Diocesan News

A Long-Awaited Restoration Revives a Historic Brooklyn Catholic Church

Victoria Consulting and Development was recognized with the 2024 St. John’s Award for its contribution to the church’s renovation. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — Weekly prayer used to look very different for Christaina Iluwere. For years, St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, her home parish since 1985, had desperately needed repairs, with some Sunday Masses interrupted by the patter of water, when rain would leak through the roof. 

Now, the church has been given new life, a rebirth reflected in the renewed liveliness of its devoted parishioners. A renovation of the interior and exterior of the 156-year-old church, a process that took eight years of planning and execution, was recently completed. 

Seeing the changes that transformed the church from falling apart to the renovated house of worship it is today nearly brought Iluwere to tears. “One thing about the St. John people is we never give up,” she said.

To commemorate the restoration and the feast day of the saint for which the church is named, Bishop Robert Brennan joined churchgoers to celebrate Mass on Sunday, June 23, blessing both them and the building. 

The pews were filled as the Mass was celebrated in both Spanish and English, and Bishop Brennan shared with all how wonderful it is to see such a historical church being given new life. 

“It’s beautiful work. They did a great job in fixing everything up,” Bishop Brennan said.

While the feast day for St. John the Baptist was the following day, June 24, Bishop Brennan celebrated the patron saint of baptism along with the renovation. 

It was his first time seeing the entire parish community, having only celebrated the Spanish Mass a couple of years ago after he was first installed as Bishop of Brooklyn.

Founded by the Vincentian Order in 1868, the St. John the Baptist parish helped found many of the religious institutions scattered across the diocese today: St. John’s University, St. John’s Preparatory School, the Major Seminary of the Diocese of Brooklyn, and a grammar school. Bishop Brennan, a graduate of St. John’s University himself, couldn’t help but notice the Vincentian elements of the church in its stained glass windows and statues.

The exterior of the newly renovated St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. (Photo: Alicia Venter)

“In a sense, this church beautifully shows the charism of the Vincentians and of St. Vincent de Paul, but that’s reflective of the way this parish out in the world reflects the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul,” Bishop Brennan said.

As Bedford-Stuyvesant evolved ethnically and was hit with economic hardship in the mid-20th century, the church remained a haven for longtime parishioners like Ronnelle Runningdeer. 

“When the neighborhood started to change, it went down, but the church was still here for the neighbors and the people who lived here in the community. It was like a sanctuary, and it has come back to that now,” Runningdeer said.

Zaskorski & Associates Architects was at the forefront of the reconstruction of St. John the Baptist, including window repairs, waterproofing, and roof replacement. The firm earned this year’s Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, the highest honor given by the New York Landmarks Conservancy, for the refurbishing of the Bed-Stuy church, as well as that of Most Precious Blood Church in Astoria. 

The firm was also recognized with the 2024 St. John’s Award given by the church, along with fellow awardees D’Ambrosio Studios, Victoria Consulting and Development, and Rocklyn Asset Corp.

“It’s our home. It’s where we live, where we celebrate, where we share all that we’re living with — our suffering and our joys,” Father Astor Rodriguez, pastor at St. John the Baptist, told the churchgoers after he presented the awards.

Maria Mercado has been attending St. John the Baptist since she was born. Her father was heavily involved in the parish, and her entire family has continued to reflect that devotion. 

Her children were baptized and received their sacraments at the church, and her sisters were married there. She said she was overjoyed when she learned the bishop was celebrating Mass there.

“The scenery changed, but the spirit hasn’t changed,” Mercado said.