Brooklyn's Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help commands a fair portion of an entire city block.
As well it should: It's the flagship church of the Redemptorists in New York.
It heads a fleet of related buildings including the parish's rectory, school and convent covering the
remainder of the block. Together, they look like a friendly spiritual armada anchored to protect and help this bustling Bay Ridge neighborhood of modest houses and shops.
The massive basilica's granite exterior is such a pristine light gray you'd think it was quarried last week, and not in 1925, when the upper church's cornerstone was laid. Seen from across the street, the basil-ica is noticeably cruciform in design and, with its abundance of rounded arches, somewhat Romanesque in style. To switch metaphors, it beckons to us like a safe harbor and heavenly anchorage.
The basilica caught me unawares because it's really two beautiful churches under one roof. Both the upper church and the lower church, as they're called, have prominent shrines to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. There's a good lesson here: Mary remains changeless in her familiar icon even though both shrines and icons are different.
In the upper church, the magnificent “Golden Shrine,” gleaming mainly in marble, has sculpted angels holding Mary's familiar painted icon above an altar and beneath a blue dome shimmering with stars.
In the lower church, the same icon in stunning mosaic is enshrined in a semicircle of warm oak highlighted by gold trim. Beautiful stained-glass windows of simple liturgical design add another layer to the rich golden glow.
This peaceful, prayerful atmosphere, which radiates through the lower church, makes it a warm and cozy spiritual place for even a thousand worshippers at once. Used daily, it was just entirely redone with that aim in mind.
“We wanted people to feel very much at home here,” Redemptorist Father Kevin Moley told me, speaking on behalf of the basilica's 12,000 regular parishioners and its visitors. “It's always been like a family church.”
Father Moley, the rector and pastor, speaks from experience. Though he also spent 26 years in ministry in Puerto Rico, he grew up in Our Lady of Perpetual Help before it was named a basilica in 1969. His is one of more than 200 vocations to come from this parish since the Redemptorists founded it in 1893. (The Sisters of St. Joseph who staff the school arrived in 1896.)
The glowing woods, the Byzantine-like burgundy columns topped by golden Corinthian capitals, the bright stenciling that outlines the many Roman arched vaults on the lower ceiling—all contribute to making this large, lower “everyday church” radiate with the warmth of a real home, albeit a stately and majestic one.
The redesigned sanctuary is spiritually magnetic. The tabernacle, returned to the center in the apse behind the altar, focuses the attention on the real presence of Christ here. The prayer area immediately before the Blessed Sacrament invites us to “come up closer” for a visit on our way to Mary's shrine.
I couldn't help but think that the Irish, Italian, German and Norwegian immigrants who built and first worshipped in this lower church early in the 20th century would find themselves right at home, just like today's many new immigrants in the parish do. They come from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Peru—all of Latin America. There are Filipinos and Chinese, too, joining the constant flow of Irish, Italians and Germans. In fact, a weekly Mass in Chinese has recently been added to the regular English and Spanish schedule.
The new immigrants' different cultural devotions fit in beautifully with long-established ones headed by the Our Lady of Perpetual Help novena. I also found images of St. Joseph, St. Patrick and St. Anthony, along with Redemptorist saints like Alphonsus Ligouri and Gerard Majella, in the recessed side shrines. They are joined by a statue of Santo Nino de Cebu (the Infant Jesus) from the Philippines that draws many petitioners to this beautiful place of worship.
The enormous, Byzantine-Romanesque upper church includes a painting from Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe that, on the Dec. 12 feast, is surrounded by 500 roses and draws upward of 5,000 devotees; singers come at midnight with their guitars to serenade Our Lady. Within the transept's Sacred Heart altar, a large image of Our Lady of Cobre, the Virgin of Charity from Cuba, reminds people of that country's needs. Then a nearly life-sized crucifix called Señor de los Milagros—Lord of the Miracles—presents a devotion that began in Buga, Colombia.
All are grouped not far from the statue of St. Gerard and the stunning “Golden Shrine” of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
Every June 27, scores of people celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, including numbers of Haitians who pray and tenderly sing all day before Mary's image. Under this title, she is the patroness of their country.
The feast isn't on the universal calendar, but it's a Redemptorist privilege. In fact, in 1865, Pope Pius IX gave custody of the miraculous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to the Redemptorists and charged them: “See to it that Our Lady of Perpetual Help be made known throughout the world.”
Holiness out of Hiding
In 1866, this icon was presented for public veneration in St. Alphonsus Church in Rome. For a thumbnail history of a long story, the Byzantine style icon had been painted during the 15th century on Crete after the original miraculous icon, called the Hodegetria and believed painted by St. Luke, was destroyed by Turks invading Constantinople.
When the image arrived in Rome, Our Lady appeared to a little girl and directed that it be placed in the church between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. In 1499, it was, and remained there 300 years until Napoleon's invasion leveled the church and forced the picture into hiding. Once it was rediscovered, the Redemptorists followed Pius IX's directive and joyously spread devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help with copies of the original painted in Rome and then sent to their churches.
They also began the Perpetual Novena to her. In 1943, this basilica played a key role in spreading the perpetual novena throughout the world. As World War II Army chaplains, two Redemptorists who preached the weekly perpetual novena in Brooklyn during the 1930s introduced the devotion in Ireland—beginning with Belfast, then on to Limerick and Dublin—with novena booklets supplied by the Brooklyn church. Within a year, 10,000 attended the weekly services. Then Irish Redemptorists picked up the perpetual novena and carried it to England, Africa and points east—the Philippines, India and Singapore.
The way this devotion spread from this Brooklyn basilica seems truly miraculous. An important footnote concerns a native son of the parish, Redemptorist Father Joseph Manton. He preached the homily the day the church was raised to a basilica, and for decades he drew thousands of people every Wednesday to Mission Church in Boston (also called the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help) where he preached this novena.
Whether on a lone pilgrimage or while attending one of the Diocese of Brooklyn's major events held in this big basilica, visitors always pause to marvel at the elaborate mural of Mary's assumption into heaven. The painting covers the soaring dome above the sanctuary and seems supported by a colonnaded gallery of angels and larger-than-life murals of Old and New Testament figures, from Moses to John the Baptist.
Taking in the grandeur of the basilica and the years of devotion carried on here, facing Brooklyn's Fifth Avenue, I wondered how many of the pilgrims and visitors to St. Patrick's Cathedral on the more-famous Fifth Avenue—the one in Manhattan—have ever heard of this basilica across the Brooklyn Bridge. Here Our Lady of Perpetual Help patiently waits for them.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.