In a culture as utilitarian and self-congratulatory as ours, it is something more than refreshing and humbling to encounter that which was clearly created as a labor of love. Such a sensation is made that much sharper and poignant when this labor is simultaneously monumental and communal and is executed with immense skill and proportion; when said labor succeeds to a remarkable degree in the ultimate goal of art: to bring beauty into the world. What is more, it’s wonderfully disorientating when such an encounter occurs when and where one doesn’t expect it at all.
One sunny afternoon sometime ago, as I lazily and none-too-expectantly explored the offerings of my new, pleasant (if aluminum-sided) neighborhood, I had the great fortune to experience such a moment. I had been walking on Graham Ave and had made a right on Herbert Street when there at the corner of N. Henry St. I encountered, white and magnificent before me, the limestone sculpture that is St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church. I was not merely startled. Rather, what I felt was more a feeling of momentary displacement. What, I recall thinking, was something as sublime as this structure doing here? How, I wondered, did it arrive here in Greenpoint, not 50 yards from Robert Moses’s rampaging BQE?
I was not the first to ask such questions, and hopefully I will not be the last. For the most part, though, the answers are quite simple. That is, if any church in Brooklyn or elsewhere can be said to be a monument to faith, providence, and the inspired and inspiring will of one man, it is indeed St. Cecilia’s.
A brief objective history: When Fr. Edward McGoldrick arrived in Greenpoint in November of 1888, St. Cecilia’s was a tiny, ever-shrinking working class parish centered around a crumbling wooden church with a badly leaking roof. McGoldrick knew something needed to be done, that a new church must be built. Though the child of Irish immigrants, McGoldrick was no country bumpkin. Ordained in the Lateran of Rome, the young priest had traveled widely and the sublime cathedrals of Europe had fired his imagination and informed his standards of what a church could and should be. He aimed high—in retrospect impossibly, even ridiculously high, given the circumstances.
After all, Greenpoint was hardly flush with great wealth. McGoldrick, however, was undaunted, and apparently quite convincing. Consider this: in his first two years as pastor, the parish raised $40,000 for the construction of a new church. This a time when the average salary of the largely immigrant population was $15 a week. Somehow, in the five-year period between his conception of the new church and its completion, McGoldrick raised the necessary $250,000.
Providence clearly had intervened. McGoldrick envisions a Romanesque Basilica in limestone. A shipment of limestone is mistakenly shipped to New York where it is placed in storage. McGoldrick hears of it, buys it on the cheap, and employs architect Thomas H. Poole and the firm Byrne and Perry go to work. The cornerstone is laid on September 27, 1891 by the first Bishop of (the still-independent) City of Brooklyn, John Loughlin.
After two years’ labor, the church is completed. On November 26, 1893, St. Cecilia’s, named for the patron saint of music, now 90 feet high and 165 feet wide, is dedicated. Consecration follows on November 23, 1901. Its windows are filled with stained glass made by artisans who do not sign their name, for to do so would be to miss the point. Where five years before there were shambles, now stood one of the most magnificent churches in America. A century later it is no less so.
A brief subjective response: It is said that the ways of God are strange. How true, and so too, the ways of beauty. I do not pretend to know what beauty is, from whence it comes nor where it desires to go or to bring us. Beauty exists in the realm of intimations and spirit where knowledge, as we know it, does not apply. I know only that, as with oxygen, without reminders of the reality of beauty, we die. Our bodies move. Our pupils react to stimuli. Words are spoken and words received. We function. Outside of life.
Sometimes, when the reality of what we do to each other and what we are forced to do to each other, day by day and day after day, always faster and always more efficiently, of who and what we reward and who and what we punish; those times when the baseness and crass materialism of contemporary American life threatens to seep into my very soul and overwhelm me, I walk over and look at St. Cecilia’s. If I’m lucky and if I’m strong, I see it and sometimes when I see it, I awaken, slightly, and once again, from my stupor. Thus, like reading a great poem, or seeing a great painting, like hearing a great song or meeting a true friend, I am exceedingly grateful for its existence, for I know that without such reminders, without such beauty, my life would simply have no meaning.
Patrick Walsh is a writer and contributor for the Brooklyn Rail.