Diocesan News

How Co-Cathedral’s Approval by Pope Helped Ready Diocese For Global Pandemic

Pope Benedict XVI’s approval of the co-cathedral title for St. Joseph’s Parish in Prospect Heights spurred massive renovations to church, which was built in 1912. The diocese needed a larger co-cathedral to accommodate crowds for special events like the annual Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, shown here in 2021. (Photo: Bill Miller)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — When Pope Benedict XVI designated St. Joseph Church a co-cathedral in 2013, neither he nor then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio could have foreseen the coming of a global pandemic.

Seven years later, in 2020, the deadly onslaught of COVID-19 kept thousands of Catholic faithful confined in their homes, unable to attend Masses.

As it turned out, Pope Benedict’s approval of the co-cathedral title accelerated a massive renovation of St. Joseph’s exterior and interior, plus the installation of a state-of-the-art broadcast studio.

During the pandemic, the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph became the base for live-streaming Masses in multiple languages, including Creole, English, Igbo, Italian, Korean, Polish, and Spanish.

“Every day … Mass was celebrated in 30-minute increments,” said Father Christopher Heanue, the co-cathedral’s current rector. “It was like a factory of Masses. And it was a great service being provided, not just for the diocese, but for people all over.”

Designating St. Joseph a co-cathedral was one of Pope Benedict’s final acts before he retired in 2013. 

“You can thank him,” Bishop Emeritus DiMarzio says. “Of course, I’m proud of it. The pandemic showed how important it was to be able to transmit.”

“Nobody could have foreseen that,” he said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “But we were ready to do something — to televise. One Sunday, there were about 250,000 viewers.”

Bishop DiMarzio added that “on a good Sunday,” the diocese records about the same number of people in the pews of the nearly 200 Roman Catholic parishes of Brooklyn and Queens.

Pope Benedict’s approval came with the stroke of a pen. Still, the diocese had to make the case that the once-dilapidated church was worthy of co-cathedral status.

“Bishops can’t just do that on their own,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “We had to ask. You have to give the history of the place and say why you want it to be a co-cathedral.”

In this case, it was to get more space for special Masses like the ordination of new priests, the Holy Week blessing of chrism oil, and the diocese-wide celebration for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Pope Benedict XVI’s designating St. Joseph a co-cathedral was one of his final acts before he retired in 2013. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

Attendance for these events has outgrown the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. James in Downtown Brooklyn — the original mother church of the Diocese of Brooklyn, which last year celebrated its 200th anniversary.

St. Joseph Church became the top candidate because of its size and proximity to new housing construction, which has drawn thousands of new residents to Prospect Heights.

The influx of high-rise housing coincided with the creation of the Barclays Center arena, which opened in 2012, the same year Bishop DiMarzio requested the co-cathedral status. But at the time, the church, which was built in 1912, needed a lot of work. Proper heating and air conditioning did not exist. The roof leaked. Window frames had decayed, causing the glass to crack. Birds freely flew through the gaps.

Father Heanue, who became rector in 2021, said his predecessor, Msgr. Kieran Harrington once joked that there were “more pigeons than people” in the church.

“This was a disaster zone,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “The last blow was the stained-glass window above the altar. … There was a storm, and it just blew in. Smithereens.”

“It turns out it would cost millions of dollars to take [the building] down. So we figured it’s better to put millions of dollars into keeping it up.”

Renovations began in 2006, with Msgr. Harrington overseeing the installation of a new roof and the cleaning and reinstallation of the church bell, and new stained-glass windows, which depict the life of St. Joseph.

Interior renovations involved new plaster, paint, and tile floor cleaning. Also, more works of art arrived, such as the 20 new Marian murals, 18 stained-glass windows, and an American saints mural above the choir loft.

“So, a lot has been done under Msgr. Harrington and now Father Heanue. It’s serviceable, and it will serve this area,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “Thousands of more people will be living here, and you’re going to have some Catholics. But we have to do outreach, and we have to make more Catholics.”