Saint Brigid’s Church
Also known as St. Bridget; now the Church of Saint Brigid – Saint Emeric
The history of St. Brigid’s is one of perseverance through community efforts and illustrates the effects of neighborhood transformation on the life of a building.
The Church of Saint Brigid, built in 1848, is among the earliest works of Irish architect Patrick Charles Keely, who would eventually design and build over 600 churches throughout the course of his career; “to enumerate the patrons of these many churches built from his designs is almost to suggest the litany of the Saints.” These churches, the majority of them for Catholic congregations, filled a great and growing need for Catholic life in the United States as Catholic immigrants, mainly Irish and German, arrived in increasing numbers. Built during a time of biases against Catholics, St. Brigid’s and Keely’s other Catholic churches helped create inroads to American communities, or as Father Malone stated at Keely’s memorial in 1896, “His great work in the New England states has served to soften the prejudices in the minds of the Protestant people, and their ministers, when they saw springing up the beautiful developments of architectural skill and genius of his brain.”1
The brownstone church of St. Brigid’s bears a Gothic Revival style and arrangement that would come to appear in many of Keely’s churches: a tripartite front façade flanked by bell towers, atop which once rose spindly spires. Inside, the wide center nave is vaulted with an unusual ceiling resembling an upside-down ship’s hull, a nod to its carpenters who also worked in the shipyards. Their memory is preserved in corbels decorated with their sculpted faces.2
The setting of the Lower East Side, or the Dry Dock District as it was called at the time, was important to St. Brigid’s founding, and the church’s fate would remain linked to the changing face of the neighborhood over time. The East River shipyards and related industries employed many Irish laborers who immigrated during the time of the famine. These families required a Catholic church where there were few; the nearest Catholic church of St. Stephen served the German community who had immigrated earlier.3 Property was found for St. Brigid’s facing west onto Tompkins Square, a military parade ground at the time–a position that would also come to define its neighborhood role.
Money was a recurring problem for the parish; while the Lower East Side contained pockets of wealthy inhabitants, these lived alongside widespread poverty. The church made a name for itself as an advocate for its community during the week-long draft riot that took place in 1863, said to be one of the deadliest civil disturbances in American history. To counter the federal troops sent to New York to put down the riot, the pastor of St. Brigid’s, Father Thomas S. Mooney, organized a neighborhood posse. After the Civil War the face of the neighborhood began to change, and the fortunes of St. Brigid’s along with it. Although the shipyards were closed by 1870, unable to face high costs and competition, many parishioners shifted into the booming building trade.4 It was at this time that the church received some of its finer furnishings: oil paintings of the stations of the cross by French artist Theophile Narcisse Chauvel, fine vestments, and an organ.5 The interior was further embellished with a carved marble altar to replace the wooden one, frescoes on the walls and ceilings, and carved ash pews.6
Yet not all changes in the neighborhood were positive. Tompkins Square, having been abandoned as a military ground after the Civil War (but not legislatively converted into a park until 1878), was often decried for containing an undesirable public element.7 In 1874 this included a radical labor meeting that was broken up by the police; some found refuge in the church.8 The Dry Dock District faced further shifts as developments in rapid transit allowed people to live farther from their place of work; with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 and the elevated lines to Harlem in particular, many Lower East Siders left the neighborhood. Their vacancies were filled by immigrants from south and central Europe, particularly Slavs and Italians, whose traditions were not always a perfect match for the mainly Irish or Irish-American clergy. And the influx of Catholic immigrants did not swell the numbers of St. Brigid’s, but rather resulted in the founding of new parishes. In 1877 St. Brigid’s faced its lowest population since 1848, yet care was still given to the aging church structure: the wooden beams of the twin towers, by then decayed and sagging, were replaced with iron.9 Through great effort the church debt was cleared in 1889, at which point St. Brigid’s was consecrated. This celebrated event spurred on redecoration in the form of new stained glass windows from Bavaria as well as new chandeliers.10
From the 1890s through the early 1900s the Irish and Germans continued to leave the neighborhood, to be replaced with Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Greeks, Italians, and Jews. Parish numbers remained low as these communities formed their own churches. After the optimistic Diamond Jubilee in 1923 the parish faced continuing decreased attendance and revenue, with even greater trouble during the Depression.11 Yet after World War II some revival hit the neighborhood, with new housing projects and the integration of nationalities into English-speaking churches; St. Brigid became one of the most cosmopolitan parishes in the city and saw an increase in parishioners.12
Yet through mid-20th century there continued a pattern of change in the neighborhood, including the addition of artsy bohemians to the neighborhood in the 1950s. The skyline around Tompkins Square was changed in 1962 when the church spires were removed due to safety concerns. Yet the church managed to avoid a swift end like the nearby St. Nicholas Kirche, which was built 1836 for the German community and demolished in 1960. St. Brigid’s retained its relevance through new approaches: a Vatican Council inspired the priests of St. Brigid’s to support the working poor of the area, many of which were part of the new influx of Puerto Rican immigrants. These efforts included block parties, opening the rectory to drug addicts and troubled youth, and innovations to church services such as providing mass in Spanish with Puerto Rican music. These new practices caused conflict within the parish but attendance increased.13
Transformation continued to shake the neighborhood as gentrification battles were waged in the 1980s, when the neighborhood was renamed “the East Village” by speculators in order to evoke the character of Greenwich Village. During the Tompkins Square Riots of 1988 the church lent its space to homeless advocates and those protesting police action.14 In the following years, as gentrification forced out neighborhood groups, St. Brigid’s faced a steep decline in parish numbers.15 With diminished resources, the church had limited means to address the decay of the building; the east wall had to be stabilized with concrete block buttresses, and later a crack in the north wall developed near the east wall intersection. By 2001 the structural problems of the building were assessed as too costly to repair ($500,000) and too unsafe to occupy. In June of that year Cardinal Edward M. Egan, then Archbishop of New York, closed the church and mass was moved to an adjacent school building. Its final mass was in 2004 when the Trinitarian Order stopped supplying priests to the parish.16
St. Brigid's has not been designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Applications for designation have been denied on account of too many alterations to the structure.
2001: Church closed due to structural safety concerns
2003: Plans to convert St. Brigid’s into apartments revealed
2004: Committee to Save St. Brigid’s delivers petitions to Cardinal Egan and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
July 2005: Church supporters file first lawsuit, which is dismissed; moratorium denied
July 18, 2006: Archdiocese's Board of Trustees votes to approve demolition of St. Brigid's
July 27, 2006: Demolition begins on the church but is quickly halted, pending further court hearings, when a second lawsuit is filed
January 2007: Lawsuit is dismissed and the case is brought to the Court of Appeals
March 2007: Appellate Division extends a temporary restraining order that bars the Archdiocese from demolishing the church
2008: An anonymous donor gives $20 million for the church's restoration, endowment, and support
2009: Restoration work begins
January 27, 2013: St. Brigid's reopens
In 2003 the parish and local community heard news that the New York City Department of Buildings had issued a permit to convert St. Brigid’s into a five-story residential building.17 An archdiocese spokesperson stated that the more-favored option was demolition, but the parishioners were unaware of this as they continued to donate funds towards the church's repair.18 Throughout 2004, the parish continued to work to save the church by raising money ($103,000 of the estimated $580,000 needed) and collecting over 800 signatures on a petition for Cardinal Egan and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In October the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s marched two miles to St. Patrick’s Cathedral to deliver the petition to Egan.19
In July 2005 the supporters of the church took legal action, filing their first lawsuit stating that the funds they raised to restore the building were spent instead on general expenses before the parish dissolved. The lawsuit was dismissed and the Archdiocese revealed their plans to demolish the building.20 The supporters’ attorney Harry Kresky asked the Archdiocese for a one-year moratorium for the chance to raise the needed funds, but was refused, and the Archdiocese asserted their right to demolish. At this time the organ was removed from the church, along with other furnishings including the stained glass windows.21
In 2006 the supporters of St. Brigid’s filed a second lawsuit after working to raise money for an appeal of the ruling by State Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick.22 This second lawsuit asserted that the Archdiocese had not properly obtained demolition permits, that they had not properly convened a meeting of the parish’s Board of Trustees to approve the church's closing, and that once the board finally did meet it violated a state law that requires that trustees make their decision in “support and maintenance” of the house of worship.23 As the fight to save the church became more heated, more community members became involved. An anonymous donor asked to buy the church at fair market price with the intention to repair it and use if for nonprofit purposes. The New York Landmarks Conservancy joined the effort, bringing in political and public support, an independent consulting engineer, and worked with the parishioners. And although the parish was mainly Hispanic, more individuals and societies of Irish heritage took action, seeking to preserve what they saw as a testament of their faith. Benefits, readings, and art auctions were organized, and the Grand Council of United Emerald Societies and the Ancient Order of the Hibernians aligned themselves with preservationists. Altogether, combined efforts raised over $27,000 for legal fees and got the Irish press involved in publicizing events and demonstrations.
"I think the Irish are a people for whom history and memory are particularly important…And there are very few opportunities for memory and the tangible to come together in the way that they have at St. Brigid's."24
–Marion Casey, Professor of Irish Studies, NYU
The larger issue with the case was based on the question of who owned the building, which was not the Archdiocese but the church board, which had not existed for a long time.25 During this stalemate demolition began on the church on July 27, 2006. The Archdiocese press statement at the time reported that the Board of Trustees unanimously approved that the structurally-unsound church should be demolished, and that the property would be used for an as-yet-undecided Archdiocesan purpose and ministry.26 The destruction amounted to a hole in the rear wall, damage to the interior, and damage to at least one of the stained glass windows. Kresky sought an injunction to stop the destruction, yet the following day workers wielding crowbars knocked out the stained glass windows on the north wall as a bewildered community looked on. The demolition ended when a stop-work order was issued by the Department of Buildings for safety violations.27 In response to this shocking destruction, the Archdiocese spokesperson asserted that “operating museums is not really in keeping with the mission of the Archdiocese of New York…We are in the business of meeting people’s spiritual, education and charitable needs…Yes, we care about history, but in making these decisions that cannot be the priority. We cannot give too much preference to one church.”28
The Court ordered that demolition be stopped until the Court heard the current arguments against it on August 24, 2006. Kresky argued that some of the paperwork of the Archdiocese’s application for demolition was fraudulent, and that the five-person Board of Trustees was supposed to oversee the governance of the church. The Archdiocese’s attorney John Callagy asserted that the Catholic Church was hierarchical and not under obligation to consult parishioners. Kresky countered that St. Brigid’s was incorporated into the Archdiocese in the 19th century with the provision that two trustees of the board represent the parishioners; while the Archdiocese had convened the board on July 18th to approve demolition, none of the parishioners were involved or even knew about it until afterwards. Callagy stated that the Archdiocese should not be left with a “rotting” church on its hands, but Kresky countered that funding offers were being made not only by the "angel” buyer but also the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.29 The Supreme Court hearing on August 24th led Justice Barbara Kapnick to stand her order barring the Archdiocese from demolishing the church until hearing more arguments from both sides.30
In January 2007 the lawsuit of the supporters of St. Brigid’s was dismissed; their appeal brought permission to bring the case to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. In March the Appellate Division extended a temporary restraining order that barred the Archdiocese from demolishing the church.31 By June the supporters of the church gained more traction and high-powered backing from the law firm Holland & Knight, who argued that the parishioners’ claim that the Archdiocese had applied for a demolition permit without convening the proper vote by the Board of Trustees amounted to a violation of state law governing nonprofit religious corporations. Meanwhile, the fight grew in profile as actor Matt Dillon joined the fight.32
The stalemate continued until May 2008, when an anonymous donor came to the church’s rescue. The Archdiocese announced that Cardinal Egan was approached with the unexpected gift of $20 million for St. Brigid’s: $10 million to restore the building, $2 million to establish an endowment for the parish, and $8 million to support the St. Brigid’s School and other Catholic schools in need.33 But by September came troubling news that the demolition permit for the church was still in effect. It was finally withdrawn in October, and architects and professionals were retained for a renovation.34 The lawsuit in the Court of Appeals was dropped by the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s after three conditions were met: that the Archdiocese surrender its 2005 demolition permit, that the three-member Board of Trustees (with one representative from the parish) approve the restoration of the building, and that the $10 million for restoration become available by the end of 2008.35 The court case was officially rendered moot in March of 2009.36
Restoration work began in 2009, a relief to the Committee to Save St. Brigid’s. Edwin Torres reported that they had been “at the site at least once a week and we’ve spoken to the engineers—they’re testing the bricks and mortar in the church to see the extent of the problems…This will probably be the last meeting of the committee—we’ve achieved what we set out to 10 years ago. But we’ll continue to monitor the site.”37 The architectural firm of Acheson Doyle Partners assessed the damage in the eastern wall, partially detached from the building, and found the steeples to be too difficult and costly to replace. They undertook the work to remove stucco from the stone façade, stabilize the building's foundations, bring back the stained glass windows from storage, and restore the reredos.38
Work continued through 2010 as an awareness of further needs arose. Water damage necessitated more extensive repairs, and the deteriorated brownstone of the north and west walls had to be replaced with a precast brownstone façade. While the north wall had to be completely rebuilt, the east wall was given a overhaul in its foundation.39 Stained glass windows were brought from St. Thomas the Apostle in Harlem, which had closed in 2003. The firm also restored the elaborate inscription on the east wall, which had been painted over in the 1960s.40 The plaster faces atop the support columns in the upper level gallery, said to represent the original builders of the church, were recovered from storage in Staten Island.41
On January 27, 2013, St. Brigid’s, now merged with St. Emeric’s, reopened with a special mass presided by Archbishop Dolan and former Archbishop Egan—the first mass held in the church since 2001. Some members of the St. Brigid’s Committee were angered over the omissions during the dedication that left off recognition of the Committee’s work, yet Committee leader Edwin Torres reported, “I’m ecstatic. I don’t need any recognition. The only one I care about is the Lord. The Lord up there knows what we did.”42
In the end, neither the struggle to save the church nor the extensive labors of restoration were in vain. The church restoration received the 2013 Engineering New-Record Construction Award for best cultural/worship project, citing miraculous attention to detail in the $18 million restoration.43 The renovation also received the 2013 AIA Sacred Design Award, as well as the 2014 Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
- Parish History Collection
- Archives of the Archdiocese of New York
- 201 Seminary Avenue
- Yonkers, NY 10704
- Francis W. Kervick, Patrick Charles Keely, Architect: A Record of His Life and Work (South Bend, IN: Privately Printed,1953), pgs. 7, 21.
- David Gibson, “St. Brigid’s Parish: A Pilgrim Church for an Immigrant People,” in Catholics in New York: society, culture, and politics, 1808-1946, ed. Terry Golway (New York: Fordham University Press; Museum of the City of New York: 2008), pg. 56; Katherine Zeltner, “Patrick Keely, Architect,” Common Bond 15, no. 3 (Spring 2000).
- David Gibson, “St. Brigid’s Parish: A Pilgrim Church for an Immigrant People,” in Catholics in New York: society, culture, and politics, 1808-1946, ed. Terry Golway (New York: Fordham University Press; Museum of the City of New York, 2008) pgs. 56, 61.
- Thomas E. Rush, The Port of New York (Garden City: Doubleday Page & Co., 1920).
- Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pg. 6; Centennial anniversary of St. Brigid’s Parish, Avenue B at Eighth Street, New York City, Sunday, May 23, 1948. (New York: St. Brigid’s Church, 1948) pg. 15.
- “The Miraculous Survival of St. Brigid’s Church –– 123 Avenue B,” Daytonian in Manhattan Blog, 10 October 2011.
- Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pg. 42.
- Lindsay Denison and Max Fischel, “The Tompkins Square Riot,” The New York Evening World, 6 May 1930; Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pg. 7.
- Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pgs. 9-10, 38, 46.
- “St. Brigid’s Consecrated: The Successful End of Forty Years of Struggle Against Debt,” New York Times, 4 February 1889; Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pg. 64f.; Centennial anniversary of St. Brigid’s Parish, Avenue B at Eighth Street, New York City, Sunday, May 23, 1948, (New York: St. Brigid’s Church: 1948) pg. 17.
- Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pg. 117; Centennial anniversary of St. Brigid’s Parish, Avenue B at Eighth Street, New York City, Sunday, May 23, 1948. (New York: St. Brigid’s Church: 1948) pg. 20.
- Patrick D. O’Flaherty, “The History of St. Brigid’s Parish in the City of New York under the Administration of the Rev. Patrick F. McSweeney, 1877-1907,” (unpublished M.A. thesis, Fordham University, New York, 1952) pgs. 118-9.
- David Gibson, “St. Brigid’s Parish: A Pilgrim Church for an Immigrant People”, in Catholics in New York: society, culture, and politics, 1808-1946, ed. Terry Golway, (New York: Fordham University Press; Museum of the City of New York, 2008) pg. 65.
- George James, “Ward is Critical of Police in Clash,” The New York Times, 11 August 1988.
- David Gibson, “St. Brigid’s Parish: A Pilgrim Church for an Immigrant People,” in Catholics in New York: society, culture, and politics, 1808-1946, ed. Terry Golway (New York: Fordham University Press; Museum of the City of New York, 2008) pg. 66.
- Albert Amateau, “Cabrini still interested in St. Brigid’s church,” The Villager, 12-18 May 2004; Tara Bahrampour, “Metro Briefing New York: Manhattan: East Side Church Closes,” New York Times, 12 June 2001.
- Albert Amateau, “Archdiocese to close St. Brigid’s due to attrition, cracked wall,” The Villager, 18-24 August 2004.
- James Fitzgerald, “Faithful rally for ‘Famine church’,” Irish Times, 3 August 2005; Dan Berry, “A Prayer for a Church Unsaved,” New York Times, 30 July 2005.
- Albert Amateau, “St. Brigid’s faithful make apgeal to Cardinal Egan,” The Villager, 13-19 October 2004.
- Albert Amateau, “Judge’s order stays wrecking ball at historic Ave. B Catholic church,” The Villager, 20-26 July 2005.
- Albert Amateau, “St. Brigid’s gets a reprieve, but loses its organ,” The Villager, 27 July – 2 August 2005; Sarah Ferguson, “St. Brigid’s: Archdiocese Says No Condos,” The Village Voice, 27 July 2006.
- Albert Amateau, “St. Brigid’s parishioners hope to apgeal ruling,” The Villager, 15-21 February 2006
- Sewell Chan, “Donor Gives $20 Million to Revive a Historic Church,” The New York Times, 22 May 2008.
- David Scharfenberg, “Coming Back to Fight for the Church of Their Ancestors,” The New York Times, 18 June 2006.
- Michael Luo, “Church Demolition Halted Until at Least Aug, 24,” The New York Times, 28 July 2006; Danielle Ward, “E. Village Church Gets Reprieve,” New York Daily News, 29 July 2006.
- Archdiocese of New York, Press Release: “Statement on Saint Brigid’s Church,” 27 July 2006.
- East Village Community Coalition, “ALERT: DEMOLITION of St. Brigid’s IN PROGRESS NOW!,” posted by Historic Districts Council 27 July 2006; East Village Community Coalition, “ALERT: Old PS 64, former Charas & St. Brigid’s UPDATE,” posted by Historic Districts Council 28 July 2006.
- Lincoln Anderson, “Attempts to raze St. Brigid’s tests East Villagers’ faith,” The Villager, 2-8 August 2006; Michael Luo, “Demolition Starts at Historic Catholic Church in East Village,” The New York Times, July 28, 2006.
- “Court hears St. Brigid’s could be stabilized permanently for $324k,” Irish Echo, 2-8 August 2006.
- Sarah Ferguson, “St. Brigid’s Gets 2nd Reprieve,” The Village Voice, 24 August 2006; Dan Berry, “Articles of No Value, Beyond Faith,” The New York Times, 2 September 2006; Dareh Gregorian, “St. Brigid dodges demolition,” The New York Post, 25 August 2006; Peter McDermott, “Windows Smashed; Demolition Halted,” The Irish Echo, August 23–29, 2006.
- Albert Amateau, “St. Brigid’s protection is extended,” The Villager, 14-20 March 2007.
- Sarah Ferguson, “Fighting Irish: Dillon and Quinn rally for St. Brigid’s, old P.S. 64,” The Villager, 13-19 June 2007; Sarah Ferguson, “Matt Dillon, Patron Saint of St. Brigid’s?,” The Village Voice, 11 June 2007.
- Sewell Chan, “Donor Gives $20 Million to Revive a Historic Church,” The New York Times, May 22, 2008; Michael Clancy, “Who is the Anonymous Donor Who Gave $20M to Save St. Brigid’s,” The Village Voice, 21 May 2008; Christina Boyle and Corky Siemaszko, “St. Brigid’s saved from wrecking ball by anonymous $20M donation,” New York Daily News, 22 May 2008; Albert Amateau, “Miracle on Avenue B: ‘Angel’ airdrops $20 mil, saves church,” The Villager, 28 May – 3 June 2008.
- Albert Amateau, “Nothing doing on St. Brigid’s yet, except in court,” The Villager, 10-18 September 2008; “The renovation of St. Brigid’s is under way; permit to demolish the church has been removed,” EV GRIEVE Blog, 3 November 2008.
- Albert Amateau, “Committee celebrates the salvation of St. Brigid’s,” The Villager, 4-10 February 2009.
- “It’s official, it’s over: St. Brigid’s won’t be torn down,” EV GRIEVE Blog, 4 March 2009.
- Albert Amateau, “Committee celebrates the salvation of St. Brigid’s,” The Villager, 4-10 February 2009.
- Lincoln Anderson, “St. Brigid’s will have elevator and new A/C, but no steeples,” The Villager, 4-10 March 2009.
- Lincoln Anderson, “St. Brigid’s work is more extensive than expected,” The Villager, 18-24 November 2010; Roland Legiardi-Laura, “Report from the front (back and sides) of St. Brigid’s Roof; windows, fence all good – don’t forget the spires,” The Villager, 14-20 July 2011.
- Frances Robles, “A New Beginning Where Demolition Once Started,” The New York Times, 28 January 2013.
- Roland Legiardi-Laura, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A look at St. Brigid’s rehab,” The Villager, 16 February 2012.
- Lincoln Anderson, “It’s a real miracle on Avenue B as St. Brigid’s Church reopens,” The Villager, 31 January 2013.
- “Restoration is Salvation For St. Brigid’s Church,” Engineering News-Record, 11 November 2013.