Friday, December 7, 2012

The Remains of St. John the Baptist

Brooklyn is a large city, home to 2.5 million people. For most of my life, I've been one of them. Despite living in the borough for decades, when I look at a subway map I realize how little of it I know.

Most of my friends and family come from Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. These are the neighborhoods in which we played, we ate, we drank, and we felt comfortable. In the summer there was Coney Island, and when we wanted a steak there was Peter Luger’s in Williamsburg. Other than that, we didn’t have much of a reason to visit other neighborhoods. What did I know of Greenpoint, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach, Ditmas Park, Cypress Hills, or any number of other areas? Little to nothing, and I expect those living in these neighborhoods know little of mine.

On a recent Saturday, a friend and I took the subway to areas we’d never before visited to do some exploring. We started in Ridgewood, which lies in both Brooklyn and Queens.  We had no particular destination; we spent the day zigzagging, walking down streets that appealed to us or toward a distant building that caught our attention. The walk brought us to Bushwick and then to Bed-Stuy: all around us were places that would not make it onto any tourist’s destination guide, yet they were unique points of interests in their own right.

We passed the elegant and sculpture-laden former Bushwick Theater; originally a Vaudeville venue, the building is now a high school. Further along we saw a firehouse with ‘BFD’ -- Brooklyn Fire Department -- inscribed above the entranceway, indicating the pre-1898 days when Brooklyn was still an independent city and before the BFD became part of the NYFD. Countless aged churches and elegant brownstones lined our trek: architectural treasures built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as architectural nightmares built in the second half of the 1900s.

As we walked along Broadway, a structure down Hart street caught our eye. Though we had already seen plenty of churches, we were attracted to this one in particular because of its massive stonework and squat size. We later learned that a long, open field had once led to the building. Today, however, this space is filled with dozens of low-rise homes. While the path leading to the church must have been truly majestic in its day, what remains is nonetheless impressive in its own desolate way.

As we looked upwards, we saw a large rose window. Now boarded up, as are the other windows, the colorful stained-glass is hidden. Birds roosted in the upper reaches. Fences and barbed wire now encircle the church, keeping trespassers at bay. We learned that this structure is St. John the Baptist Church, and the adjoining buildings were once a part of the College of St. John. One entire city block, bounded by Hart, Willoughby, Lewis and Stuyvesant, comprised the college and the church. As we circled the block, we learned that although the building has fallen into disrepair, the parish still survives and serves the community.  

The College of St. John was founded just after the Civil War, and construction on the church began shortly afterwards. The architect for the project, Patrick Charles Keely, was well-known and extraordinarily prolific in his day, designing more than 700 cathedrals, churches, convents, schools and other buildings. Many of his works remain intact and can be found elsewhere in Brooklyn. The commissions for the stained glass, paintings, and sculptures were also given to preeminent artists of the era.

The College of St. John provided a higher education factility in Brooklyn from the second half of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. In the 1950s, the decision was made to seek more bucolic surroundings, and the institution moved to a sprawling new campus in Queens. With the move also came a name change: the college became St. John's University.

At one time, St. John the Baptist Church and parish towered over the neighboring row-houses and brownstones. Today, it is mostly hidden by taller public housing structures, and can easily be overlooked and camouflaged in this environment. It is unfortunate that such an outstanding example of religious architecture now merely survives as a ruin. A true church, though, is not only a building; it is a congregation of the faithful. Thankfully, the parish that served as the foundation of a great university continues to live on here in the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

--Tommy Coca


1 comment:

tom marcson said...

Well, since St. John's has been buying up property/colleges all over the world, why won't they consider reacquiring some of these buildings. They build the new Bread and Life Center around the corner. The mission of Vincentians is to go into neighborhoods such as this and provide services for those who need it, why buy property in Oakdale, Rome, Paris, even Manhattan, but not even consider trying to salvage their roots and recommit themselves to their mission?