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Inside St. John the Baptist, Brooklyn’s ‘Castle Out of the Past’

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In “Castle out of the Past” Hannah McCarthy offers a gem of an overview of St. John the Baptist parish in “Bed-Stuy”. She writes…

St. John the Baptist is ghostly, towering moribund over a row of vinyl-sided apartment houses on Willoughby and Hart Streets. The 120-year-old granite edifice lies a stone’s throw from the Myrtle-Broadway stop in Bushwick — you can spot its cross-topped cupolas over Bed-Stuy’s roofs as the train pulls into the station. The Tablet called it “a castle out of the past.” And that was in 1968.

Now plywood boards cover the windows and heavy padlocks forbid access to the holy grounds. Bed-Stuy may have risen, fallen and risen again with the decades, but this monument to eternity has followed a straight trajectory of decay. I long presumed this specter dead and awaiting final judgment. Me of little faith. I had missed a pair of cheerful wooden signs staked into the lawn by a side entrance, “Spirit Driven, Gospel Livin’!” and the trickle of parishioners that passed through the rusty gate each Sunday morning. There is life in the old leviathan yet.

The Brooklyn Diocese erected the church for the thousands of Irish and Italian immigrants who poured into Bed-Stuy in the late 19th century — its pews could (and did) accommodate 1,200 parishioners at any one of the 12 Masses held in a typical week.

… Some excerpts from an in depth story…

Behind the boarded-up hull and rusting wrought iron, the Vincentian order is still in residence at St. John the Baptist. While the demand for marble and gold has diminished, the need for a bulwark in the community remains.

I meet Father Emmet Nolan in his small, bright office at the rear of the church.”

It’s not the aesthetics that concern the good priest. Over the past couple of decades, he explained, St. John’s has received more money from the Diocese than any other church in Brooklyn. When faced with spending that money to repair the beast of a building or put it toward food and clothing for a congregation in need, it’s no contest. “Our people are hungry,” he said. His obligation is first and foremost to his community. While the numbers in the pews have dwindled, those at the St. John’s

While the numbers in the pews have dwindled, those at the St. John’s Bread & Life Soup Kitchen on Lexington Ave., which was started by the church and is now under the jurisdiction of St. John’s University, are as high as ever. The largest emergency food provider in Brooklyn, the kitchen feeds thousands of people every day. But there are hundreds of other hungry men and women who work during the facility’s meal hours – for them, Father Nolan has purchased iPads which will be made available for ordering food from a digital pantry. He has also reopened an on-site thrift store for the community. This is where the efforts and money of St. John’s go. The corporeal needs of the people of Brooklyn are more important than those of the old church.

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“Castle out of the Past” is a “must read” for those familiar with this storied ministry of the Eastern Province.

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