Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: The Cathedral Basilica of St. James
Address: 223 Jay Street
Cross Streets: Cathedral Place and Chapel Street
Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: 1903
Architectural Style: Neo-Georgian
Architect: George H. Streeton
Other work by architect: Former St. Ambrose Catholic Church, now Mt. Pisgah Baptist, Bedford Stuyvesant. In Manhattan: St. Charles Borromeo, Harlem; Church of Saints Cyril & Methodius and St. Raphael, at the base of the Lincoln Tunnel at West 40th Street, and other churches
The story: There are hundreds of Catholic Churches in Brooklyn, but very few are elevated to the status of Cathedral, and even fewer are designated as a Basilica. This storied church is both. A cathedral is a church that contains the seat, or chair of a bishop. This is both a literal chair, as well as the seat of power from which the bishop issues his authority over his diocese. A basilica is an important church that is given special ceremonial rights by the Pope himself. This important Brooklyn church went through several incarnations over its long history, and is an important part of the history of the Catholic Church in Brooklyn and Long Island.
The parish of St. James began in 1822, when it was founded as the first Catholic Church on Long Island. Irish Catholics began settling in the Vinegar Hill area to work in the new Brooklyn Navy Yard, beginning in the early 19th century. There was no Catholic church in Brooklyn, and worshippers had to cross over to Manhattan to attend mass. The first mass in Brooklyn was celebrated in the home of Daniel Dempsey, on Fulton Street.
As more and more Catholics settled in the area, a local man named Peter Turner, who also lived on Fulton Street, and worked at the Navy Yard, began organizing a committee to build a church in the neighborhood. By 1822, with the encouragement and support of the New York Bishop, Brooklyn’s Catholics raised enough money to buy a plot of land on Jay and Chapel Streets. For all of many charitable activities within St James and Brooklyn throughout his life, today Turner is remembered at St. James as “the pioneer Catholic layman of Brooklyn.”
The ground was consecrated by Bishop Connolly, only the second Bishop of Manhattan, and building began. St. James was the first Catholic Church in Brooklyn, the third Catholic Church in New York City, and the sixth Catholic Church in the entire state of New York. Turner and his committee asked for a full-time pastor to be assigned to the church, and Rev. John Farnan became Long Island’s first official Catholic priest. For the next four years, he travelled on horseback from here to Montauk, the only priest for the increasing pockets of Catholics on Long Island.
In 1853, the first Catholic Bishop of Brooklyn, John Laughlin, was installed here, making St. James a cathedral. Throughout the 19th century, the Catholic Church grew at an amazing rate, its numbers boosted by the thousands of Irish, German, Polish and other immigrants who came to Brooklyn and settled. By 1896, Bishop Laughlin decided that St. James was too small to be the seat of the Church in Brooklyn, and a huge new cathedral was planned in Fort Greene, which would be called the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. At that time St. James lost its “cathedral “status, and became what is called a “pro-cathedral.” That is a parish church serving as a temporary cathedral or co-cathedral of the diocese.
Construction on Immaculate Conception began, but halted due to lack of funds. It was never built, but is the site today of Bishop Laughlin High School. In 1903, the old St. James was torn down, and this building was built on the same site. The church is in the Neo-Georgian style, quite different from most Gothic-inspired Catholic churches, especially cathedra. It was designed by George H. Streeton, a Brooklyn-born architect who was educated at Cooper Union and Cornell University. He began his career working in the offices of Schickel & Ditmars, one of Brooklyn’s best Catholic Church architectural firms.
Streeton was very versatile in his designs; his churches are all quite different and quite good. For St. James, he designed a very Georgian looking building inside and out. It’s quite interesting that this church could easily be mistaken for a Congregational or Methodist Church. Inside, he mixes Georgian pilasters and coffered ceilings with a large, and very Roman Catholic baldachino, the ornate dome covering the altar, supported by strong black marble columns, with Classical capitals.
St. James remained a pro-cathedral until 1972, when it was once more elevated to cathedral. In 1979, when Pope John Paul II made his first trip to the US, he stopped here to bless the gathered crowds. In 1982, the church was made a basilica by Papal Decree, and is now known as the Cathedral-Basilica of St. James. The seventh Bishop of Brooklyn, Nicholas DiMarzio, was installed here as Bishop of Brooklyn, in 2003. He is still in charge of the Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens. Today, still quite small for large affairs, the Basilica shares cathedral duties with St. Joseph’s in Prospect Heights. That’s quite a journey from the first mass celebrated in a Fulton Street home in 1820. GMAP
(Photo: Jim Henderson for Wikipedia)