One of the last official acts of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI turned the former Church of St. Joseph into a cathedral. And as Catholics around the world welcomed a new Pope, the Brooklyn church embraced its newly elevated status as a cathedral with a new sign on its gate.
“It’s a point of pride. It just sounds much more important,” said Maureen Tilley, a theology professor at Fordham University. “And it is.”
St. Joseph’s has joined the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in Downtown Brooklyn as a cathedral for the 1.9 million Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which also includes Queens. The designation means St. Joseph – one of the largest churches in the diocese with a capacity of 1,500 people – can host important ceremonies, like the ordination of priests and deacons and the blessing of oil on Holy Thursday, which is in two weeks during Holy Week and leads up to the holiest day in Christianity – Easter Sunday. Most parishioners are pleased with the news, but some Catholic churchgoers and priests in Brooklyn seem to think a second cathedral in the diocese is superfluous.
“A lot of priests in the diocese would have different opinions of whether we needed another cathedral,” Rev. Monsignor Kieran Harrington of St. Joseph’s said. “It’s clear to me there was not wide support for the bishop designating St. Joseph’s a cathedral.”
The presence of two cathedrals in the same diocese is relatively rare – only a handful of the country’s 195 dioceses have co-cathedrals – and typically comes from a need created by the geographical size of the diocese or by population increases, Tilley said.
St. Joseph’s “is at the heart of a new Brooklyn,” said Nicholas DiMarzio, the bishop of the fifth most populous U.S. diocese, in a statement, explaining why he asked the pope for the designation. He will serve as pastor of both parishes since the cathedral acts as the seat of the bishop.
With more people moving into the area and recent development projects in Prospect Heights, including the Barclays Center, which parishioners can see from the steps of the church, it was time for St. Joseph’s to have a more central role in the area and in the diocese, added DiMarzio.
The church’s historical significance also played a factor in the decision. The Cathedral Basilica of St. James, nestled between Chapel Street and Cathedral Place, became a cathedral when the diocese was founded in 1853. It welcomed Pope John Paul II during his 1979 visit to the United States. While St. Joseph has not had the honor of hosting a pope, the church has a rich history. It was initially founded to serve immigrants escaping the mid-19th Century Irish famine.
In a physical sign of the church’s elevated status, the parish will restore its organ, which had “fallen into serious disrepair,” said the St. Joseph’s Rev. Monsignor Harrington.
“St. Joseph is a very poor parish,” Harrington said. The church has been subsidized for many years, he said, and just became self-sustaining last year through an increase in parishioners.
Parishioner Elizabeth Cunin has lived in Prospect Heights for 30 years and said she used to see lots of empty spaces on Sundays and St. Joseph’s parish seemed “dead” a few years ago. Since then, however, she said the church has grown. “I feel happy to see it’s still around to be a cathedral,” she said.
Tim Paccione, 29, recently moved to Crown Heights from upstate and has attended St. Joseph’s since the holy period of Lent started a month ago. He likes the thought of making weekly trips to a cathedral. “I feel like if you’re going to a cathedral, you’ll be seeing the best the church has to offer,” Paccione said.
St. Joseph’s parishioners can already see a few changes. The church now has two services on weekdays, instead of one. Churchgoers also sing some of the call-and-response parts of the mass that they previously spoke. Altar servers and those who read Bible passages sit at the altar, instead of with the other parishioners in the pews. The priest, deacon and others walk up to the altar by a different route. Instead of processing from the main doors to the altar, they start at the sacristy, a room that houses sacred items.
Not everyone, it seems, is pleased with the new designation.
Father Joseph Cunningham of St. Andrew the Apostle in Bay Ridge, laments the lack of parking at St. Joseph’s and the distance from the subway – the nearest station is about eight minutes’ walk. “I have no comment on whether we needed another cathedral,” Cunningham said. “My reaction is the bishop wants it and it’s going to happen. That’s all I can say about it.”
When St. James parishioners Elizabeth Rivas, 47, and her husband David, 58, of Canarsie, first heard about the other church’s new title, they thought their pastor was trying to gently break the news that their church of 15 years – where their son is an altar server and where both they and their daughter and son-in-law got married – would be closing. The news of the second cathedral hit them hard.
“I was saddened by it,” David said. “They’ll take some of the charisma.” St. James always stood out because of the events held there, he said. He is happy for the other parish, he said, but concerned about St. James. “Are we going to lose the prestige?” he said.
“I pray that the enthusiasm doesn’t leave here,” Elizabeth said. She and David also worried that the decision could lead to fewer funds. “It’s scary to think what could happen,” she said.
Several parishioners said St. James’ Rev. Monsignor John Strynkowski reassured them during Sunday services that St. James will be fine. “Monsignor said we’re not not going to be a cathedral now,” said 21-year-old Melissa Capella, from East New York, who’s been a parishioner at St. James for 13 years. “We just have a co-cathedral.”
The Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph will host a reception on Saturday to celebrate its elevated status and the feast day of its patron saint, which falls on March 19.