‘Christ Is in the Building’: Emmaus Center’s Grand Opening Combines Faith and Performing Arts in Brooklyn
The Emmaus Center sits above the Sts. Peter and Paul-Epiphany parish church in the historic and newly renovated Williamsburg Opera House as part of a deliberate evangelization strategy to bring people to the Catholic faith through art.
The Brooklyn Diocese has launched a new endeavor for neighborhood evangelization that fuses a new Catholic parish with a performing arts center — all located in an historic opera house. St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, part of Epiphany parish, was established on the first floor of the Williamsburg Opera House, and now, with renovations complete, its performing arts center, the Emmaus Center, made its grand opening on Dec. 13.
Matt Maher and Danny Rodriguez headlined the “Spirit of Christmas” concert in the Emmaus Center’s 600-seat theater that now sits atop the church and is just the beginning of the evangelizing outreach to the community.
On the day of the grand opening, the center’s executive director, Craig Tubiolo-Syracusa, spoke with the Register about the new Emmaus Center, its vision and plans for 2022, and how it aims to show how the Catholic Church can advance the New Evangelization through the performing arts.
What’s the story behind the new Emmaus Center? How does a new performing arts center end up over a newly consecrated Catholic church in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood?
So this building has actually been here since the late 1800s. It was the original (and still is) the first opera house in the tri-state area [The Williamsburg Opera House], then became a school, and there wasn’t a church in the building until only a few years ago. Msgr. Hernandez, who was the pastor, had a vision of really reaching this community, which is more of a secular community. Williamsburg has been developed over the past few years and is filled with young people. And he wanted to give them a space to come, be evangelized, be part of the parish, and to reach them through arts and community outreach and concerts. So he had a vision to restore the building to the original look. … Everything looks like it did in the 1800s.
The job they did is just phenomenal. The church itself is on the first floor, which is what separates us from every or any other venue. The Sheen Center [in New York] does have a little chapel, but we have a full functioning parish church, which is in the building. If you go to the Barclays Center, and you go see a show, Matt Maher, and you feel the call to Christ, well, you get in your car and you sit in traffic, and that sort of spirit is gone. But here [after the show], you can go downstairs; you can meet a priest; you can pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Christ is in the building. So you could always come back and be a part of it. It’s not like you’ll go sit in traffic. So what we have and what we offer is something extremely unique at the Emmaus Center.
Who is part of this new venture? How did it come together?
The Brooklyn Diocese owns the building. St. Peter and Paul is the church and part of Epiphany parish. I’ve been working for the diocese for over 10 years and used to work at DeSales Media, more on the TV side, where I was director of programming and production. I always did all the live events, concerts. The bishop assigned me [to the Emmaus Center] and said, “Craig would be perfect for this initiative.” So through Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello and I — Msgr. Jamie is the vicar for development for the Diocese of Brooklyn — we put together the Emmaus Center not-for-profit. After the construction for this building was completed, we’ve been building it into community outreach, evangelization, concerts, and we’re really raising the bar on these events. Msgr. Jamie has a vision that sometimes is a little bit larger than myself, but I’m able to put it together because of his leadership and his ability to really push me forward. So we created and will create high-end events to bring people back to Christ through the newest forms of technology and evangelization.
What did you plan for your grand opening here?
We have Matt Maher. We love Matt; he is an amazing artist. We have Anthony Mangano, who is a devout Catholic from the area who has been on TV; he just actually suffered from a stroke, and this is his first major performance. It has only been a few months, and through the power of prayer, he’s here today, and he’s better than ever. We have Danny Rodriguez, whom we all know as the cop who sang during 9/11 and has been on every show from Oprah to (as he jokes) Wayne Brady. He performs around the world. We have Chris Macchio, who recently sang Ave Maria at the White House, and Chris is a devout follower of Christ. And we have Dan Roebuck, whom we all know from multiple shows; he plays Grandpa Munster in the new Munsters and has a lot of Catholic movies coming out. He’s a big follower of Christ from California. So we brought in the best of the best.
And when the show starts, people will see and experience something that they’ve never experienced before, especially within the Emmaus Center.
A lot of people can think of evangelization and art as separate activities — like one is spiritual and the other is secular. But what do you see is the connection between evangelization and the performing arts?
Jesus used the form of technology that was available to him, which was stories, right? He traveled; he walked; he told stories, parables. Well, when we talk about the New Evangelization, we’re doing the same thing, just using the technology that’s available to us. When you create an experience in somebody, you’re using all of the senses, and they’re able to experience the Holy Spirit through video, through technology, through somebody giving their testimony. It’s powerful. I think people set the bar for faith-based or religious show content very low. And we need to step it up, especially if we want to communicate with the generation that we’re losing, which is so used to these new forms of technology. I always say, “How are we trying to reach people on platforms where they aren’t even on those platforms anymore?”
We need to reach them where they are and give them what they want. Of course, we don’t go in the gray area — we stick to our religious values — but we can give them high-end content, still evangelize and still stay true to the Gospel. There’s nothing wrong with using, you know, lights and screens and stuff like that to preach to them, because I believe it’s through those new forms of technology that the Holy Spirit can speak to them, plant that seed of hope and bring them back to church and to Christ.
We also don’t just throw anyone on stage. This is discernment. This is prayer. I make sure that this is what God has called me to do. And we put shows together to bring people to Christ. I think when people say, “This isn’t what God would want,” I would question and debate that, because every event that I’ve done has been successful only because there is no agenda: The only agenda is to bring people to Christ. And everything that we’ve accomplished and done over the past 20 years has been with that focus. If it’s not for Christ, we don’t do it.
What are some of the events, performances, etc., that Emmaus Center has planned for 2022?
We have a few things on the books, and we have something that I can’t really announce the full thing, but it’s an art exhibit from one of the dioceses in Italy. We’re in conversations with them. We’re in conversations with some films. We also do a lot of outreach … and then we have these major concerts.
We’re trying to reach people in all different areas in this community, to get them to come back to church and let them know this is a place for them, their family, a place for them to volunteer, get involved, join the parish — it’s really community outreach.
We have a lot coming up over the next year, and in February especially. One event is starring Chris Macchio, a devout Catholic, and he’s going to be putting on a performance for the community. We’re going to do things in the parking lot, which we did over the summer. We have a lot of things lined up, but today what we’re focusing on is planting that seed of Christ through today’s Matt Maher performance.
Overall, what kind of impact do you hope the new Emmaus Center makes?
I want to really set the bar, like we’ve done in the past, to show other people in the community — pastors, churches and dioceses — that we could put on really high-end quality events and shows, and we should glorify God through the technology that we have. I did a show yesterday or the day before that was fantastic. We had an ice-skating rink, and we really set the bar. I think sometimes when we do faith-based events or shows, we say, “We don’t need speakers; we don’t need lights. We’ll just plug it in.” And people’s expectations are low. We try to raise the bar to say, “No, we’re planting the seed of Christ.” We need to raise the bar, we need to show people that go the standards need to be high, and we’re glorifying God. And I think if we just slap things together and plug in a speaker and put on a flashlight, we’re not glorifying God the way we should. I like to set the bar and really let them know that we can do it, and we should do it. And that’s what the kids want. The kids will look at video and shows, and if the quality is not good, they’re not going to be as interested. I don’t want the youth leaders to have to make them come to things. I want them to want to be there. I want them to be interested in coming to see Matt Maher and all these artists, so we’re giving them a show that they could walk away with and say, “Man, this was exciting. I can’t wait till next year.”
For more information, visit EmmausBrooklyn.org.