At long last, renovations to St. Catharine of Alexandria Church bell tower are completed
BOROUGH PARK — Nearly two years after it was put up, the scaffolding around the bell tower of St. Catharine of Alexandria Church has finally been taken down, and pastor Father Jose Orellana and his parishioners couldn’t be happier.
Actually, Father Orellana, who became pastor in October 2019, had never seen the tower without scaffolding. That’s because his predecessor, Father Andrzej Klocek, had launched a major renovation of the nearly 100-year-old structure the previous August.
After Father Klocek was transferred to St. Elizabeth Parish, Ozone Park, Queens, Father Orellana saw the $1.3 million project through to its completion last month.
Most of the work was done during the COVID-19 pandemic but finished just in time for the parish’s 2021 rite of confirmation sacrament on June 3.
“On Oct. 1, 2019, I came here and I see the church with scaffolds,” said Father Orellana, who is from Chile. “Well, I was very surprised. When they finished pulling off the scaffold, I see the church completely. I was very happy with it, for me, but also for the people.”
The parish serves about 350 families, with a Sunday attendance of about 550 people, said the church’s office manager, Luis Martinez.
Father Orellana said about 80% percent of his parishioners, many of whom are from Mexico, speak Spanish as their first language. The remaining congregants are either of Polish or Italian ancestry.
“But all the people at the parish are very happy, and with gratitude to God,” their pastor said. “We have people that were born here, received all the sacraments here, especially the Italian people.”
One such parishioner is Vicky Avicolli, who was born in her grandmother’s house on 41st Street, across from the church.
She said her parents were married in the church, as was she and her husband. Their daughter moved from the neighborhood but returned in 2010 to be wed in her family’s home church, even though some of the walls had water-damage stains.
Avicolli praised Fathers Orellana, Klocek, and another former pastor, Father Frederick Cintron, for turning the renovations of St. Catharine of Alexandria into labors of love.
“It means the world to me,” she said, adding that Father Cintron deserves credit for getting repairs to the church’s interior started in 2004.
“That’s when I want to say, our church really came back to life,” Avicolli said. “From then until now, the church went through major, major renovations. Even this rectory was in bad shape.”
St. Catharine of Alexandria Parish has served Catholic families in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood since 1902. When the church was founded, Father John J. O’Neill celebrated Mass in a stable on nearby 39th Street.
Two decades later, Father O’Neill, the pastor from 1902 to 1933, led efforts to build the structure that serves the parish today.
According to the parish, “What [Father O’Neill] had in mind was a beautiful church — but a very costly one, modeled on a famous cathedral in Europe. Could he attempt it? Would the people respond?
“They could and would and did.”
The parish history also noted that Emile G. Perrot, a popular Philadelphia architect, drew a design for the church in the “Early French Gothic” style. He was said to have been influenced by the Abbey Church of St. Denis, and the cathedrals of Bourges, Le Mans, and Chartres — all in France.
“On the corner of 41st Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway is a great [tower] surmounted by a cross, the top of which is 157 feet from the ground,” according to church history. “From a point 100 feet above the street, it begins tapering up to the terminating cross in the form of an octagonal copper spire with graceful projecting ribs which emphasize its height.”
Fast forward to 2019, when Father Klocek noticed that a stone had fallen from the tower.
“Fortunately, no one got hurt,” Martinez said. “But then he had the tower inspected, and the inspectors noticed that you could just reach into the tower and remove rocks with your bare hands.
“So he decided to put scaffolding around the church for the protection of the parishioners.”
Inspections also revealed that the metal beams supporting the tower had deteriorated as well, and the decision was made to renovate it.
The work was financed through a loan from the diocese, which the parish plans to repay from the sale of a lot facing Fort Hamilton Parkway, across from the church. That land once held a convent and the parish school of the Church of St. Catharine of Alexandria.
Father Orellana said the parish also hopes to defray the renovation costs with donations from parishioners, past and current, or anyone else who cares about the church. Donations can be made electronically at the parish’s GiveCentral page.
Martinez and Father Orellana explained that Rocklyn Asset Corporation, which handles the real estate matters for the diocese, helped the parish navigate the bidding process to hire contractors to do the work. They praised the contributions of Rocklyn Assets’ executive director Coleen Ceriello; director of special projects Robert Dadona and senior project manager Greg Donahue.
Father Orellana said the next project will be repairs to the leaky roof, adding that the construction work has spiritual, as well as physical, significance.
“The church is a little heaven for us,” the pastor said. “So, the church needs to be beautiful, good, and clean, because it is our little heaven.”