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Church History

 

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The Old Church

 

Arial View of old church and grounds. c 1931At the turn of the last century, Southeast Brooklyn was served by two Catholic parishes, St Marks, founded in  1889, and St. Thomas Aquinas, 1891, years when our area looked more like Ohio than the Big Apple.  During the next thirty years there was enormous growth in Brooklyn and its Catholic Church.  By 1930, the Catholic population of Brooklyn exceeded a million.  As those wide-open spaces in this part of Brooklyn began to fill in with one and two-family homes, their owners wanted to go to Mass in their own neighborhoods insteas of traveling to Sheepshead Bay or Flatlands. 

Into this population boom came Bishop Thomas Molloy, third Bishop of Brooklyn.  He got right to work,  establishing his first parish, St. Edmund's, in 1922, quickly followed with Resurection.  1924, then  Mary Queen of Heaven and Our Lady Help of Christians, 1927.  When the latter was founded in April of that year, the news disappointed residents near Marine Park, hoping that their neighborhood - then still called "New Flatbush", South Flatbush", "South Flatlands", or "Sheepshead Bay" - would be the site of the next new parish. 

The Good Shepherd and His ChurchThey had to wait a few more months, however.  "The Roman Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd" was established on August 1st, 1927, with boundaries at Avenue U, Kings Highway, East 25th Street and East 35th Street.  Father James Rogers of St. Virgilius, Broad Channel, was appointed founding Pastor.  He said the first Parish Mass on Sunday, August 15th 1927, at the Community Hall at 2970 Nostrand Avunue at the intersection with Burnett Street.  The building became the Madison Jewish Center in 1931.

The first job for the new Pastor was to get his people out of the hall and into a new church.  He set an ambitious goal: Christmas Eve, 1927.  The contractor, Willfred-Stewart, Inc. offered to work at cost.  In his Sunday remarks, Dr Rogers told parishoners "we expect our first Mass at Midnight Mass", and a house-to-house connection would start.  In a remarkably short time he raised $56,000; the equivalent of over $2 million in today's dollars.  Two months and many hours of overtime later, the Church was ready.  In his December 18th remarks, the Pastor proudly announced, "I feel confident in saying that your Church will be one of the show Churches of the Diocese".  For the first Mass he insisted on two things:  ticket admission and no children, due to the large numbers expected.  Attendance did not disappoint; over 1,000 turned out,  although the church had seating capacity for only 780.

The Church was a white frame building, 125 by 60 ft., located on Batchelder Street, now site of the large schoolyard, with the main door facing distant Avenue S.  There was a large open yard where the current Church and Rectory now stand, with a statue of The Good Shepherd in the center - the same statue, moved closer to S, that still stands today.  Its design and setting were so attractive that nearby Vitagraph Movie Studios often used it as a backdrop when the script called for a scene with a "country church".  The Church had a basement hall seating 700 people.  Thus, when Good Shepherd School opened in September 1931, its first classes were held there in the pews, until when in December, the school building opened.  Over the next few years, this hall accommodated overflow students from the school; was the site for boxing matches, silent movies, and amateur theatricals; and served as an Election Day polling place.  In combination with the liturgical events upstairs, the little building became the center of Parish and neighborhood life.

On May 20th, 1939, parishioners saw smoke coming from the church, and dashed to the nearest fire alarm box.  Despite the apparently quick call, the blaze tore through the wooden structure spreading to three alarms.  Five firemen were overcome by smoke and were treated at the scene.  The origin of the fire was never definitivly established.  The 1940 Parish Yearbook stated, "two little boys whose sole thought was to light a candle to honor Mary in Heaven pulled over a lighted candle".  The Daily News offered a less exalted version: a disoriented, 42 year old woman with "tendencies toward pyromania" had started the fire in the Altar area.  Whatever the cause, the result was clear: the Church was irreparably damaged.  With the help of former U.S. Senator William Calder (whose company built many of the houses in the Parish)  the building was quickly comdemned.  Arrangements were hurriedly made to hold the next day's Sunday Mass schedule in the school building.  With this as a stopgap. Dr Rogers now knew that he would need to build a second Church for his still young parish.


 


The New Church

 

On January 1940, the Diocesan Building Committee approved the plans and budget submitted by Dr. Roger's chosen architect, Henry McGill, for a church building costing up to $145,000.  The general contractor was Hughes Construction.  Among the subcontracting contracts, plumbing went to Frank Walsh of 2913 Quentin Road, and to Bernard Hicks of Burnett Street (agent for Hackman Co. of Wisconsin) went the pew contract.  In March 1940, McGill, frustrated at delays, announced to the builders that the church had to be ready for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve of that year, allowing two hundred working days for construction.

The plan: to build a modern church with seating for 1,000.  The style: "Spanish Mission" harmonizing with the neighborhood and school with low elevations and a widespread floor area.  Most of the details sketched by the architect remain in place today.   The exterior was described as textured brick with a rough joint, giving the effect of stucco.  The interior finish consisted of acoustic plaster walls; rustic brick wainscot; tile Stations of the Cross; and tile fixtures in and around the sanctuary.  Provisions were made for two side altars, two shrines, four confessionals, and eight stained glass windows.  The six nave windows honored the Parish name with a shepherd theme.