St. Michael and St. Edward Church: A Cornerstone of Fort Greene

St. Michael and St. Edward Church nestled between two trees








For weeks, I had been orbiting the perimeter of the impending demolition of the Church of St. Michael and St. Edward, a once revered church in the heart of Fort Greene, like a moth drawn to a flame. The neighborhood, a patchwork of tight project housing, seemed indifferent to the fate of this historic edifice. The intel I had received suggested that entry was as simple as scaling a wooden fence, yet the timing had never felt right. Until one day, it did.

With a mission in New Jersey looming, I knew it was now or never. The demolition was advancing at a startling pace, the church's twin steeples already reduced to rubble. The skeletal remains of timber beams and rusted steel frames peeked out from the ruins, a testament to the relentless march of progress.

Summoning a surge of courage, I seized a moment of quiet in the bustling housing project and vaulted over the fence. My heart pounded in my chest as I slipped unnoticed into the church grounds. The once grand entrance now stood as a gateway to a scene of destruction. The air inside was thick with the damp, musty scent of decay, a cocktail of centuries-old wood and dust. Debris littered the floor, remnants of a once vibrant place of worship.

As I set up my tripod and adjusted my camera settings, a distant speaker tone echoed from outside. I dismissed it, too engrossed in capturing the scene before me. The adrenaline coursing through my veins was a potent mix of fear and exhilaration. I was trespassing on sacred ground, documenting the final moments of a historic church in a neighborhood that seemed to have forgotten its value.

The voice from the speaker grew louder, warning of police intervention. I knew the property was under constant live video surveillance, but I also knew the police were unlikely to prioritize a lone trespasser in a soon-to-be-demolished church. This was a neighborhood where the destruction of a century-old church for affordable housing was met with apathy, its historical and societal significance long forgotten.

The church's former congregants, their voices of protest muted or absent, had moved on to the Mary of Nazareth Parish due to diocese consolidation. The rich tapestry of the church's history was being erased, its stories destined to be lost in the rubble.

Inside, the church had been stripped to its bare bones. The intricate plasterwork and decorations that once adorned the interior were gone, leaving only the bare brick and framing. A gaping hole punctured the decorative dome, a brutal testament to the demolition crew's efficiency.

Despite the loss, I continued to document the scene, capturing the church in its final moments. As I made my exit, I snapped a few exterior shots before blending back into the thrum of the city, my mission accomplished. I had successfully documented the demise of one of Fort Greene's most historic churches, a poignant reminder of the relentless march of progress and the fragility of our shared history.




center cross adorned church door framed by gate


large opaque church paneled window pane



intricate church rectory entrance with numbered cornerstone



History


The Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael and St. Edward, originally christened as the Church of St. Edward the Confessor, has a rich history that is deeply intertwined with the fabric of Brooklyn. Established in 1891, it was the 60th Catholic parish in Brooklyn, serving as a spiritual home for the predominantly Irish and Irish-American working-class families in the area. These were the people who toiled in the local factories, producing everything from shoes to wagons, dyeing silk, and crafting furniture.


The church was the brainchild of Bishop John Loughlin, the first bishop of Brooklyn, who appointed Rev. James F. Mealia of St. James pro-Cathedral to oversee its creation. The church was to be built on a plot at the corner of Canton and Divisions Streets, now known as St. Edward Street and Leo Place, named after Pope Leo III. Rev. Mealia, a New Jersey native, was a seasoned clergyman who had the unique distinction of serving under Brooklyn's only three Catholic bishops - Bishop Loughlin, Bishop Charles E. McDonnell, and Bishop Thomas E. Molloy.


The church's cornerstone was laid on September 13, 1891, by Bishop Loughlin, and by December 8th, the basement was opened and the first Mass was celebrated. The neighborhood was poor, and it took Rev. Mealia 15 more years to raise the funds to complete the church. The church was built in stages, starting with the basement, which was made functional as a place of worship while construction continued. This was a common practice for many churches, and the 14-foot ceilings in the space made it feel more like a first floor than a cellar.


In 1906, the church and rectory were finally completed and dedicated. The Romanesque-style church, constructed of gray brick trimmed with terra cotta, could originally seat 1000 persons. In 1942, St. Michael's and St. Edward's churches were combined to serve the residents of the new Fort Greene Housing Project, now Ingersoll Houses, and the congregation was renamed St. Michael–St. Edward Church.


As the 20th century wore on, this part of Fort Greene fell on hard times, a situation exacerbated by the Depression. The advent of World War II saw the area transformed into housing for the families of factory workers employed in the defense industries at the nearby Navy Yard. The tenements and remaining factories were torn down to make way for the Navy Yard Houses, a 38-acre complex of 35 buildings. Only St. Edwards Church and the Brooklyn Public Library - Walt Whitman branch survived, with only the latter still in use by the community today.


In 2008, the congregation merged with Sacred Heart Church. The Diocese of Brooklyn closed the church in 2010 due to a combination of falling parishioner contributions, inadequate repairs, and a dwindling congregation. The church's interior was falling apart, causing debris to fall onto the main church floor area. This led to services being held in the basement chapel for three years, a poignant echo of the church's early days. The parish eventually merged with the nearby Mary of Nazareth Parish as part of a citywide cost-saving consolidation by the church diocese.


After being vacant since 2010, the building was sold for $72.87 million to Westhab in November 2022. The sale marked the end of an era for the Church of St. Michael and St. Edward, a once vibrant spiritual hub that had borne witness to the ebb and flow of life in Fort Greene for over a century.





intricate gray terra cotta church tower spire closeup



Abatement of tower church spires





Architecture


The Church of St. Michael and St. Edward, a gray brick and terra cotta edifice, stands as a testament to the architectural prowess of John J. Deery. Deery, a name synonymous with St. Veronica’s Roman Catholic Church in Greenwich Village and several churches in Philadelphia, also left his mark on Brooklyn. His portfolio includes not just St. Edwards, but an entire block of storefront flats on 7th Avenue, nestled between 1st and 2nd Street in Park Slope. This block, a stone's throw from PS 321, is home to the infamous, time-worn flats building on the corner of 2nd St.


This church, a product of the late 19th century, was born during a time of rapid urbanization in Brooklyn. It served as a beacon for a community largely composed of Irish immigrants, a Catholic parish church that stood tall amidst the changing cityscape. The architectural language of the Church of St. Michael and St. Edward is a remarkable blend of Gothic Revival and Romanesque styles, a nod to both European ecclesiastical traditions and the American architectural zeitgeist of the time. Its cruciform plan, intricate stone detailing, and breathtaking stained-glass windows are a testament to this fusion.



intricate inlaid terra cotta flowering details in church brickwork








The Church of St. Michael and St. Edward is a masterclass in the Gothic Revival style, punctuated with Romanesque features. Gothic Revival, a favorite for religious buildings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is known for its pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses. These elements create a vertical emphasis, a visual journey that guides the eye heavenwards. In this church, you can see these features in the arches that frame the windows and doors and the tall, pointed steeple. The Romanesque influences are evident in the rounded arches and robust masonry, a combination that creates an imposing yet intricate structure, a testament to the craftsmanship and attention to detail of its time. The church’s exterior, with its two towering spires capped with conical roofs adorned with spiked finials, massive arches at the main and side entrances, a rusticated stone-faced base, and vast sheets of pictorial stained glass, is a sight to behold. The attached rectory building, with its gray brick and terra cotta detailing, is a more restrained echo of the church, with matching details like smaller finials along the roofline.


A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from September 13, 1891, titled “Another New Edifice: The Cornerstone of St. Edward’s Church to be Laid Today,” provides a glimpse into the initial construction. The article describes the church as a Romanesque structure, unique in design and handsome in construction. The nave and transept form a Greek cross with apsidal terminations at the front and the chancel end. The basement story, with its nearly fourteen feet high ceiling, is accessible through entrances at the bases of the twin circular towers that flank the front of the building. These towers, standing well back of the front elevation due to the triangular formation of the plot, rise to a height of about eighty feet. The center of the building is dominated by a tall, handsome tower, or “lantern,” that rises on huge steel pillars forming the nave square, to a height of nearly one hundred and twenty feet. The exterior, regardless of the vantage point, presents a handsome appearance. The upper walls, likely to be brick with terra cotta trimmings, would bring the estimated cost of the completed edifice to around $60,000.



Hawk laying down on top of church cross surveying





American Master Organ


The silent organ of St. Michael and St. Edward Church holds a mystery that whispers through its unplayed keys. It is believed to have been crafted by the American Master Organ Company, a clue etched into the low C pipe of the Great 8' Tuba, which bears the stamp "5½ Tiba. 376 5 F R White, Voicer." This signature points to Frank Ross White, a theatre organist who once filled the Century and Vitagraph Theatres in New York with music. White was not just an organist, but also the President of the American Master Organ Company, a venture that was incorporated in the waning months of 1914, with a factory nestled in Warsaw, N.Y.


However, the company's melody was short-lived. After a mere year of operation, it was reorganized and relocated to Paterson, N.J. Despite these efforts, the company could not strike a chord with profitability and was declared bankrupt in 1917. The organ, once a symbol of the company's craftsmanship, now stands as a silent testament to its history.


Yet, the fate of the organ and its pipes remains shrouded in mystery. No news article or statement from the Brooklyn diocese has shed light on whether the organ was saved, scrapped, or sold off for its metal value. It remains a silent enigma, its music lost to time, its story waiting to be told.



A Unique Altar






demolished church altar foundation



In 1972, a unique transformation took place within the walls of the St. Michael / Edward Church. Artists Carol Dykeman O’Connor and Robert Zacharian breathed new life into the remnants of the recently dismantled El train that once ran along Myrtle Avenue, just a stone's throw from the church. The Navy Street station, a familiar sight around the corner, was now a part of the church in a way no one could have imagined.


The altar, a centerpiece of the church, was now a testament to New York City's transit history. Crafted from the steel girders of the Myrtle Avenue El, which had ceased service on October 3, 1969, the altar was a fusion of faith and urban life. Dykeman ingeniously inverted and spliced together the corners of two arches, their adjoined support beams reaching upwards to cradle a tabletop. The metal structure alone tipped the scales at nine hundred pounds. It took a makeshift crane and a team of church boys to maneuver it into place. Zacharian, on the other hand, designed the 600-pound maple butcher block top. This altar, a symbol of a higher power, served the church for 38 years before its doors were closed to all parishioners in 2010. The altar was then moved to the Diocese Brooklyn warehouse for safekeeping and storage.


The Brooklyn Diocese’s East New York warehouse now serves as the resting place for this altar, a long-forgotten piece of patrimony. When a Catholic Church closes, the diocese salvages all manner of religious ornaments, fixtures, crucifixes, candelabras, pictures, and images of the pope for future use. Yet, the whereabouts of the front-facing Mary statue and the stained glass religious scenery remain a mystery, their stories lost in the annals of the church's history.



Myrtle Avenue El





Old Myrtle Avenue El Line From Elevated Street Track





The Myrtle Avenue Elevated line, affectionately dubbed the "Myrtle El," was more than just a transportation route in Brooklyn. It was a lifeline, a steel artery pulsating with the rhythm of the city, born in the throes of the late 19th century's urbanization and industrialization fervor. Like its elevated brethren, the Myrtle El was a vital conduit, threading together the diverse neighborhoods of Brooklyn with the pulsing heart of New York City's economic hubs.


The Myrtle El was an integral part of the Brooklyn tapestry, a steel thread weaving through residential enclaves like Fort Greene and into the bustling commercial and industrial districts. It was famed for its "summer cars," these open-air chariots were a beloved feature, offering riders a breath of fresh air during the sweltering city summers. Yet, as the tides of time-shifted towards automotive transportation and ridership dwindled, the Myrtle El began its gradual descent into oblivion. Piece by piece, from the 1940s onwards, the line was dismantled, with the final section bowing out in the late 1960s.


Today, the ghost of Myrtle El lingers. Its skeletal remains are etched into the cityscape, a silent testament to its former glory. The most tangible echo of its existence can be found perched atop the Broadway-Myrtle station, where the M train converges with the J and Z down Broadway. Here, the metal ribs of the old line jut out defiantly, a block away from the subway station down Myrtle Avenue.


The Swingin’ Sixties and the Fab Fifties were witness to a gradual decline in the NYC transit system, following a ridership zenith in the 1940s. The system spiraled into a state of disrepair, with conditions worsening and crime rates escalating. It was as if the city had turned its back on mass transit, with more elevated lines being decommissioned and no new subway lines rising from their ashes. By 1969, all of Manhattan’s grand elevated trunk lines, the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 9th Avenue els, had vanished into the annals of history.


The past of Myrtle Avenue El is still visible, etched into the city's fabric. It's there in the way the train line once gracefully skirted the church on its journey toward Downtown Brooklyn, offering passengers a fleeting glimpse of the sacred amidst the urban hustle. The Myrtle El may be gone, but its echoes still resonate in the heart of Brooklyn, a ghost train riding the rails of memory.


You can see the vintage Brooklyn Library collection of the church here.



Demolition



Supertall Brooklyn Tower in background whilst partial demolished church in foreground




This was my first time bearing witness to the full lifecycle of demolition in my hometown, a process as fascinating as it was heartbreaking. I had scouted the church before the arrival of the green wood boards, those harbingers of the impending demolition, alerted by a news article of its sale, its lack of landmark status, and the conspicuous absence of community outcry.


I was there when the asbestos cleanup crews descended, their white suits stark against the aged brickwork. I watched as the glass was carefully extracted from the round window frames, leaving empty eye sockets staring blankly out at a changing world. I was there when the towers were methodically dismantled, chewed down to the roofline by the relentless jaws of progress.


I bore witness to the church's slow descent into oblivion, documenting each stage as the workers methodically sorted the red bricks that once formed the pillars of this sacred place. The century-old timber, once a part of the church's very soul, was neatly stacked in a corner of the property, awaiting its fate at the hands of the highest bidder.


The demolition was a meticulous process, a careful dissection that laid bare the bones of a once-vibrant place of worship. It was a poignant reminder of the relentless march of time, the inevitability of change, and the transient nature of even our most cherished structures. The church may be gone, but its memory lives on, etched into the very fabric of our community.







 

Halfway demolished center dome of church interior










Interior demolition of main church sanctuary



It's Future


In the wake of the church's departure, the future of the property is already being written. Housing plans are on the horizon, with whispers of luxury apartments echoing through the community. The architect firm at the helm, Aufgang Architects, is no stranger to such developments, their reputation for high-end projects preceding them.


Preliminary plans suggest that the new development will not turn its back on the community. A space for communal activities is included in the blueprint, a nod to the site's past as a gathering place. The new building will rise next to the Stonewall House, the nation's largest LGBTQ+ designated senior housing development, a beacon of inclusivity in our ever-evolving city.


The proposed development will stand 115 feet tall, a new landmark on the city's skyline. It will yield 32,133 square feet, with a generous 30,859 square feet earmarked for residential space and 1,274 square feet set aside for community facility space. The building will house 105 residences, each averaging a cozy 293 square feet.


Constructed from concrete, the structure will also feature a cellar, a nod to the city's architectural traditions. However, there will be no accessory parking, a decision that reflects the city's shift towards more sustainable modes of transportation.


As the dust settles on the church's demolition, the future is already taking shape. The new development promises to be a blend of luxury and community spirit, a testament to the city's ability to honor its past while embracing the future.





Tree shaded pathway leading to Ingersoll Houses from St Edward Church









Sources:

1. Bld Up, "Vacant Brooklyn Church Building Sells for $72.87M", November 15, 2022, Bld Up

2. Spellen, Suzanne, "Building of the Day: 108 St. Edwards Street", February 4, 2014,  Brownstoner

3. Levy, Kayla, "Historic Church Faces Teardown Under Housing Plan: Permit", Patch

4. Krebs, Eric, "Before This Brooklyn Church Altar Elevated Spirits, It Elevated Trains", August 4, 2022, Hell Gate NYC

5. Hughes, C.J., "Fort Greene may get 105-unit homeless shelter", November 10, 2022, Crain's New York

6. Londono, Vanessa, "Permits Filed For 108 St Edwards Street In Fort Greene, Brooklyn", December 6, 2021, New York Yimby

7. Craighan, Lore, "Brooklyn's loveliest Church", August 12, 2019, Brooklyn Eagle

8. Church of St. Michael–St. Edward, NYC Organ Project List

9. Kennedy, Randy, "TUNNEL VISION; Millions Ride the Subway. Only a Few Dare to Hide It", September 23, 2003, New York Times

10. Green, Matt, "Church of St. Michael and St. Edward", Flickr

11. "Withering Myrtle. The Last Days of the Myrtle Avenue El", December 9, 2007, Forgotten NY

12.  Bishop At Rites For Father Mealia. (1941, July 9). The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Page 9. [URL]

13. Rev. James F. Mealia Dies; Oldest Priest in Diocese. (1941, July 7). The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Page 11. [URL]

14. White, Jeremy, "Brooklyn's Fading Catholic Churches", May 23, 2011. The Brooklyn Ink


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