Brooklyn’s Fading Catholic Churches

Home Brooklyn Life Brooklyn’s Fading Catholic Churches
By Gonzague Leroux
By Gonzague Leroux

By Jeremy B. White

On Good Friday, churches across Brooklyn vibrated with activity as clergy prepared for what would be perhaps the busiest weekend of the year. But not all of them.

The Church of St. Edward the Confessor had the closed-off, forbidding look of a medieval castle. Overcast skies hung low over the Fort Greene church’s twin spires, both topped with rust-green crosses. The church’s gate was locked. Beneath a flowering tree in front of the church sat a small ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary, its paint cracked and chipped, with what was once a beckoning hand snapped off. A handwritten sign noted that “We Are No Longer Accepting Clothing.”

The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which encompasses both Queens and Brooklyn, is in the midst of a sweeping remake as it struggles to cope with plummeting attendance and depleted coffers. So far, six parishes have been folded into neighboring parishes in an effort to pool resources, and two churches have been closed outright. St. Edward is one of those two.

“I don’t know anyone who went there,” an Ingersoll Houses resident said, skeptically glancing up at the church. Behind him rose the glittering glass skyscrapers of a new apartment complex, a sign of the gentrification that is helping to replace the old base of parishioners as they migrate out of Brooklyn.

But St. Edward’s is not totally abandoned. A woman in red sweater and grey slacks answers a knock on a small side door. Her name is Laetitia Palluat, and she is part of a small group of French missionaries from the Heart’s Home order.

“There’s still a presence of the Catholic church here,” she said softly, perched on a chair and fingering a small string of rosary beads. Her tone was hushed, almost reverent, matching the silence reigning in the small quarters where she lives with seven others. Palluat said that a few of the faithful still come, though their visits are rare. She does not dispute the bishop’s decision to close St. Edward’s.

“The church is falling apart,” she said. “It’s obvious we could not stay open.”

Our Lady of Montserrate, the other closed church, is a far simpler structure than St. Edward. The Bushwick church is a small red brick building that, if not for crosses on the door and a small Virgin Mary in a glass case, would be indistinguishable from the homes on Vernon Avenue. At 2:10 on Good Friday only one of six parking spots labeled “priest” was occupied. A sign on the locked door redirected people to 115 Throop, the location of the All Saints Church.

There, the entire block bordering All Saints was closed off. A solemn procession moved slowly down the street, singing mournfully in Spanish. Priests in flowing robes walked alongside women with canes, baby strollers, and teens in hooded sweatshirts.

All Saints must absorb the former parishioners of Our Lady of Montserrate, and it seemed capable: the interior featured a church huge vaulted ceiling supported by green marble pillars, and ornate stained glass windows lined the walls. A small sign near the entrance greeted the new flock, and posted next to it was a sign with a quote from the Bible:

“I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and no disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.”


“I lead the diocese in mergers and acquisitions,” Father Bob Vitaglione said. “I call this mergers and acquisitions because they merge the parish and I acquire more work.”

Vitaglione, a large man with a swoop of grey hair and a throaty growl of a voice, was sitting in his office at Sacred Heart church. Sacred Heart and St. Edward comprised a parish that merged with another parish after St. Edward closed, and Vitaglione is in charge of the new parish.

The moves to shrink the diocese and consolidate resources, Vitaglione said, have been a long time coming. Traditionally Catholic populations are moving out, replaced by people who do not tend to be churchgoers — “pardon the ethnic reference, but they’re yuppies,” Vitaglione said — and by first generation immigrants who tend to be less affluent and have less money to donate to the church, which relies heavily on such largesse.

“It’s just going to be a lot more work,” he said.

Diocese leaders cited closely intertwined demographic and financial trends in announcing the reconfiguration of the diocese, which is examining all 198 of its parishes. Mass attendance decreased by about 43,000 people between 1999 and 2009, with parishes using about 35% of their seating at the average mass. This was propelled in large part by Catholics abandoning Brooklyn for the New York suburbs or, increasingly, the South.

In 2000, the diocese forgave $119 million in debt owed by parishes in schools, but since then they have accumulated another $21.8 million in debt as the diocese’s total assets declined by $111.6 million. Much of these financial woes stem from a decline in local contributions from parishioners, a key source of revenue for the church.

While the scale of the plans to shrink the parish are unprecedented, its financial struggles are not new. Paul Moses, a professor at Brooklyn College who reported for years on the Catholic church in New York, traced the decline back to a 1957 decision to make Nassau and Suffolk counties, then part of the Brooklyn diocese, into their own diocese. The Brooklyn diocese is thus completely urban, lacking the support of wealthy suburban parishes.

“The current Bishop of Brooklyn Diocese, Nicholas DiMarzio “has made a radical decision, which is that the diocese cannot afford to subsidize other parishes,”  Moses said. “Before that the diocese always found a way to assist the parishes in the poor neighborhoods.”

The church remains rich in one type of asset: property. Moses noted that many churches were originally built exclusively for different ethnicities, leading to a surplus in churches. Maintaining these churches can be expensive — someone familiar with the diocese restructuring said people had floated the idea of parishes letting some churches go dormant to avoid having to pay utilities.

But the vacated churches can be lucrative, as well. Moses said he has already seen a “a lot of movement of real estate,” with parishes leasing land to secular institutions like charter schools who could use the space in a city where real estate is coveted.

“They don’t want one of their buildings to be used to do something scandalous,” Moses said. “They wouldn’t want one of their buildings to be used for something that would contradict church doctrine, like distributing birth control.”


St Edward the Confessor occupies a large plot of land, but, as Vitaglione points out, the church building has limited uses beyond its religious function. He said Steiner Studios explored a deal to rent the land but eventually backed out.

This means that the Hearts Home mission remains there, conducting daily mass in a tiny chapel and reaching out to Brooklynites. Father Gonzague Leroux, a mild man with small wire glasses, explained the order’s work in a small room furnished with a couple of chairs, a couch and a large television. A bookcase contained DVD’s running from Passion of the Christ and What Dreams May Come to Little Ms. Sunshine; the book collection encompassed C.S. Lewis and Jane Austen.

Fifteen years ago, Leroux had just completed a master’s degree in biology and was preparing to work as a biologist when, he said, he was “called by Christ.” He was ordained and moved to Kazakhstan, one of the 21 countries where Heart’s Home has a presence. In 2005, he moved to the Bronx, where Heart’s Home’s New York branch was located before it migrated to St. Edward’s in 2008.

“We heard Mother Theresa telling us that New York City is a city most in need of compassion,” Leroux said. “The suffering here can be deeper than that in a very poor slum — it is the suffering of loneliness.”

Most of Leroux’s work occurs outside St. Edward, visiting homeless shelters, housing projects and nursing homes or traveling to pray over the elderly. He said the church closed partially because the parish could not pay for direly needed repairs — for three years, they had been forced  to hold mass in the basement — and partially because the 50 or so parishioners who would regularly attend service were not enough to sustain the church.

“I believe truly the bishop tries to do the best with factors we don’t control,” Leroux said. “With 50 people in the community you can’t make a living.”

Leroux glanced at his watch and announced he had to visit someone before the 12:15 mass. He grabbed a small ziploc bag containing a bottle of yellow liquid labeled “Oil of the Sick.” In an adjoining room, the table was set for lunch with simple white plates.

“The neighborhood has changed tremendously in three years,” Leroux said as he walked, noting an influx of Asian and white residents. He was going to visit a woman named Sixta Rivera, a 72-year-old Parkinson’s sufferer whose husband had died a few years ago. He arrived at the woman’s apartment complex and rang the buzzer.

“It’s Father Gonzague,” he said.

“What?” a voice responded.

“It’s the church,” Leroux said. The door opened.

Leroux greeted Rivera and an aide in Spanish, noting that her hand was shaking less than the previous time he had visited. He donned a white alb as Rivera settled into a yellow chair encased in plastic wrap.

Leroux began reading prayers in alternating English and Spanish, explaining that the oil was blessed by the Bishop and that Rivera was partaking of the suffering of Christ “to assure you that all your suffering, all your disease is not meaningless.”

Rivera gazed at him raptly as she listened. He touched the oil to her forehead, then did the same for her upturned palms- — she began to convulse violently, then subdued herself after a few seconds. Leroux finished his prayer, then begged his leave. Soon, he would need to lead mass. Rivera rose and accompanied him to the door.

“Muchos gracias, padre,” she murmured.

Front page photo: AP

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