Diocesan News

The Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph: A Reborn House of Worship in a Changing Neighborhood

The decision to renovate St. Joseph Church came from then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio after he heard the community’s desire for it to be saved. (Photo: Ed Wilkinson)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Over half a century has passed since Lida Wickham became a parishioner at what is now the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. When she entered its doors for the first time, it was a parish church, the closest one to her and her husband’s new home in Prospect Heights.

After spending 40 years as a parishioner at St. Joseph’s Church, which over the years had become dilapidated, Wickham is now marveling at the transformation of the house of worship on Pacific Street into the gleaming co-cathedral it is today.

St. Joseph’s officially became a co-cathedral on May 13, 2014, commemorated with a ceremony Wickham attended. With the 10th anniversary of the church’s renovation, she sees how the neighborhood has been rejuvenated as well, and how it has enhanced the possibilities for faith expression and events for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

“When you walk into St. Joseph’s now, you feel like you are in Italy — one of those big cathedrals with all of the new renovations and everything that is done there,” Wickham said. 

Born in Venezuela, Wickham came to New York City in her early 20s on a vacation to visit her cousin. During the visit, she provided babysitting duties for a couple her cousin knew, and the couple fell in love with her. They sponsored her citizenship, and “the rest is history,” she said.

A construction worker checks out a light at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph. (Photo: Ed Wilkinson)

When she and her husband began attending St. Joseph’s in 1970, it was not the grand church it is today. Wickham, who led the English and Spanish-language choirs, remembers a building that lacked heating and where birds flew into and out of the choir loft. On the coldest days, Mass would be celebrated at a chapel in the rectory. 

“It was a small community,” she explained. “Everybody came with their children.”

Prospect Heights and nearby Crown Heights have seen a demographic shift over the recent decades. In 2000, 78% of the population was black, according to the U.S. Census; as of 2021, that number dropped to 43%, with the Hispanic and white populations on the rise, according to the Furman Center. Household income has risen as well, averaging $77,560.

Father Christopher Heanue, the rector of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph since 2021, sees the changes as both a blessing and a challenge.

Father Christopher Heanue was installed as the rector at the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in 2021 with an official ceremony presided over by then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio. (Photo: Ed Wilkinson)

“When any neighborhood gentrifies, the demographic that moves in is not always the demographic that worships, prays or practices their faith on a regular Sunday basis,” Father Heanue said. 

However, he notes, there are Hispanic and Haitian parishioners who live across the city, who commute back to the neighborhood they moved away from to attend the Spanish and Creole Masses offered at the Co-Cathedral. 

“When people walk into the church for the first time, I watch their facial reaction of great shock and awe and beauty and excitement for what they’re witnessing and what they are experiencing,” Father Heanue said. “We’re trying to create the co-cathedral as a place of pilgrimage.” 

Part of those pilgrimage efforts include inviting Catholic academy classes for an afternoon of worship and a tour of the church, as well as inviting people in to visit from around the diocese with events like the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

In 2012, then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio decided to rebuild St. Joseph’s Church, after noting that the construction of the nearby Barclays Center was an indication that the neighborhood was on the rise.

“An elderly Puerto Rican parishioner came to me after I said Mass in [St. Joseph’s] rectory one day and said, ‘Bishop, don’t let this church go, fix it, fix it,’” now-Bishop Emeritus DiMarzio told The Tablet. “And I told him I would think about his wish.”

At the time, the large church had no heat, collapsing windows, and a leaking roof. Bishop DiMarzio concluded that he “had to do something to save this beautiful church.”

In February, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI approved a petition from Bishop DiMarzio to have St. Joseph’s Church designated as a co-cathedral because the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in Downtown Brooklyn lacked the seating capacity to host large diocesan events. 

“As we come to its 10th anniversary, many wonder how we managed without the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph,” Bishop DiMarzio said.