A block beyond the bustle of downtown Brooklyn, across from the courthouses, the technical colleges and the business towers, a century-old cupola with a gold dome beckons the faithful to noontime prayer.
A shiny bronze statue of St. James with a walking staff, nestled in an alcove above the door, welcomes those who answer the call to attend the weekday 12:10 p.m. Mass. (His feast is July 25.)
The sturdy, weathered, red-brick building that speaks of permanence in a city of change is St. James Cathedral-Basilica, the episcopal seat of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.
Once a lively neighborhood a few blocks from the docks of the East River, this business and civic section of Brooklyn now has relatively few residents, and attendance at the cathedral has dwindled over the decades. While St. Patrick's Cathedral on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue attracts crowds of worshipers and tourists each day, the smaller St. James finds a place on few itineraries. Only two weekend Masses are celebrated, one at 5 p.m. Saturday and the other at 10:15 a.m. Sunday. Combined, they draw a total of about 200 worshipers.
“We call this New York's ‘other’ cathedral,” said Msgr. John Strynkowski, who was appointed rector of St. James in February, after working for years in the nation's capital at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. St. James is humbler, as Brooklyn is compared to Manhattan, he said, but it has its own identity and rich history.
In addition, the Brooklyn cathedral boasts what its larger brother across the river does not. It is a minor basilica, so designated by Pope John Paul II in 1982, three years after he visited the site during his first papal visit to the United States.
A plaque on the brick façade bears an image of the Pope and the words: “On Oct. 3rd 1979, Pope John Paul II visited this historic St. James Cathedral. He walked in our midst, touched our hearts, and despite torrential rain, he brought the sun.”
Inside the solid bronze doors is a splendid cruciform cathedral that is much more spacious than it appears from the outside. First to catch the eye is the baldacchino rising above the altar in the sanctuary. The high pulpit, in cathedral style, is on the right side from the congregation's view.
The stained-glass windows depict a mix of traditional Christian images — Jesus and the apostles, the Blessed Mother and angels — and history of the diocese. One window shows Bishop Edward McDonnell, the second ordinary, who headed the diocese from 1878 to1903. Two windows of Mary adorn either end of the transept. The stained-glass image of the Immaculate Conception is especially breathtaking.
The cathedral is a place of peace amid the asphalt landscape, yet urban reminders remain. The pews vibrate at regular intervals from the subway trains rumbling through tunnels below. Sirens and honking horns can be heard from nearby eight-lane Tillary Street.
The people of Brooklyn and Queens know the cathedral mostly through television. The weekday Mass is televised live on a cable station that reaches 1.2 million homes. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio celebrates Mass on a regular basis there, and all major diocesan events such as ordinations and the Chrism Mass take place in the cathedral.
Founded in 1822 along a stretch of Jay Street now named Cathedral Place, St. James was the first Catholic church on Long Island. It was made a cathedral in 1853, when the Brooklyn Diocese was formed out the Archdiocese of New York, with Bishop John Loughlin as the first ordinary. Brooklyn was its own city at the time, before being incorporated into New York City in 1898.
The present cathedral, the fourth church at the site, was built in 1903 after fire damaged the previous one.
“It was at first called the pro-cathedral because there was a plan to build a bigger cathedral in another area of Brooklyn,” explains Pat McNamara, the diocesan archivist who has written a history of the diocese. “This is the place where it all begins. There is a lot of history here. Although the size of the congregation has dwindled over the years because of changes in the neighborhood, St. James is a much revered place in our diocese.”
The Bridge Boom
The first Catholic school on Long Island was founded in the church's basement in 1823, and the remnants of the first Catholic cemetery on Long Island lie in a small garden linking the cathedral to the rectory behind it. The area's first Catholic high school, St. James, also got its start at the cathedral. It has since moved to another part of Brooklyn and was renamed after Bishop Loughlin, but the De La Salle Brothers still run the school.
McNamara describes in lively detail the origins of the diocese, when Bishop Loughlin traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn on the Fulton Street ferry in November 1853 to claim his new episcopal territory. It marked the beginning of great growth for the city. Ellis Island was teeming with European immigrants, many of them Catholic, “yearning to breathe free” as their boats passed the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
In 1884, the city changed forever by the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Brooklyn and Manhattan and solidifying its character as a booming metropolis and a crossroad of cultures.
The influx of immigrants continues today from a wider range of areas throughout the world, including the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, Africa, Asia, Russia and other former Soviet republics. Mass is celebrated in 19 languages throughout the diocese. As Bishop Emeritus Thomas Daily often said when he led the diocese, “The whole world comes to Brooklyn.”
Although the cathedral is geographically cut off from the borough's lively neighborhoods by the long vehicular approaches to the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, which converge near its doorstep, the area around St. James is seeing a gradual residential revival. Young professionals are fleeing the sky-high Manhattan prices to fill pockets of new construction or converted commercial space in the area. Msgr. Strynkowski anticipates new pastoral opportunities in what may become another chapter in the cathedral's history.
“There is a building of 260 condos opening nearby in the fall,” the rector says, “and we will be reaching out to those residents.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
St. James Cathedral-Basilica is located at 250 Cathedral Place in Brooklyn, N.Y., near the intersection of Jay and Tillary Streets. Call ahead to make sure the sanctuary is open: (718) 852-4002.
By subway, exit at the Borough Hall Station. By car, take the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Exit 29, Tillary Street. On foot, walk from Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge.