Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church
Address: 1073 Ocean Avenue
Cross Streets: Foster Avenue and Farragut Road
Year Built: 1933-1934
Architectural Style: French Gothic
Architect: Henry V. Murphy
Other works by architect: St. Peter Claver School in Bed Stuy, garage/house at 152 Berkeley Place in Park Slope, with Edward H. Lehmann, first four buildings of St. John’s University, Queens.
The story: It’s not often we have a good photographic record of a Brooklyn building’s construction. The parishioners at Our Lady of Refuge are fortunate, as are those of us who appreciate church architecture. The Brooklyn Eagle took a lot of pictures when this building was going up, giving us an excellent visual history to go along with the names and dates.
Houses of worship are important parts of neighborhood development, so when Irish and German Catholics began settling in Midwood at the turn of the 20th century, it was important for them to have a church in their midst. Brooklyn’s Catholic Bishop in 1911 was Bishop Charles Edward McDonnell. He authorized the building of a new parish, and sent out Rev. Robert O’Donovan to be the first priest. For some reason it was hard to buy land in this part of Flatbush, but Fr. O’Donovan prevailed, and was able to buy this plot on Ocean Avenue near Foster. The cornerstone for the first church was laid, and a small, one story church was built in 1912.
This simple chapel didn’t take much time to build, and only two weeks later, the first mass was held in the unfinished space. That September, only five months from the ground breaking, the church was done, and was dedicated by the Bishop. Photographs show a modest chapel, which the congregation soon outgrew. By 1928, Our Lady of Refuge was in dire need of more room.
Father O’Donovan organized a fund raising campaign, and eminent Catholic church architect Henry V. Murphy was signed on to design a large new church, big enough to accommodate more community growth. Murphy, who was a very versatile designer of sacred spaces, designed a French Gothic church that still manages to be very 20th century, with a hint of Deco sensibility. Just take a look at his St. Peter Claver School to see him go full blown Catholic Deco.
The Brooklyn Eagle was fascinated by the building of the church, and took many photographs which document its progress. We can see the old church, the empty plot, and the new building rising amongst its wooden scaffolding. Unfortunately Fr. O’Donovan died while the church was still in the planning stages. His successor, Monsignor Francis P. Connelly, oversaw the groundbreaking in 1933, and the completion and dedication of the church a year later. Due to diligent fund raising and the financial sacrifice and generosity of the parishioners, the church was built and furnished and paid for, leaving the parish debt and mortgage free, a miracle in the middle of the Great Depression.
The interior of the church reflects Murphy’s Art Deco/Art Moderne style. The organ chosen for the church helped put this Flatbush church on the map. The organ is a pipe organ made by the Geo. Kilgen & Son Organ Company of St. Louis. The NY Guild of Organists website states that “Charles Courboin, then organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was responsible for the organ’s design. Instead of a traditional rear gallery location, the organ’s chambers are located in the adjacent tower and speak through stone grills into the left side of the nave. A small gallery contains the organ console.”
Most churches have gone through a great deal of change over the last 60 years, and Our Lady of Refuge was no different. Haitian Creole and Spanish are spoken here as much as English, these days, replacing the Irish, German and Italian of the past. The organ, which was such an important part of the church, fell victim to time and a lack of budgeted repair. By 2007, it was unplayable; it’s bellows broken, and the pipes and the organ itself in need of repair and restoration.
Fortunately, a man named Joseph A. Vitacco, who had attended the church as a boy, came to the rescue. He had been so influenced by the organ as a child that he grew up learning how to play, and then repair pipe organs. He started a record label, specifically for organ music, and became well known in organ circles. He came back to Our Lady of Refuge with a plan to restore the organ.
It would be an amazing effort, involving a lot of time, money and the generosity of people all over the world. The amazing story can be read in this NY Times article. Long story short, after a lot of work, the organ was supposed to have been dedicated just a few weeks ago, magnificently played by Olivier Latry, the organist of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.GMAP
UPDATE: I got an email from Joe Vitacco, who enclosed these links, which show the dismantling and restoration of the organ. Impressive!