. A new priest came, Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, the only Mexican priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Slowly the pews started to fill with new worshippers moving into the area, some traveling great distances: a mix of urban lives, immigrants from around the globe, young professionals and children. Prospect Heights, Brooklyn was slowly starting to prosper.

As gentrification surrounding the church progressed, worries grew, the congregation grew, and concern about its future continued: How could St. Joseph’s survive financially? Would it succumb to the development pressures surrounding it? And most important, how could St. Joseph’s retain its uniquely diverse community of worshippers, honoring its patron Saint Joseph of social justice, where families of many ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds could gather, not just to worship but to meld their lives together through the ceremonies and moments of a life shared— baptisms, birthdays, after-church walks to the park? As the parish was rallying to mount a campaign to rebuild, renovate, and restore St. Joseph’s, events afoot at the diocese—and at the Vatican— slowly came together to honor and elevate St. Joseph’s parish to a Co-Cathedral for the diocese.

Today entering St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral, it is difficult to imagine that recently the church was a hollow shell, left standing almost as if through neglect. Now, as light shines through restored stained glass throughout the night, St. Joseph’s is a beacon in the neighborhood, its doors open every day, all day, so that parishioners and those in need of respite can come in and feel the warmth that resonates from each surface within. The development of Brooklyn was a motivating factor in the decision to rescue St. Joseph’s. With an increasing influx of residents and the need for a large space to accommodate worshippers, it was a rational and economic decision to bring the church to new life. The idea of living stones is an accurate description of the restoration process. Each person involved in the decision to restore, whether clergy, parishioner, or artisan, is part of this living church. The renovation itself (building, systems, and then decoration) served as an economic generator providing living wage jobs—aptly as Joseph is the patron saint of workers.

Creating the new ‘American Saints’ mural.

Artists at EverGreene Architectural Arts work on the new ‘American Saints’ mural.

EverGreene Architectural Arts began the delicate and intricate work of restoring and creating the decorative elements of St. Joseph’s after the building and systems were fully renovated in late fall 2013; the project was completed in a very short time-frame (just over two months) with painters and craftsmen working around the clock in some cases on a nearly-70-foot scaffolding. Each week at Sunday Mass, worshippers could look above and around to see the project’s progress and to feel a part of the process; it was important to church leadership as well as to the growing congregation that the building remain operational for Sunday services during this intense time, though during the two-month process it did close during the week. Parishioners assisted in restoring the aged pews, working steadily in the basement to strip away years of varnish, while conservators, artists, and craftspeople climbed scaffolding in the church, restoring the few existing murals and disintegrating columns. While Brooklyn is prospering, an important note to this restoration story is that it remains an economically diverse parish; its collection plate does not overflow each week, it counts undocumented immigrants among its weekly attendees, along with representation of every socioeconomic group of Brooklyn. The most important design imperative for the project was the critical need to create a worship environment that honored its parishioners and surroundings while allowing space for those immigrants and worshipers who have not yet arrived in Brooklyn.

Msgr. Harrington points out that the Holy Mother is unifying to all Catholics: as the mother she is the entrance point, she offers access to all. EverGreene created 22 “Marian Murals” to grace the ceiling of St. Joseph’s, representing the best-represented ethnicities in the diocese. In gazing towards the ceiling, one sees each mural set in its oval shape, welcoming contemplation with familiarity of language and vision. Msgr. Harrington also points out that the role of didactic art is often exposure to greater concepts: the Marian Murals made concrete the idea that not only can worshipers find the Mary of their own vision and background, but also the Mary of their neighbor. While the style of the art is traditional, the ideas are progressive and inclusive. Each nine-foot-oval mural was hand painted in EverGreene’s studio and installed in the concave bay with ten on each side aisle (with two murals, Our Lady of Lourdes and Our Lady of Fatima, on rear-aisle walls); standing underneath each Madonna and gazing upward is to feel as if you are in an intimate chapel-like setting, bathed in light whether viewing Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady Queen of Nigeria, or Our Lady of Hostyn. To create the set of 22 murals, 12 painters collaborated to bring the ideas of the church’s apostolic groups’ design guidance to reality; these groups also assisted the church in raising funds for each mural, creating a special ownership and feeling of inclusiveness in St. Joseph’s renewal.

Msgr. Harrington used to hear questions from attendees: How does this church reflect what I have learned and know? The Marian Murals offer St. Joseph’s an intricate fabric that reflects and beckons simultaneously for the entirety of the diocese. The interpretation of congregational desires for artwork that inspires and is inclusive now evokes the feelings the parish and its leaders want to share with the community at large and with Catholics throughout the diocese: everyone is welcome here. On Sundays, when the organ music begins to waft down from the loft and parishioners walk to their seats, they may stop to study their vision of Mary; in glancing back towards the organ loft they will see the newly created American Saints mural shining brightly with objects included of special meaning to the diocese: the Queen’s Unisphere and the Brooklyn Bridge. As worshippers prepare to leave, their gaze will float upward to that mural again, resting perhaps on one of the four figures without a halo: Pierre Toussaint, Dorothy Day, Fr. Bernard Quinn, and Bishop Ford, the four figures in the mural without halos, local representations of mortals who achieved saintly service through their actions. These individuals provide local inspiration for congregants, that ancient ideas are connected to modern living, an inspirational and aspirational message to go forth into the week ahead. Whether arriving on foot, by bus, bicycle, or train, the restoration and renewal of St. Joseph’s is the symbolic crossroads of a dynamic community where there is a place for everyone, for even those who have not yet arrived.

PROJECT CREDITS

Design concept, liturgical furnishings design, plaster & paint restoration, mural conservation, new murals (design & production), decorative finishes: EverGreene Architectural Arts; Owner’s representative: Belle Brook Inc., LLC; HVAC: BP Mechanical Corp.; Lighting: Light Tech (directed by BP); Organ: Peragallo Pipe Organ Company; Maintenance/Electric: Vanguard (directed by BP); fabrication of new wooden liturgical furnishings: Ratigan Schottler; New marble fabrication: Wild English; under-croft restoration & wood refinishing: JA Jennings; Architect exterior: Acheson Doyle Partners; Architect of Record/interior: Gerner Kronick + Valcarcel; Stained glass: Botti Studios.

Ann Kendall is a freelance writer focused on the relationship of human services, the arts, and architecture.

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