More than 2,000 people made up the overflow crowd as Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio dedicated St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral in Prospect Heights. The event, which was televised live on NET-TV, symbolized the rebirth of the 100-year-old church building and the renewal in the neighborhood.
More than 270 priests, seven bishops and retired Cardinal Edward Egan, the former Archbishop of New York, were in attendance. But the hit of the evening was the renovation of the church with its restored and new artwork.
Bishop DiMarzio used oil that he had blessed during Holy Week at the Chrism Mass to anoint the new altar. A relic of St. Andre Bessette, who was the doorkeeper at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, was placed in the altar stone. After the relic was put into position, it was sealed in place by Emily Sottile of Evergreen Arts Studio, which had overseen the artwork in the church.
Auxiliary Bishops Octavio Cisneros, Raymond Chappetto and Paul Sanchez were joined by Msgr. Kieran Harrington, rector of the co-cathedral, and Father James Massa, Moderator of the Curia, as they anointed the walls of the church.
“When I first saw this church of St. Joseph in such disrepair, I was saddened by the unfortunate condition of this beautiful structure,” said Bishop DiMarzio in his homily. “Because of the attention of people, many of whom are here this evening, the remnant of the House of Joseph, this monumental structure stands today.”
He particularly thanked Father Robert Vitaglione, former pastor, “whose shepherding of this church for 22 years allowed it to survive, even in poor condition.”
He also praised Msgr. Harrington who as pastor for the last six years, “has devoted countless hours and much energy to making sure we have this beautiful church. Together with Father Jorge Ortiz and the parish staff, not only do we find this magnificent edifice, but we also find living stones, a vibrant and diverse faith community.”
Just three years ago, average Mass attendance had dropped to 80 to 90 people, and the buildings were in a state of disrepair. Today, more than 700 people attend Sunday Mass, and collections have increased from $300 a week to $4,500.
At the opening of the liturgy, Bishop DiMarzio processed throughout the church, sprinkling the congregation with holy water. The dedication ceremony also included the chanting of the Litany of Saints, incensation of the church by deacons and the lighting of candles on the altar and at the spots where the walls had been anointed.
Assault on the Senses
Cardinal Egan praised the renovations as “an assault on the senses.”
He also affirmed Msgr. Harington’s work at growing the Sunday Mass attendance. The cardinal said he wouldn’t be surprised if soon it reached 3,000.
“I will be coming back as often as you invite me to this wonderful Diocese of Brooklyn,” said Cardinal Egan. “This is powerful in every way – New York at its best, the Church at its best. It’s America at its best.”
Attendees, who spent much of the evening looking up at the magnificent Marian murals on the ceiling, were awed by what they saw.
“It’s pretty awe-inspiring; it’s a pretty grand church,” said Michael Mignuolo, a parishioner at St. Frances Cabrini Church, Bensonhurst. “The television didn’t do it justice, so being here in person … seeing it with my own eyes … it’s a pretty spectacular church, it really is.”
Mignuolo was part of a contingent from the diocese’s Pope John Paul II House of Discernment. He said that a church building like St. Joseph’s could inspire young people to get back in touch with their faith.
“I’m going to tell them it’s a beautiful place; it leaves you speechless,” he said. “You really have to come and see it for yourself to really get a grasp of how magnificent it really is. The stained glass, the paintings, the marble, everything is just really beautiful. They really did a great job with it.”
People who had previously been to the co-cathedral were rendered speechless upon walking in to see the renovations.
“I had seen this way before it was restored,” said Robert Foster, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist, Park Slope. “You can’t explain it. It’s just beautiful, really it is.”
He said that a building like St. Joseph’s may attract more visitors, but he said that the quality of worship has been strong all throughout the renovations.
“People come anyway,” he said. “People came here before and will still keep coming.”
“You open the door, and it just pops,” said Denise Caldwell, a parishioner at St. Teresa of Avila, also in Prospect Heights. “It’s gorgeous now. The ceilings are exceptional, and the artwork is beautiful.”
Caldwell compared the artwork to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
“It’s almost as beautiful as this (St. Joseph’s), and that’s an exceptional place,” she said. “I like the idea that they’ve kept the old tradition. That means a lot.”
Originally a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi, Crown Heights, for 52 years, Cynthia Reynolds began attending Mass at St. Joseph’s about eight years ago. Right when she walked into the renovated church, she noticed substantial differences.
“It was beautiful compared to what it was,” she said. “It reminded me of my childhood parish, St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem. That’s where I grew up. It is beautiful. I love the organ.”
The compliments kept pouring in, even from first-time visitors who had never seen the church before the updates.
Michael Pasion, the president of the Filipino Association at St. Michael’s Church, Flushing, was quick to point out the diocesan Filipino Apostolate’s Madonna. Each diocesan apostolate has their Madonna adorning the rondelettes in the ceiling of St. Joseph’s.
“It’s a way of growing closer together,” said Pasion, who represented his apostolate during the presentation of the gifts during Mass. “It doesn’t matter where you are from. It represents a lot of different communities and different people and different languages.”
The Prospect Heights community is a microcosm of the entire diocese in that many cultures and faiths are present in the area. Larry Jones, a visitor from Lambert’s Chapel United Holy Church of America in East New York, said he thought the renovations were spectacular, especially the lighting and new sound system, and that the building could inspire exploration from people of different religions.
“I’ve noticed that there are a lot of other churches surrounding it (the co-cathedral) of different faiths,” he said. “Maybe they’ll come out and check other faiths out, different faiths, especially in a facility like this.”
Just as Bishop DiMarzio had envisioned, it was Mary who brought crowds to her husband’s cathedral.
Zanaid de Vera, from the Filipino Apostolate, said it was Mary under the title of Our Lady of Antipolo that brought him and his fellow apostolate members to the cathedral for the consecration. He also added that the apostolate wanted to be part of a celebration so important to the diocese.
Uniting Various Cultures
Candido Velez, from the Mexican Apostolate, was wearing a tie with a depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and many of his fellow Mexican Apostolate members donned traditional Mexican garb. However, Velez said the beauty of the co-cathedral lies in the fact that the different depictions of Mary unite the multi-cultural Catholic population of New York.
“Her title is not what is important,” he said of the Mother of God, “what is important is that we are under her protection.”
Nicholas Pope, from Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Astoria, said the universal nature of the Church was truly felt during the consecration ceremony.
“I got chills when all the priests extended their hands to bless the hosts, during the transubstantiation,” he said. “All the priests praying together – it was at once holy and elemental … You realize you are connected with every church in the world.”
Sam Alzheimer, who spoke earlier at the convocation for Brooklyn priests that preceded the dedication liturgy, said he was truly impressed by the sense of community that was felt during the Mass. When one of the candles during the lighting ceremony stubbornly would not light, people watched intently as the priest labored over the task of ceremonially igniting the candle installed high on the co-cathedral’s wall. As the flame finally came to life, people cheered with true enthusiasm. There were also few phones and cameras out during the ceremony, as people instead concentrated their attention on the ceremony itself.
“It was overwhelmingly beautiful,” Alzheimer said. “There was a real joy.”
“We wanted to celebrate,” said Florence Soulama, explaining her reason for joining the St. Joseph congregation.
A parishioner of St. Gabriel, Elmhurst, Soulama came to the liturgy with her four nieces and nephews, ages seven to 13, and their parents.
She expressed her joy at having a co-cathedral in Brooklyn that could hold more than a thousand people and that was under the special care of St. Joseph, the patron of families.
“We have to rely on St. Joseph to intercede for us, to pray for us, to help us,” she said.
Modern families face many difficulties, she said, but St. Joseph will help.
“He’s a great guy,” Soulama said.
Priests of the diocese, who had spent the afternoon in the church at a clergy conference, said they were impressed with the work that had been done.
“It is a beautiful renovation,” said Msgr. John McGuirl, pastor of Our Lady of Mercy, Forest Hills, who has a very special connection to the church. “Cardinal Egan called it an assault on the eyes, and he meant that in a good way.”
It was the monsignor’s much older cousin, Msgr. William T. McGuirl, who built the church on Pacific Street 100 years ago. He said he believes his relative “would be very happy” to see how the edifice has been renewed.
“It is a shot in the arm to see something new, creative and so beautifully prepared and renovated,” he said, adding that the best part is that it will be “in service to all of us.”
Father David Bertolotti from St. Mary Star of the Sea-St. Gertrude, Far Rockaway, took time before Mass to sit in one of the pews and reflect on the splendor of the worship space.
“It’s magnificent. I love these images of the Blessed Mother,” he said, gesturing to the ceiling. “It’s great for all of the different cultures to see their images of Mary represented.”
Twenty unique murals of the Madonna, patroness of different countries, have been painted on the side-aisle ceilings, and two additional murals of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Lourdes have been installed on the back wall. The national titles of the Blessed Mother were donations from the ethnic apostolates of the diocese.
Msgr. Anthony Hernandez, chancellor, called the Marian murals “inspiring depictions to represent our diverse diocese.” He took a particular liking to the representation of Our Lady of Providence, patroness of Puerto Rico, the land of his ancestors.
Seeing Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Assumption with the Ghanaian people and flag beneath her had a profound impact on one Ghanian-born priest.
A House for All People
“I am happy to see all of the countries represented here but what moved me was when I saw my national flag,” said Father David Ahiahornu, parochial vicar at Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge. “That was when I knew that this is truly a house for all people.”
Father Hilaire Belizaire, pastor of Sacred Heart, Cambria Heights, had the same sentiments when his eyes rested upon the mural of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, patroness of his native Haiti.
“When I saw her, I felt right at home,” he said.
Father Belizaire had last visited the church when Msgr. Fernando Ferrarese served as temporary administrator from 2007 to 2008.
Returning last week, he was amazed at the transformation.
“The moment I entered the door, my eyes went around and around,” he said. “This is beyond imagination. It is breathtaking.”
“The artwork is just phenomenal,” agreed Father Juan Gonzalez, S.M., pastor of St. Francis of Assisi-St. Blaise, Crown Heights. “What a great renovation!”
He was impressed with the beauty of the space but also the complete transformation of the church building.
“It should serve as an inspiration for us to be transformed as human beings,” he said.
Following the Mass, parishioners and guests celebrated with refreshments in the new parish hall beneath the church. Bishop DiMarzio donned a sombrero as he posed for pictures with members of the Mexican Apostolate that calls St. Joseph’s home.
The church was designated as a co-cathedral for the Diocese of Brooklyn on Feb. 14, 2013 by Pope Benedict XVI after Bishop DiMarzio petitioned the Vatican.
Contributing to this story were Marie Elena Giossi, Jim Mancari and Antonina Zielinska.