There is no shortage of grand old houses of worship in Bed-Stuy, where the Brooklyn moniker "the city of homes and churches" is as true as anywhere in the borough. Walk along any major avenue and you're bound to see an impressive steeple standing tall in the distance or a great wall of windows rising from the sidewalk. Still, this monstrous old church on the block bounded by Lewis, Hart, Willoughby, and Stuyvesant caught and held my attention as I passed it the other day, both because it looks considerably older than its surroundings, and because it's positively enormous.
Designed by architect Patrick Keely in 1868, the parish church of St. John the Baptist is truly gigantic: it stands 10 stories tall--before the NYCHA high rises were built it would easily have been the one of the tallest buildings in the neighborhood--and holds 1,200 parishoners. It was commissioned by the Vincentian Order of the Roman Catholic Church, who founded both the parish and the school on the site, which grew into St. John's University two years later. The university moved to Queens and Staten Island in 1960, but the church remains, as do the original school buildings on Lewis Avenue, also designed by Keely and still serving as a high school.
As big as the building is, it was slated to be much larger. Bishop John Loughlin (for whom the Fort Greene High School is named) was the presiding Catholic leader in Brooklyn, and envisioned a massive cathedral on the site, and went so far as to erect almost a story's worth of the entire building before deciding to devote his efforts and funds to charitable institutions. The original "chapel of St. John the Baptist" remained as the parish church.
The recent story of the building is a familiar Brooklyn tale--abandoned by the Vicentians and their university during the decade of urban renewal, the church decayed as its surroundings changed or did the same. The upper nave is now closed (hence the plywood over the windows) and the church above looks a good deal different than it did in its glory days. Despite this, the church has found ways to continue contributing to the community, turning the planned site of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (later an athletic field for St. John's University) into affordable housing, the red buildings you see in the foreground of the photograph.
All is by no means lost for the once-grand church. New leadership began putting an agressive plan for church and community in place in the early 1990s, and has also begun restoring the shuttered interiors (photos and more on the structure here). Perhaps most importantly, it still serves its primary function, housing a large congregation, and stands tall in a corner of the neighborhood where most structures of its vintage have long since long since pulled down.
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