Birth of a Parish
In the mid-nineteenth century the Catholic population of Brooklyn began to explode with the arrival of German and Irish immigrants. In 1853, Pope Pius IX separated all of Long Island from the Archdiocese of New York, and a new see was established in Brooklyn under the leadership of Bishop John Loughlin. St. James Church, the first Catholic Church on Long Island (1822) was designated as the bishop’s seat, the pro (temporary) cathedral.
Following the Civil War, a building boom ensued. The areas of Gowanus and Boerum Hill had been settled for decades, but now the farmland on the slope of Prospect Hill was divided into lots. A new park to rival New York’s Central Park was under construction and work on a great bridge linking the cities of Brooklyn and New York had begun. Settlement of the area which would become known as Park Slope progressed steadily.
A Church of Their Own
The Catholic residents wearied of traveling so far to worship at the churches of St. Joseph on Pacific Street, St. John on 21st Street, and St. Paul on Court Street. In 1867 a small group of Catholics canvassed the area with the hope of founding a new church. Since only 16 families could be counted on for support, the effort was abandoned. In 1870 a small group gathered in the home of Michael and Eleanor Bennett at 53 St. Mark’s Avenue (then Wyckoff Street) with Vicar General John Turner in attendance. Turner’s father was the renowned Peter Turner, a founder of St. James Church and a leading Catholic philanthropist. Subsequent meetings and $1,800 in pledges encouraged bishop Loughlin, and in May of that year he appointed the Reverend Louis J. Rhatigan, a 30-year-old native of County Longford, Ireland, as pastor of a new parish under the patronage of St. Augustine of Hippo, the 26th Catholic Church in the City of Brooklyn. The boundaries stretched from Nevins Street, east to 9th Avenue (now Prospect Park West), and from Atlantic Avenue, south to 9th Street.
Father Rhatigan leased a house at 43 Prospect Place (then Warren Street) as a temporary chapel and rectory. Eighteen people attended the initial Mass in the upper front room. Attendance increased rapidly, a chapel was set up in the main parlor, and the parish soon purchased lots along Fifth Avenue measuring 200 feet by 179 feet deep on Bergen Street and 100 feet deep on what is presently St. Mark’s Avenue.
Colonel Michael Bennett, who had labored unceasingly for the new parish, oversaw the groundbreaking for the church and rectory. A band of men led by Patric McCarty prepared the land while an energetic young architect named Thomas Houghton measured out the site. Houghton went on to design several fine Brooklyn churches, including the neighboring St. Agnes Church and St. Francis Xavier Church. Antoerh son-in-law of Keely’s, William Turner, designed the altars (The Keely Society). Whether Keely himself was involved is not documented. At the time he was working nearby on the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which would have been one of the nation’s largest churches had it been completed. The cornerstone of the new St. Augustine Church was laid on Sunday, November 4, 1870 by Vicar General John Turner. (Bishop Loughlin was perfuming a similar ceremony for Annunciation Parish in Williamsburg.) The building measured 40 by 90 feet. The cost for the land, rectory and church was $40,000. Patrick Carlin was the builder. The church was designed for easy conversion to a two-story school once the parish outgrew it. One the feast of St. Patrick, March 17, 1871, the first Mass was celebrated. Two days later, on the feast of St. Joseph, the church was dedicated.
This property was sold in 1888 to the Union Elevated Railway Company for $70,000. The parish had free use of it until the completion of the new church. The rectory remains at 7 St. Mark’s Avenue as a private residence. Interestingly, at least one of the altars has survived. The three were donated to a new parish on Long Island in 1897, St. John the evangelist in Center Moriches, and used for more than a century. Although the building has been demolished, the main altar was saved and reworked to serve the new church.
The Present Church
The City of Brooklyn announced plans for a new elevated trolley line for Fifth Avenue in 1881 and the parish began a petition drive against this project that would bring noise and dirt too close to the new church. (A neighbor recently found these signed petitions in a basement and donated them to the parish, a treasure trove of names of the early parish families.) The parish was quickly outgrowing the temporary church and with elegant brownstones rising further up the slope, the fashionable center of the parish was moving. Reverend Edward W. McCarty, who became the second pastor in 1876 following the death of Fr. Rhatigan, purchased new lots in 1886 along Sixth Avenue and on Sterling Place and Park Place within 200 feet of Rigney’s farm, a neighborhood landmark. Father (later Monsignor) McCarty was born at Bond and State Streets, just a block from what would be the boundary of his parish. Intent on building the finest church in the city, he announced an architectural contest in 1887 and invited the prominent firms from around the country to participate. The applicants were encouraged to depart from customary style and introduce as much novelty as good taste allowed. No prize was offered; the $300,000 budget – the largest ever for a church project in this city – was considered to be motivation enough. Ten entries were received from firms in Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia. The award was made to Parfitt Brothers, a Brooklyn based firm of English-born brothers; Albert, Water and Henry. Their decidedly novel design was described as fourteenth century English Gothic of the “transition order,” closer to the later, more “decorated period.” Within a year they entered the competition for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, submitting what was substantially a larger, more embellished version of their design for St. Augustine Church.
The cornerstone was laid on November 11, 1888, by Bishop Ludden of Syracuse. The silver trowel used, which had been presented by the Executive Committee of the Church Building Association, is kept in the church archives. The stone itself is a massive block of red Westerly granite with five polished faces bearing inscriptions. It weighs 2 ½ tons. The church was dedicated with great solemnity on May 15, 1892 by Bishop Charles McDonnell in his first public act as the newly consecrated Bishop of Brooklyn. The Apostolic Delegate to the United States, Msgr. Martinelli, presided at the Pontifical High Mass.
A magnificent pile in Gothic Revival, High Victorian style, the cruciform church opened to rave reviews. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle declared St. Augustine Church “one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the country,” and later, “one of Brooklyn’s most picturesque church.” The New York Times headline the day after the dedication declared St. Augustine: “Brooklyn’s Finest Church.” Its electric lighting, quite novel at the time, was cause for astonishment. The American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City (Harcourt Brace Publishing, 1988) says of the church:
Sixth Avenue is one of Park Slope’s grandest streets, block after block containing rows of amazingly preserved row housing. St. Augustine’s provides an oasis along the stately avenue, both spatially and in change of scale. The crusty tower with its mottled brownstone contrasts with the smoothness of the row housing. It is one of the most elaborate and architecturally distinguished Roman Catholic churches in Brooklyn which has as many Roman Catholic churches as Rome. Queen Victoria’s best awaits you within.
A Beloved Landmark
Often praised as the “Notre Dame” or “Cathedral” of Park Slope, the church is a beloved landmark in the neighborhood. Officially it is listed as “eligible” for landmark status. The destruction of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 gave new impetus to historic preservation efforts, and within a year of the establishment of Mayor Robert Wagner’s New York landmarks Preservation Commission, St. Augustine Church was among the first buildings in Brooklyn to be proposed as a landmark. At the time only a handful of churches in the city had been officially designated as such, and at a hearing of the Commission in City Hall on February 8, 1966, the Diocese of Brooklyn vigorously protested its designation, as well as that of other church-owned properties including the bishop’s residence at 241 Clinton Avenue, the former Charles Pratt House. Arguing that the law restricted the right of an owner to alter or demolish a designated landmark, the preservation of a building could conceivably impede the primary mission of the church. The Commission reserved decision. (The Daily News, February 2, 1966). The parish remains committed to the challenge of preserving its historic legacy and has begun an ambitious program of exterior restoration. It has applied for listing on the State and National Register of Historic Places.