The forty-two Catholic churches, schools and social service groups are a powerful lens on the important role of Catholics in New York City’s spirituality, faith-based social services and politics.
Williamsburg-Greenpoint Catholic churches often have very large baptismal rolls, though not all attract as many Sunday attenders as they used to. However, several Catholic churches are packed to the gills with worshippers, particularly some in the more Hispanic south and east sides of Williamsburg.
Surely, one of the most beautiful, particularly at Christmastime, is St. Stanislaus Kostaka Roman Catholic Church, which was built in Greenpoint in 1896. If you don’t visit that church during Christmas or Easter, you are missing an awesome beauty.
A tree in Greenpoint, Brooklyn grew from a Catholic church
Most Holy Trinity – St. Mary on Montrose Avenue in Greenpoint is another spectacularly beautiful Roman Catholic church. In the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (published in 1943), Betty Smith, a second generation German who grew up in Williamsburg, recalls how a young Austrian-Irish-American girl read books in order to escape the bitter poverty and a father wasted by alcoholism. At the end of the novel the young heroine of the book recalls “Brooklyn. It's a magic city and it isn't real. . . . It's like -- yes -- a dream. . . . But it's like a dream of being poor and fighting.” Smith was baptized in 1897 at the church and probably recalls the church in her book: “Francie thought it was the most beautiful church in Brooklyn. It was made of old gray stone and had twin spires that rose cleanly into the sky, high above the tallest tenements. Inside, the high vaulted ceilings, narrow deep-set stained-glass windows and elaborately carved altars made it a miniature cathedral.” Francie questions whether she believes in God because of the circumstances of her father’s death but in the end reflects that she knows God better through her struggles.
Francie’s mother believes in a panoply of ghosts and fairies and enlists God's help when she's pregnant and desperate, explaining to Him that she needs Him when she's “not the boss of her own mind and body.”
The Festival of the Lilies
Italian immigrants from Nola, which is near Naples, Italy, brought with them the Festival of Lillies (giglio) that honors Saint Paulinus. In July 1903 the first giglio celebration took place in Williamsburg.
The Shrine Church of Mount Carmel puts on the giglio festival in July. They “dance the giglio,” a tower of several stories height, to represent the bumpy ride of the people from the Naples, Italy area to Williamsburg. The festival is fun for kids, but the church also has a wide range of recovery programs, forty of them, for a variety of ills. They also have a gay and lesbian AA group.
Transfiguration on Marcy Avenue on the Southside is mainly a Hispanic church with elderly Puerto Rican and Dominicans and a majority of new immigrant families from Mexico and elsewhere.
Two Catholic churches in Williamsburg-Greenpoint tend to the spiritual needs of Ukrainians. Although Ukrainians have been moving out of the neighborhood, it remains “home” for many.
Catholic Social Services
The Catholic churches also spawned two strong neighborhood housing and social service groups that you can read about in Marwell’s Brooklyn for Sale. Churches United for Fair Housing, an advocacy group active on Williamsburg's Southside, gain a significant victory during the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront re-zoning. It forced the city to include affordable housing in its proposed development. Recently, Mayor Bill De Blasio bargained for even more affordable housing before the Domino Sugar factory site could be developed.
In our next two features we will highlight a Catholic “home” for Ukrainians and an innovative Catholic ministry to gays in Willamsburg and Greenpoint.
For more on our journey through Williamsburg & Greenpoint religions see:
Illustrated Explorer's Guide Williamsburg & Greenpoint. Think of Brooklyn Community District 1 as a city with over 173,000 people in 2010.
Surprising truth about Billburg & Greenpoint: thick with religious faith and practice. There are over 300 religious organizations in the area.
The Jews of Williamsburg & Greenpoint. About 61,000 Jews live in the NYC community district of Williamsburg-Greenpoint.