Diocesan News

New Immigrants Bring Their Faith: Red Hook Catholics Praise God as Parish Survives, Thrives After Hitting Hard Times

Founded in 1854, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is among the oldest parishes in the Diocese of Brooklyn. This is the parish’s third church. Fire destroyed the two previous ones in 1876 and 1896. (Photo: Bill Miller)

RED HOOK — Father Claudio Antecini, although born in Italy, is now a historian of the neighborhood surrounding his current parish  — Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The church, among the oldest in the diocese, was formed in 1854 to serve Italian, Irish, and German immigrants who flocked to Red Hook for jobs on the docks or in factories.

Father Antecini said he likes to imagine the emotions of Italian ancestors in the late 1800s as they arrived by ship. First, they no doubt marveled at the Statue of Liberty.

But next, they could not miss Visitation’s steeple rising above the docks of Red Hook, assuring that God would bless them in their new home.

Still, at the dawn of the 21st century, Visitation’s membership fell to about 80 members, said longtime parishioner Ileanna Florentino.

“The previous pastor told us, ‘You guys have to start looking for another parish because Visitation will be closing,” said Florentino, now a parish council member. “I was coming back to the Church and it was like, ‘Now we’ll have to move?’ I was devastated.”

But the specter of closure dissolved when Father Antecini arrived in 2012. The new pastor worked to restore the membership by evangelizing a new generation of immigrants, most of them from Latin American countries.

Underpinning this continuing effort is the international organization, Koinonia John the Baptist. Father Antecini is a member, as is the staff and numerous parishioners. (See related article, page 17).

The word, Koinonia, is Greek; it means “community” and participation in it, sharing all that one has.

With inspiration from the Holy Spirit, its charism is walking in the footsteps of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the Lord.

Now, the parish has about 300 members, and it is growing, Father Antecini said.

But, he noted, the parish had to overcome setbacks from a throttled economy and a historic natural disaster — Hurricane Sandy.

Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1931. (Photo: Courtesy of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish)

An Island of Hope

Florentino recalled how the parish thrived in Red Hook, especially 1998 through 2005, when the pastor was Auxiliary Emeritus Bishop Neil Tiedemann.

His parents and grandparents were married at the exquisitely appointed Gothic-revival church. It still has distinctive red doors, a rich wood paneling, dramatic frescos, and vibrant stained-glass windows, some of them made by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

But Father Antecini explained that the parish’s decline followed Red Hook’s 50-year fall from an economic powerhouse connected to the New York Harbor. Its attendant dock labor and warehousing have largely moved to New Jersey, he said.

The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway has isolated Red Hook from other economic revivals in southwest Brooklyn, the pastor said.

“It used to be rich,” said Father Antecini of the neighborhood. “But here, now, is one of the poorest. I think it may be the poorest in the diocese.”

Still, by virtue of geography, the parish plays a critical role in bringing the faith to Red Hook, said Msgr. Guy Massie, pastor of Sacred Hearts & St. Stephen Parish in nearby Carroll Gardens.

“It is the only parish in Red Hook,” said Msgr. Massie, who is also the dean of Deanery B3, which includes Visitation. “It’s a depressed area and there are still a lot of poor people there who need a great deal of help and attention.”

“So for them, Visitation is an island of hope.”

Msgr. Massie explained that other churches in Deanery B3 are about a mile away from Visitation’s location. That area has two public housing projects — Red Hook West and Red Hook East.

“They have buses that go in there, but there aren’t any subways,” Msgr. Massie said. “That’s a nice walk during the summer, but on a winter’s day. It’s kind of rough.”


Redevelopment is building momentum in Red Hook, but Visitation was $400,000 in debt when Father Antecini became pastor.

Soon after that, Hurricane Sandy inundated New York City in 2012, and was especially cruel to Red Hook. Visitation’s vast basement complex filled with flood water.

Father Antecini said he declined to receive a salary for two years, and his staff did likewise. They didn’t buy groceries, but simply relied on the Lord, and food donations from generous parishioners.

“They believe very much in the providence of God,” Msgr. Massie said. “In the worst of situations, they honestly believe that God will provide. And, I will tell you, God does so in many different ways for them. I think that is a great witness to their faith.”

The parish ultimately paid off a $400,000 debt. Its members also completed $4.5 million worth of post-Sandy repairs.

With flecks of paint still clinging to his fingertips, Father Claudio Antecini gives a tour of his parish, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Red Hook. The pastor recently led his parish in completing a massive paint job of the interior. (Photo: Bill Miller)

He Orchestrated This

Father Antecini said structural engineers and lawyers, divinely inspired, gave free but critical professional advice on the post-storm restoration. Plus there were numerous donations of building materials.

For example, he recalled how Frances DeLuca, a parish trustee, was offered a donation from a well-to-do businessman for recommending his son for entrance into a Catholic high school. 

DeLuca is principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in South Ozone Park, Queens. The businessman wanted to help the school. But she politely declined, saying the school was doing fine.

On the other hand, she said, her parish in Red Hook needed help rebuilding from Sandy. The businessman was a concrete supplier who subsequently donated 150 yards of the material to Visitation.

“Because I’m a trustee, I have to make sure everything is done right,” said DeLuca. “So, I asked him, ‘You’re licensed and bonded, right?’ He started to laugh and said, ‘Of course!’” 

He had been a contractor on the The World Trade Center in Manhattan, DeLuca said.

“It was not because of me that we got all that cement,” DeLuca exclaimed. “It was Jesus Christ! He orchestrated all of this.”

DeLuca said that most of the actual labor was handled by craftsmen from the predominantly immigrant parish. 

She noted Father Antecini, having worked in construction for six years before seeking the priesthood, pitched in himself.

“Being from Italy, and also in the region of Venice, we are very expert in concrete work,” he said. “Because what is common?  Earthquakes and flooding.”

Embracing and Building Community

Father Antecini recently led his parish in repainting the church interior.

Working on scaffolds nearly around the clock, they finished at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, June 25, just in time for a confirmation involving multiple parishes.

Msgr. Massie said there is much to learn from Visitation, especially its embracing and building of community.

“It’s an ecclesiastical movement,” he said of Koinonia. “Many people — not only in Brooklyn, but throughout the city — worship there. 

“Their primary function is evangelization. And I think they do a very good job of it.”