DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A grand celebration of the Diocese of Brooklyn was on display Sunday at the Cathedral Basilica of St. James during a Mass to memorialize two centuries of Catholic faith.
The three Catholic leaders of the metropolitan area, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, Bishop Robert Brennan, and Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, came together to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Parish of St. James in downtown Brooklyn — a church that ties all three dioceses together in an arc of history.
Cardinal Dolan was the main celebrant at Mass, and Bishops Brennan and Bishop Barres were concelebrants.
“We have a close collaboration with the Archdiocese of New York and with the Diocese of Rockville Centre,” Bishop Brennan said in his welcoming remarks. “We value these ties along with our unity of faith.”
The parish, which is now the Cathedral Basilica of St. James, was founded in 1822 and became a cathedral in 1853 when the Diocese of Brooklyn was founded. Prior to 1853, Brooklyn was part of the Archdiocese of New York. And before 1957, when the Diocese of Rockville Centre was established, the Diocese of Brooklyn stretched all the way from Brooklyn to Long Island.
The Mass marked one of the largest celebrations of St. James since 1953, when the diocese observed the building’s 100th anniversary as a cathedral.
On Sunday, the 700-seat cathedral was filled to near capacity with dozens of bishops, auxiliary bishops, priests, and parishioners gathering to commemorate the occasion.
Cardinal Dolan revealed that the archdiocese still possesses the original 19th-century letter written by Brooklyn resident Peter Turner calling on the archdiocese to allow Brooklyn to have its own church. Before St. James was built, Brooklyn and Long Island Catholics had to travel by ferry to lower Manhattan to go to Mass.
The Turner letter is in the archdiocese’s archives, Cardinal Dolan announced.
In his homily, Cardinal Dolan praised the Diocese of Brooklyn, saying that it is “always on the move, adapting, and growing.”
But if it was a big day for the clergy, it was all a memorable moment for St. James parishioners, whose presence served as a reminder that the cathedral is also a parish tending to the needs of its flock.
Andrea Williams, who has been coming to St. James for 15 years, said the cathedral is like a second home to her.
“You walk in the door, and you just feel so welcome. Just being able to be here today to celebrate 200 years of a foundation is wonderful,” she said.
David Rivas spent his childhood coming to Mass at St. James. He also attended St. James Parochial School, graduating in 1969.
“I loved going to school here. I liked the firmness,” he recalled. “We were taught to respect, to obey your family, to do your homework. It gave me a good foundation in life.”
He and his wife Elizabeth attended Mass every Sunday at St. James for 25 years and saw their two daughters get married at the cathedral. The couple lives in upstate New York now but came back for Sunday’s Mass. “It’s like a family here,” Elizabeth said.
The Parish of St. James was the first Catholic church built on Long Island. Its cornerstone was laid on July 25, 1822.
The title basilica was added to its name in 1982 when St. Pope John Paul II issued the designation. Three years earlier, during his first visit to New York City in 1979, the Holy Father made an unscheduled stop at the cathedral. He stopped his motorcade in front of the church and got out of his car to greet the crowds who had gathered there.
In its 200 years, the cathedral has undergone changes in its designation, and the surrounding neighborhood has also seen big changes.
When the parish was established, Brooklyn consisted largely of farmland and dirt roads travelers navigated on horseback. Fast-forward two centuries. The cathedral now sits in a bustling urban center dotted with high-rise office towers.
And in recent years, other changes have taken place. In 2019, a study by the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership found that 14,000 residential units had been built in the largely commercial area.
The cathedral’s location in downtown Brooklyn means that attendance at its 12 p.m. weekday Mass draws office workers on their lunch hour as well as parishioners.
While history took center stage on this day, Cardinal Dolan said the purpose of the Mass wasn’t just to look back at the past.
“Whenever you’re celebrating the anniversary of a church, you’re talking about the past, and that’s important. But you’re also talking about the present and the future,” he told The Tablet. “We have to make sure we have that hope and confidence in the promise of Jesus Christ that the first people did here 200 years ago.”