St. Joseph Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., has a remarkable story of renewal and a new honor, thanks to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
In one of his last official acts before retiring on Feb. 11, 2013, Benedict named St. Joseph Church as the co-cathedral of the large diocese. Brooklyn’s Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio had petitioned the pope for this elevation, since the much-smaller St. James Cathedral-Basilica was the only cathedral in the diocese during its 160-year history. Until now.
The timing was right for the new distinction, because St. Joseph’s just underwent a major $18-million-plus restoration and renovation, and its grand size can easily seat 1,500 people.
All those pews were overflowing on May 13, as Bishop DiMarzio, just a few days after the church’s 100th anniversary, dedicated St. Joseph as a co-cathedral and consecrated the new altar.
Bishop DiMarzio said in his homily during the dedication, "You don’t know where to look first."
Indeed. But a good place to start is the magnificent sanctuary, which is emphasized by a white marble Communion rail, the original one, which stretches straight across the beginning of the sanctuary. The baptistery, high altar, reredos and baldachino are also the originals.
The church was designed by Brooklyn architect Franz Joseph Berlenbach Jr., who concentrated on designing Catholic churches. Before opening his own firm, he worked for James Renwick Jr., who designed New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. St. Joseph was established in 1850 by Archbishop John Hughes of New York.
The new marble altar, which carries the original altar’s Last Supper bas relief, is under the magnificent white baldachino. While the church has mainly Romanesque features, with some Gothic, this baldachino rises to a Greek Neoclassical pediment.
Atop this baldachino, from within a round, open shrine, there is a beyond-life-size marble statue of St. Joseph overlooking the congregation. It’s one of the many reminders of the co-cathedral’s patron.
Bishop DiMarzio drew attention to the inscription there: Ite Ad Joseph (Go to Joseph). "Joseph is the one to whom we go in the co-cathedral," the bishop said. "Joseph is the one who protected the Holy Family. It is Joseph who is the universal patron of the Church."
And referring to St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Redemptoris Custos (The Person and Mission of St. Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church), he added, "Together with Mary, Joseph is the guardian of the mystery."
He reminded the faithful what Pope Francis said, "Joseph is not only the protector of Jesus and Mary, but of Christ’s mystical body, the Church."
The restored stained-glass windows along the nave feature Joseph in each scene, along with Jesus and Mary.
Originally done by a Brooklyn firm, these windows are joined by rows even higher up in the clerestory. They present the Evangelists, the Twelve Apostles and Sts. Boniface and Patrick, representing the German and the Irish immigrants who founded the parish.
Msgr. Kieran Harrington, the pastor and now rector of the co-cathedral, who oversaw all of the restoration work, likes to point out the quotes on opposite sides of the nave walls: "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt," from Genesis 45:4, and "Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, into your home,’" from Matthew 1:20.
Msgr. Harrington highlighted for me the sanctuary image of God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Our Lord; to the sides of Jesus are images of the Blessed Mother and Sts. Peter and Paul, as well as Elijah, Moses and St. Michael the Archangel. Lining the apse, a row of angels is depicted singing Tantum Ergo, as each unfolds a scroll to show one of the words of the glorious hymn.
Except for the original restored murals in the apse and behind the high altar, with its centered tabernacle, almost all of the artwork is new.
Msgr. Harrington told me about the many decorations, especially the medallion-like rondelettes, with images of Mary, saying, "There is always room for Mary." These glorious paintings present 22 images of Our Lady, each highlighting a different title from a different country representing the immigrant parishioners in the area.
"Our Lady is here to greet them in the title most familiar," said Bishop DiMarzio in his homily.
Our Lady of Lourdes leads into the baptistery, while Our Lady of Fatima includes the three secrets she shared and depicts St. John Paul II and Archbishop Oscar Romero. Above the clerestory windows are various depictions of the Litany of Loreto, such as Mary, Star of the Sea, Mystical Rose and Ark of the Covenant accompanied by the Latin title and various symbols of Christ and the Blessed Mother on the ceiling of the church.
In addition, the Stations of the Cross are comprised of large and beautiful mosaics more than 100 years old. They came from the closed Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in the diocese.
Msgr. Harrington enjoys how "the colors are very soothing. We are open from 7am to 7pm, and, invariably, people are walking into the church to say a prayer and light a candle in this residential area."
Those colors include light green for the huge pillars that flower into fancy capitals and high wainscoting in light rose pink — all done in a marble-simulation technique known as scagliola.
Part of this exceptional work includes not only the new Marian paintings, but also the mural arched high in the choir loft above the restored Moeller organ with 36 ranks (sets of pipes) and 2,300 pipes all together.
The colorful mural depicts some saints connected to New York and America. Among those standing in the large group between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Queens Unisphere — a 12-foot-high, spherical steel representation of the Earth — are St. Frances Cabrini, St. John Neumann, a young Servant of God Dorothy Day, St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Brooklyn priest and Servant of God Father Bernard Quinn and Brooklyn-born Bishop Francis Xavier Ford.
A relic of St. André Bessette, who was especially devoted to St. Joseph, was placed in the new altar during its consecration, and Bishop DiMarzio reminded the congregation at the dedication that St. André "will also be an example for all those who come to this church."
Now, the co-cathedral is ready for more worshippers, as the gentrification of this area of Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights expects 16,000 new residents.
As Bishop DiMarzio reminded the faithful on dedication day, "Christ is the capstone who holds the Church together. We come to ask Joseph and his spouse to be truly intercessors."
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.
Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph
856 Pacific St.
Brooklyn, NY 11238
Planning Your Visit
Only a few blocks from the co-cathedral are the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Brooklyn Arts Museum. There are several nice restaurants along Vanderbilt Avenue, the main walking route by the church. Looking for a place to grab some pizza? Try Cataldo’s.