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Saved from the Wrecking Ball: St. Brigid’s Church

Many people love the the historic architecture of our neighborhoods. But not everyone shares such a reverence, and historic buildings are often marked for demolition. Of course as supporters of Village Preservation know, we often must fight to protect our history; sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. Today’s story illustrates that like perhaps no other.

St. Brigid’s in 1928. Image via NYPL

On December 2, 1849, the Church of St. Brigid on the corner of Avenue B and 8th Street was dedicated by Bishop John Hughes. The church was one of the first designed by Irish architect Patrick Charles Keely. Keely hand-carved the gothic reredos at St. Brigid’s himself, and would go on to design and build over 600 churches throughout his career.

St. Brigid’s organ case designed by Patrick Keely

Construction started in 1848. Work was conducted by the Irish shipwrights from the nearby East River boatyards, or the Dry Dock District as it was known at the time.

In its early years, St. Brigid’s was a haven for Irish immigrants fleeing the Potato Famine. In the 1850s and 1860s the church was led by Reverend Thomas Mooney, who also served as chaplain to the 69th New York State Militia. This 2nd Regiment of Irish Volunteers served throughout the Civil War.

From the 1870s through the early 1900s, many Irish Lower East Siders left the neighborhood. They were replaced by new immigrants from southern and central Europe, whose differing religious traditions resulted in the creation of new parishes, rather than replenishing the ranks of St. Brigid’s congregation, which declined during this period.

St. Brigid’s ca. 2000, prior to restoration. Image via NY Times.

There was a slight revival following World War II, when new public housing developments were built in the area and new Catholic parishioners filled the pews. While St. Brigid experienced an increase in congregants, they had very limited resources, and the building fell deeper and deeper into disrepair. In 1962, the 113 year old church spires were removed due to safety concerns.

Adding to St. Brigid’s woes, the East Village was built upon low-lying marshland. The church building continued to deteriorate as the wooden piles the building rested upon were rotting out from underneath it, causing shifting and cracking walls.

During the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot, the church granted the use of its building to protestors to organize and receive medical attention. Father George Kuhn was arrested when he defied orders not to cross a police line to deliver food to protestors and the homeless, saying: “I’m working under orders, too. The order I have is to feed the hungry, and that comes from a higher authority.”

By 2001, the building was closed due to structural deficiencies, and Mass was held in the adjoining school building while the community rallied and raised money to save the church.

In 2003 the Archdiocese of New York filed an application to convert the church into apartments. In 2004 the Archdiocese officially closed the church, and in 2006 demolition began. The Archdiocese was criticized for what New York Times columnist Dan Barry called its “tone-deaf” handling of parishioner and community concern. The court dismissed several lawsuits filed by the Committee to Save St. Brigid Church. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission refused entreaties to landmark the church.

The fight to Save St. Brigid’s

Finally, in March, 2007, the Appellate Division extended a temporary restraining order preventing the Archdiocese from demolishing the church, and in 2008 an anonymous benefactor donated $20 million. $10 million of that was used to fix the church, $2 million was reserved for an endowment, and $8 million was used to support St. Brigid’s School and other local Catholic schools.

By then, the St. Brigid’s parish had been dissolved, but after funding was secured, the St. Brigid and St. Emeric parishes merged and planned to move into the renovated building.

Michael F. Doyle of the Acheson Doyle Partners architecture firm was hired to supervise the church’s renovations. Stucco was removed from the stone façade, the foundation was stabilized, and the remaining stained glass windows returned. Additional stained glass was moved from St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, which had closed in 2003.

The interior of St. Brigid’s during restoration in 2011. Image via Committee to Save St. Brigid’s Church

The restored church

On January 27, 2013, following years of renovation work, St. Brigid’s was re-opened to the public. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan consecrated and dedicated the refurbished church.

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The restored interior vaulted ceiling above the nave suggests “an inverted ship’s hull” The church was was built by shipwrights, who are remembered in sculpted faces in the roof-supporting corbels. Image via ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com

St. Brigid’s more than century and a half journey, including back from the brink of destruction, is a preservation story for the ages. Fortunately, it’s one with a happy ending.

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