Historic Church That Once Faced Wreckers Ball Starts Celebrating 175th Anniversary

St. Brigid’s, an East Village Catholic Church that was built by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine in the mid-19th Century–and which the archdiocese had at one time slated to be torn down–instead marked the beginning of its 175th anniversary year on Sept. 10th.

| 12 Sep 2023 | 05:38

St. Brigid’s R.C. Church in the East Village laid the cornerstone of its building on Sept 10th, 1848 and this year used the occassion to kick off a gala year long celebration that will culminate in December 2024.

The church had at one time in 2001 been closed by the New York Archdiocese due to structural problems. In 2003, the Archdiocese filed an application to convert the building to apartments. Local civic and religious leaders rallied and filed lawsuits to save the church which was built by famine era Irish who worked in the nearby docks Today the congregation is largely made up of Hispanic immigrant families in a sign of the changing times.

The commeration Mass celebrating the laying of the cornerstone was a hybrid mass in English and Spanish. And now the Archdiocese, instead of trying to tear the building down, dispatched Bishop Edward Whalen, to celebrate the Mass.

The road back was a long one. By the time the wreckers ball was literally halted in its tracks by community activists in 2007 with an appeals court restraining order, the church had already been gutted and suffered structural damage to its rear wall when an adjacent school building was torn down.

“A bunch of us got the restraining order,” recalled Father Pat Moloney, a local activist who runs the nearby Bonitas House. “We literally stood in front of the wreckers ball,” he said.

It was not until 2008 when an anonymous donor, whose identify has never been revealed, forked over $20 million to save the church, that the church was offficially saved. But it would be several more years and millions of dollars in restoration work before the church could re-open.

“I’ve been coming here since I was seven years old,” recalled Migzalia Torres, who with her husband Edward Torres headed up a committee to save the church. “It was a real trauma for us, my husband and I,” she recalled of the mid-aughts.

And as she walked through the jam packed reception hall after the Mass, she said, “I’m estatic. I’m walking on clouds.”

Edward Torres said, “There were times when we almost lost hope, but I felt I could not live with myself if I did not at least try to save it.”

Today, the Archdiocese is firmly on board with the revival. St. Brigid’s has absorbed the nearby St. Emeric, which shut down, into its parish and is jointly administered by a pastor who also oversees Most Holy Redeemer.

A hybrid Mass, with Bishop Edward Whalen was celebrated in English and Spanish on Sept. 10. “My mother actually spoke Gaelic, but she didn’t want us to speak Gaelic,” he said. But now he speaks about ten languages and says, “I probably speak better Spanish than English.”

He said that the chalice, which is the sacred vessel that Catholics used to consecrate sacramental wine was nearly 160 years old. It had been given in 1864 to the school children at St. Brigid’s–which at the time had 1,400 students–by Archbishop John “Dagger” Hughes, who was the head of the diocese when it started building St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The children’s chalice, as it is known, was restored in time for the Sept. 10 mass this year celebrating the laying of the cornerstone. Alas, the school itself was closed by the Archdiocese several years ago due to dwindling enrollment.

During the English portion of a dual language homily, Bishop Whalen said, “It’s good we talk about the cornerstone. But it is important that we not just look back on the past. It’s important to recognize what the gift of faith means to the community today.”

Sometimes the past is hard to shake. During the infamous Tompkins Square riot, the pastor was arrested for crossing a police line to provide food to some of the protestors.

Joseph Malewich, a retired NYC Court officer who once ran the Busy Bee bike repair shop on East 5th St. was also on hand. “One of my cousins, Dermot McDermott was actually a pastor here in the 1970s,” he said. But his cousin, he said, left the order and ran off with a nun, he said. “He didn’t marry the nun though,” he said, but he did get married.

By coincidence, Malewich ran into the widow of the woman his second cousin did marry, Shukuko McDermott. “I’ve been coming here for 30 years,” she recalled. And she scolded Malewich for not coming to their wedding. “I didn’t know at the time,” he said. “Things were a bit strained.”

Father Francis McGourn, a weekend associate pastor has been with the parish for ten years. “I keep the dragons away,” he joked. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t seen one dragon.”

Father Sean Connolly is the current pastor of St. Brigid’s and Most Holy Redeemer, taking over about two years ago. Asked if could finally reveal the identity of the secret benefactor, he said, “Someone must know, but it was before my time.” He said after the celebratory mass at St. Brigid’s, he was going to be celebrating a more somber memorial on the 22nd anniversary of 9/11 the following day at the Most Holy Redeemer parish a short distance away.

“This was called the famine church when it was first built,” he recalled. “It was built by those fleeing their own country at the height the famine.

“Now the immigrants of today do the same,” said Father Connolly “We remember the past, but build for the future.”