St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church (Manhattan)
St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, also known as St. Brigid's or Famine Church, is a church located at 123 Avenue B, on the southeast corner of East 8th Street, along the eastern edge of Tompkins Square Park in the Alphabet City section of the East Village of Manhattan, New York City. Associated with the church is a parish school, Saint Brigid School, consisting of grades Pre-K through 8, which has been in existence since 1856.
The church is named after St. Brigid, the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, Ireland, mariners, midwives, nuns, poets, printing presses, scholars and travellers. Like the neighborhood it serves, Saint Brigid's Church has had a colorful and tumultuous history since its beginnings in 1848.
The parish was organized in 1847 by Rev. Richard Kein, pastor of the Church of the Nativity. Construction began in 1848 by Irish shipwrights for those fleeing the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849). The architect of the church was Patrick Keely, who handcarved the gothic reredos himself. The church was dedicated by Bishop John Hughes on December 2, 1849. Kein resigned the pastorate in 1852 due to poor health and was briefly succeeded by Thomas Martin O.P. Rev. Thomas J. Mooney was appointed pastor in 1853. "In its early years, St. Brigid’s served as a haven for Irish immigrants fleeing the famine, and later as a stalwart presence for the ever-changing immigrant populations to the neighborhood, from the Polish and Germans, to Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans."
Fr. Mooney and "the Fighting 69th"
The second pastor of the church, the Reverend Thomas Mooney, also served as chaplain to the nearby 69th New York State Militia. Upon its formation in 1851 it was called the 2nd Regiment of Irish Volunteers, a citizen-militia made up of Irish-Catholic diaspora from the Great Irish Famine. Father Mooney travelled with the 69th to Virginia and was beloved by the men for his spirit and sagacious counsel. Fr.Mooney held daily Masses for the regiment and served as confessor for the largely Catholic regiment. The regimental choir was headed by Capt. Maxwell O'Sullivan, formerly the choirmaster at St. Brigid's church. Mooney was lauded for his establishment of a temperance society and for encouraging many wayward souls to return to the Faith.
Father Mooney was recalled by New York Archbishop John "Dagger" Hughes in response to Mooney's baptism of a 64 lb. Columbiad cannon. Archbishop Hughes later suggested that Mooney was recalled after climbing the flagstaff of Fort Corcoran. Mooney was in the process of straightening an American flag that became stuck during a flag raising ceremony. Mooney's return was much bemoaned by the men of the regiment, but Mooney was warmly welcomed on his return to the city by 4,000 parishioners assembled in Tompkins Square.
During the New York City draft riots of July 1863, Mooney organized organized a neighborhood group to counter the federal troops sent to New York. When the 69th returned to New York following the Bull Run Campaign, Mooney marched at the head of the regiment. On August 14, 1861 a Requiem Mass was held for the men of the 69th NYSM who had been killed in action. The St. Brigid's choir sang Mozart's Requiem during the service. Fr. Mooney was conspicuously present at all future Irish Brigade functions and was much beloved by the men who survived to remember him.
A special feature of the New York Times in 1901, mentioned the church among other Catholic structures in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, describing the group "for the most part...limit[ing] themselves to the functions of a parish church, in districts where social needs are otherwise supplied." The article clarified that the upper church was Irish and the basement used by Italians. In addition, the Sisters of Charity had a convent next door to the church, and there was an attached parochial school.
Fr. Kuhn and the Tompkins Square riot
During the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, the church allowed homeless advocates and protesters of the police action to mobilize under its roof. A year later, when a shantytown in the park was dismantled, church pastor Rev. George Kuhn led a group of parishioners taking food to protesters and homeless people holed up in an abandoned school on East 4th Street. Father Kuhn was arrested when he defied orders not to cross a police line to deliver the food, saying, "I'm working under orders, too. The order I have is to feed the hungry, and that comes from a higher authority." St. Brigid's Church served as a place for protesters to organize and receive medical attention during the riot.
Closure and partial demolition
The church's main building closed in 2001 because of a crack in the building. The rear wall of the building had begun to pull away from the rest of the structure and the floor joists had separated several inches from the back wall. Mass was then held in the adjoining school while the parishioners rallied to raise money to save the church.
In September 2003, the Archdiocese of New York filed with the city an application to convert the church into apartments, but an archdiocese spokesperson said was only protecting its options. In September 2004 the Archdiocese officially closed the church when the Trinitarian Order left. In 2006 demolition commenced, Archdiocesan spokesman Joe Zwilling stating: "It's a hazard. It could have literally fallen over at any point in time." At that time, the spokesperson further stated that the property would not be turned into condominiums or apartments, (as nearby St. Ann's Church had been when it was converted into a dormitory for New York University). Zwilling said the church had no interest in selling the property. "It will be used for some other form of ministry, whether for educational or charitable or healthcare purposes, possibly senior housing," said a spokesperson for the archdiocese. Some criticized the Archdiocese for what New York Times columnist Dan Barry called its "tone-deaf" handling of parishioner and community concern.
Earlier in 2006, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick ruled against the Committee to Save St. Brigid's (CSSB) and allowed plans for demolition to proceed. In June, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division upheld that decision, Then in August Kapnick agreed to hear a separate suit in which the CSSB asserted that ownership and right to demolish are invalid due to the lack of a five-person board of trustees (including two parishioners) governing the church as required by New York law. The archdiocese said it convened such a board, in a meeting on July 18, where it agreed on demolition. The archdiocese also pointed out that the city did not question the church's ownership when they filed the building permits for demolition.
On July 26, 2006, Judge Barbara Kapnick declined to halt demolition plans, but asked lawyers on both sides to appear in her courtroom to hear arguments on the building's ownership. Before those arguments were to take place, a demolition crew arrived. The destruction amounted to a hole in the rear wall, damage to the interior, and damage to at least one of the stained glass windows, the window depicting Jesus’ life which bore the names of victims of the Great Irish Famine and benefactors of the church. The following day workers wielding crowbars knocked out the stained glass windows on the north wall. Community leaders, among them St. Brigid's parishioner and City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senator Martin Connor, and Assemblywoman Sylvia Friedman, who made statements denouncing the demolition and accusing the Archdiocese of greed during an overheated real estate market. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese said the demolition had nothing to do with money, again pointing out that there are no designs to sell the property.
On August 24, 2006, Justice Kapnick extended an order staying the demolition of the church.
On May 22, 2008, the Archdiocese of New York announced it had received an “unexpected but very welcome gift” of $20 million from an anonymous donor after a private meeting with Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York. The gift includes $10 million to restore the building itself; $2 million to establish an endowment for the parish “so that it might best meet the religious and spiritual needs of the people living in the community”; and $8 million to support St. Brigid’s School and other Catholic schools in need. Cardinal Egan further said in a statement: “This magnificent gift will make it possible for Saint Brigid’s Church to be fittingly restored with its significant structural problems properly addressed. The two additional gifts, to create an endowment for the parish and to support the parish school, are a powerful testament to the donor’s goodness and understanding. He has my heartfelt gratitude, as I recently told him at a meeting in my residence.”
On January 27, 2013, worshipers, including descendants of some of the original Irish parishioners, gathered as Timothy Michael Cardinal Dolan consecrated and dedicated the newly renovated building.
The brownstone church of St. Brigid’s has a tripartite front façade flanked by bell towers, which once supported spires. The two steeples were removed in 1962 due to safety concerns. The wide center nave is vaulted with an unusual ceiling resembling an upside-down ship’s hull, a nod to the shipwright carpenters whose memory is preserved in corbels decorated with their sculpted faces. In 1877 the wooden beams of the towers, by then decayed and sagging, were replaced with iron.
The oil paintings of the stations of the cross, purchased in Paris in the 1870s, are believed to be the work of Théophile-Narcisse Chauvel. The stained glass windows were imported from Bavaria. It was at that time, a carved marble altar replaced the wooden one.
The archdiocese hired Michael F. Doyle of the Acheson Doyle Partners architecture firm to supervise the renovations. Stucco was removed from the stone façade, the building's foundations stabilized, and the remaining stained glass windows returned from storage. Additional stained glass was moved from St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, which had closed in 2003. The restoration received the 2013 Engineering New-Record Construction Award for best cultural/worship project, citing attention to detail.
The Rev. Thomas Mooney, pastor of St. Brigid's, founded the school in 1856 in the mostly Irish immigrant section of what was then called the Lower East Side. At first, classes were held in the basement of the church. The school building was built and dedicated in 1858 and was located on 8th Street between Avenues B and C. The Christian Brothers taught the boys of the school and the Sisters of Charity taught the girls. Soon after the founding of the school, Fr. Mooney asked the Sisters of Charity to open St. Brigid's Academy on 10th Street, an "excellent select school" with an average enrollment of 200 students. In 1914 enrollment averaged 130 boys and 200 girls.
By 1934, the conditions of the school building had become poor. Because of the Great Depression, the school was forced to closed. By the Post War Period of the 1950s, the parish population increased prompting the building of a new school building at 7th Street between Avenue B and C. The new building opened on September 12, 1954 with an enrollment of 124 students under the direction of the Sisters of Charity. The building was solemnly dedicated and blessed on November 6, 1955 by Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York. The old school building was demolished in 1970.
By the 1990s, the school was ailing: attendance had plummeted from 200 students to 74 in two years, and the number of teachers fell from nine to five. Father Kuhn, who was the church's pastor at the time, attributed it to local poverty. However, others in the community reported as the cause anger by some local parents at Father Kuhn because in a dispute over direction and control of the parish school he fired the popular principal, Maureen Delaney, and three teachers in the middle of the school year. In the 1990s, the Sisters of Charity relinquished their ministry of the school.
A spokeswoman for the Schools of the Archdiocese of New York stated in 1995: "The Cardinal believes very much in the school. We are all operating on the premise that St. Brigid will be with us for a while." From 1995, the parish and school were staffed by the Trinitarians until the closing of the parish church in 2004.
As of 2010, the school enrolls about 120 students. Since September 2013, the principal of the school has been Stephen Hernon.
- The World Almanac 1892 and Book of Facts (New York: Press Publishing, 1892), p.390.
- Catholic Forum website profile on St. Brigid Archived 2006-08-26 at the Wayback Machine.
- Lafort, S.T.D., Remigius. The Catholic Church in the United States of America: Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X. Volume 3: The Province of Baltimore and the Province of New York, Section 1: Comprising the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn, Buffalo and Ogdensburg. (New York City: The Catholic Editing Company, 1914), p.319.] This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
- David Scharfenberg, "Coming Back to Fight for the Church of Their Ancestors", The New York Times, June 18, 2006, Section 14, Page 6.
- Sarah Ferguson, "Secret Angel Still Wants to Save St. Brigid's", The Village Voice, August 3, 2006, via VillageVoice.com
- Farley, Adam. "St. Brigid’s Catholic Church in the East Village Reopens", Irish America, April/May 2013
- O'Flaherty, Rev. Patrick. History of the 69th New York State Militia. Doctoral Dissertation. Fordham University. New York. 1963.
- "Centres of Civilization; On the Lower East Side of New York", New York Times, Jul 21, 1901. Excerpt: “Everybody who read it must have been struck by a remark of Mr. Hewitt's, made not very long ago, touching the tenement house district, which was considerably commented on in the press. The remark was that it was not only the part of humanity and charity for the more favored to assist the less favored, but that in this particular case, it was not less the part of prudence…..St. Nicholas in Second Street, St. Rose of Lima in Cannon Street, and St. Teresa in Henry Street. There is also a remarkable church, remarkable for the ...””
- George James, "Ward is Critical of Police in Clash", The New York Times, August 11, 1988; Section A, Page 1.
- Jake Mooney, "When the Bell Tolls", The New York Times, March 20, 2005, Section 14, Page 1.
- Anderson, Lincoln (31 January 2013). "It's a real miracle on Avenue B as St. Brigid's Church reopens". The Villager. Retrieved 8 June 2014.
- Ferguson, Sarah. "St. Brigid's: Archdiocese Says No Condos", The Village Voice, July 27, 2006, via VillageVoice.com.
- Dan Barry, A Prayer For a Church Unsaved, The New York Times, July 30, 2006; Section B, Page 1.
- Peter McDermott, "Windows Smashed; Demolition Halted", The Irish Echo, August 23–29, 2006, via IrishEcho.com.[dead link]
- Michael Luo, "Demolition Starts at Historic Catholic Church in East Village", The New York Times, July 28, 2006; Section B, Page 2.
- Sarah Ferguson, "St. Brigid's Gets 2nd Reprieve", August 24, 2006, via VillageVoice.com.
- Chan, Sewell "Donor Gives $20 Million to Revive a Historic Church", May 22, 2008 The New York Times
- See also The New York Landmarks Conservancy, "Sacred Sites: Historic Catholic Churches in Crisis" (Retrieved 5 May 2011).
- "Church of St. Brigid", NYC AGO
- Gibson, David. “St. Brigid’s Parish: A Pilgrim Church for an Immigrant People", Catholics in New York: society, culture, and politics, 1808-1946, ed. Terry Golway, (New York: Fordham University Press, ISBN 9780823229048
- Anderson, Lincoln. “St. Brigid’s work is more extensive than expected", The Villager, 18-24 November 2010
- “Restoration is Salvation For St. Brigid’s Church", Engineering News-Record, 11 November 2013
- "A Sketch of the History of St. Bridget's Church," Catholic News, 1877.
- St. Brigid's School: Illuminating the East Village, 2008.
- Monte Williams, "As Pontiff Visits, An Ailing School is Seeking Hope", The New York Times, October 8, 1995; Section 13, Page 6.
- Lambert, Bruce (1993-11-07). "Dismissals Divide a Parish". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-08-08.
Nora Murphy, an archdiocese spokeswoman, said that [Dr. Catherine Hickey, the Catholic schools superintendent] upheld the actions of the pastor, the Rev. George J. Kuhn. She said that the dismissals -- of Maureen Delaney, Debra Condon, Monica Medina and Angela Gallombardo — stemmed mostly from a lack of student discipline, specifically at a Mass that students disrupted. She also said that some of the faculty "were fomenting the problem" — a charge they denied...Father Kuhn refused to comment on the dismissals...Elizabeth Acevedo, an organizer of the newly formed St. Brigid's Parent Coalition for Justice, said that "continual harassment and emotionally abusive tactics used by Father George" were destroying the 200-pupil school.
- "St. John's University Assists New York City Parochial School". Stjohns.edu. 2006-05-25. Retrieved 2010-06-11.
- "St. John's Partnership with Local Elementary School Yields Higher Test Scores". Stjohns.edu. 2006-12-27. Retrieved 2010-06-11.