Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Address: 1405 Bushwick Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner Cooper Avenue
Year Built: Parish Hall, 1904, church, 1915
Architectural Style: English Neo-Gothic
The story: Bushwick has a lot of churches. Like many neighborhoods in Brooklyn, the “borough of churches,” Bushwick was settled by various groups who turned their faith and religious convictions into brick and mortar as soon as they had roofs over their own heads. First came the Dutch, who built the oldest church in the neighborhood, the Dutch Reformed Church further down Bushwick Avenue, followed by Catholics and various denominations of Protestants. If they had the room, almost all of these churches built halls next door or behind their main building for Sunday school and social occasions. This is one of those rare cases where a parish hall was built before the church.
St. Thomas began as the Cooper Avenue Mission in 1872. By 1892, the mission had grown into a large parish, and a parish hall was built, a place to hold both services and social functions. This building soon grew and was too small, causing a new parish house to be built, which was finished in 1904. Funds were gathered to build an adjoining church, and in 1915, that church was dedicated with much pomp and ceremony.
An early drawing of the Parish Hall on a postcard shows a much more elaborate building than what survives today. The architect had only a limited space to work with, so I think this was either a rendering, or some of the building was modified when the church was built later. In any case, today we have a very modern version of an English Gothic church, a sturdy and mighty fortress, as familiar to any Anglican as the Book of Common Prayer.
I have a great fondness for this particular church. For many years, I was hired as a professional singer to augment their volunteer choir for special occasions, and many of my other church jobs originated here, as their choir director, Carlos Prescod, who sadly is now deceased, booked singers for many jobs in Episcopal churches throughout Central and Downtown Brooklyn. I’ve been in many an Episcopal church in Brooklyn because of Carlos.
St. Thomas has long been a solid West Indian congregation, with a long line of black pastors. It has also always been High Church, full blown “bells and smells,” a celebration of mass with sung responses, processions, incense, choirs and clergy, acolytes and choir in full-robed regalia, and classical music. They are the most English, as in Mother England, church I’ve ever attended. Their former pastor, Father Harris, was educated in England and sounded like an Oxford don. (Today they have a black female priest. Love it!)
One of my fondest memories of a service there was an anniversary concert and mass at St. Thomas, during which time the choir sang Bach, Handel, Negro spirituals, and selections from “Missa Luba,” a Congolese mass with drums and choir — a great piece of music, by the way. So there we were, a mixed choir of slightly out-of-tune parishioners, professional classical singers, both black and white, a group of drummers in African dress, a paid trio of brass players, engaged for the Handel selections, the organist, and Carlos leading the choir in his flapping black choir robe. We rocked the house. We were awesome.
As the piece ended, the usually quite proper congregation leapt to its feet, including the very proper Father Harris, who could be seen clapping his hands to the rhythm of the music, during Missa Luba. He took to the pulpit and gushed in the plummiest of English-accented tones, “Splendid! Oh, how splendid that was!” Then we all retired to the parish hall for a feast of fried codfish cakes, escovitch fish, homemade beef and chicken patties, roasted jerk chicken, cabbage, and peas and rice, with homemade sorrel to wash it down. England, Africa, America and the West Indies. What could be finer on a Sunday afternoon in Bushwick? GMAP