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Centennial in Crown Heights

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St. Gregory the Great Church Marks Anniversary of First Mass in ‘Magnificent’ Church

As the Universal Church marked the solemnity of Christ the King and the closing of the Year of Mercy, Crown Heights residents gathered to commemorate the centennial of the first Mass celebrated in St. Gregory the Great Church.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio was the main celebrant at the anniversary Mass, Nov. 20. Among the concelebrants were Auxiliary Bishop Guy Sansaricq, pastor emeritus, and Father Frank Black, pastor.

“We are inspired by the example of those who built this church because this church is magnificent,” said Bishop Sansaricq, who has been in residence there for the last decade. “It shows the love and the sacrifice and the dedication of the people of that age, and challenges us in this moment to preserve that legacy.”

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(Photos: Marie Elena Giossi)

Located on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and St. John’s Place, the church building is a city landmark, rich in beauty and history. The exterior features a columned portico, white pressed brick with terra cotta trim and seven-story bell tower, complemented by an ornate interior inspired by the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Rome.

Inside, 24 columns along the main aisle draw the eyes to the altar as the centerpiece. A baldacchino, bearing the Latin words, “Hoc facite in meam commemorationem” (“Do this in memory of me”), rises above the altar on marble pillars.

Brooklyn Bishop Charles E. McDonnell celebrated Mass at that altar when he dedicated the building on Nov. 26, 1916 – 11 years after establishing the parish, and just one year after the cornerstone was laid. The late Auxiliary Bishop Fulton J. Sheen of New York also offered his first Pontifical Mass on that same altar.

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(click to enlarge)

Bishop DiMarzio incensed the altar at the start of Mass, and said, “We have few churches in Brooklyn that are this beautiful.” He also noted that the classical construction and works of art teach “so many beautiful things” about the faith.

For instance, the fresco over the sanctuary, painted in rich hues by Brooklyn artist Maximilian F. Friederang, shows St. Gregory sending forth St. Augustine of Canterbury to convert King Ethelbert in Britain during the late sixth century.

“Gregory was a pope from 590 to 604, and he really laid the foundation for the Christian Middle Ages,” Bishop Sansaricq explained to a visitor. In the mural, he is “sitting with all of the doctors of the church: St. Ambrose, St. Augustine (of Hippo), St. Benedict, and all of the Greek doctors, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and of course, St. Athanasius.”

Other lessons may be found in the stained-glass windows, tapestries representing the life of the Virgin Mary, images of the life of Jesus and a mosaic on the altar of Abraham paying tithes to Melchizedek.

In his homily, Bishop DiMarzio spoke about the art and the history of the church, which, in recent years, became a worship site of St. Matthew’s parish, along with Our Lady of Charity.

“Times have changed, and we must change, but there is one thing that is constant always in the life of the Church: The Church must grow in the hearts of the faithful, the faithful who reach out to others to bring them to Christ. …

“You have such a beautiful worship site, a beautiful choir, a beautiful way of worshiping together. It’s truly inspiring. Share it with others. Don’t keep it to yourselves,” he said.

Lorraine McKenzie loves to spread the word about the good things at St. Gregory’s, and spread the Word of God as a lector.

“This church has helped me to grow more in my faith. It has drawn me closer to the Word of God,” she said. “It has built my courage and it makes me feel great every Sunday to come here.”

Vincilia Kirton, 102, assures Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of her prayers.
St. Gregory’s parishioner, Vincilia Kirton, 102, assures Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of her prayers.

Vincilia Kirton, 102, tells neighbors and friends she meets in local senior centers about St. Gregory’s.

A parishioner for 36 years, Kirton attends Mass with her daughter, Christine. Though they live in East Flatbush, Christine said, “This is our family so we always come here, Sunday after Sunday.”

Rona Jack has also moved from the neighborhood but like the Kirtons, returns every weekend for Mass. She joined St. Gregory’s community in 1958, and found a place among the mostly Irish congregation at a time when people of color couldn’t always find a seat in their local churches.

Through the years, she worked in the school and volunteered in the church while raising her children there.

She even named her second son Gregory in honor of the parish’s patron saint, not knowing her son would later dedicate his life to the parish: He has served as St. Gregory’s principal organist since 1979, and chairs the board of St. Gregory the Great Catholic Academy.

Spiritual Home

“This is my spiritual home,” said Gregory Jack. “It’s the community I’ve developed my faith in, and year to year, there is always something new, some sense of growth, something that pushes us to go even further.”

While the church is “still in top shape,” according to Bishop Sansaricq, efforts are underway to raise funds for significant repairs to three sets of double doors leading into the building

He has no doubt that the Lord and the faithful will provide.

St. Gregory’s parishioners, Bishop Sansaricq said, are “very much attached to this church, from the dust to every stone of this building. They are totally dedicated to it. But the real rocks and stones of any church are the people, the people of faith.”

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