Before the first Catholic church was built in Brooklyn more than 200 years ago, residents who wanted to attend mass had to board a ferry and travel to Manhattan.
There were no bridges connecting the two shores of the East River. Brooklyn was just a village, still municipally part of Long Island, which had no established Catholic church to call its own.
Weary of the commute, and seeking a more spiritual connection of their own, Long Island residents broke ground on what would years later be the Cathedral Basilica of St. James, the cradle of Catholic Christianity for two dioceses and 388 parishes.
“The same Holy Spirit 200 years ago inspired a generation of people to want to build up the church,” said the Most Reverend Robert Brennan, Bishop of Brooklyn Diocese. “The same Holy Spirit works in the hearts of men and women today.”
Brennan will be the principal speaker at a special mass on Sunday to commemorate the 200th anniversary of St. James, the first Catholic church to be built on all of Long Island.
Back then, in 1822, Long Island consisted of Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk counties. Although all the counties are still physically part of the same island, Brooklyn and Queens have since been consolidated as part of New York City.
The Brooklyn church was constructed in response to the request of 70 laymen who petitioned the New York Archdiocese for a parish in the village.
“In the first place, we want our children instructed in the principles of Holy Religion,” Peter Turner wrote in a letter on behalf of the laymen. “We want more convenience in hearing the Word of God ourselves. In fact, we want a Church, a Pastor, and a place of Interment.”
A memorial bust of Turner, who died in 1863, sits on a pedestal in the St. James churchyard.
The Rev. Bryan Patterson, St James’ current rector, said he has always been inspired by the church’s history.
“It wasn’t a group of priests,” Patterson said about the original church petitioners. “It was regular people who decided they wanted their own church and to raise their children in the faith and a place to bury their people. They needed to have a safe place to celebrate the faith.”
From there, other churches began to pop up, first in Jamaica, then in Hempstead, until Catholics were celebrating mass and receiving communion way out in Montauk.
“Somebody had to be the first,” Patterson said.
In 1853, Long Island established its own diocese in Brooklyn, and continued to expand. More than 100 years later, in 1957, the Diocese or Rockville Center was established, splitting off from Brooklyn and Queens.
The grand cathedral that stands today at Jay St. and Cathedral Place was built in 1903 to replace the parish church which was severely damaged by a series of fires.
Among the highlights of the church was an unscheduled stop there in 1979 by Pope John Paul II during his first visit to the U.S.
The pontiff’s motorcade stopped in front of the cathedral, and he got out of his car to greet the crowd.
Legend has it that the steady rain briefly stopped during the pope’s five-minute visit.
The quick stop is told in greater detail in a new documentary, “The Story of the Cathedral Basilica of St. James,” that will premiere on NET-TV on Sunday at 5 p.m.
“This church has seen a lot of things,” said Patterson, who was ordained at St. James. “Even the parish was part of the Underground Railroad. This space and this church and this community have seen the development of New York from an agricultural society to where we are now.”