By Emily Drooby and Bill Miller
WILLIAMSBURG — Members of Saints Peter and Paul Parish on Tuesday, June 29, packed their new 550-seat church in a historic building to witness the consecration of its altar by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
It was the first dedication of a new church in the Diocese of Brooklyn since 2008.
The joyous event included Mass and the blessing of the new arts center, also housed in the building, which was built in 1897. Called the Emmaus Center, it retains an upstairs 600-seat theater that will now become a new performing arts center of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Bishop DiMarzio said the new church is intended to be a new beacon in the neighborhood, drawing people who seek God.
He commended the congregation for enduring the five years since the diocese shuttered the former church building a few blocks away and then leased the property to help finance the renovation of the building at Berry and 3rd Streets.
“This would not have happened had we not leased the land under the old church and the parking space,” the bishop said in his homily. “But look at what we have in exchange — something much more beautiful than we ever had.”
Now, pieces of the old parish building were carefully woven into the new church, including icons and its original crucifix, refurbished.
A Perfect Time
Mass was said in English and Spanish because many of the parishioners are immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico who settled with their U.S.-born families in low-income areas of Williamsburg.
Included was Felix Genao, a longtime parishioner, who expressed his joy moments before the Mass.
“A beautiful church,” he exclaimed. “We were happy before, but very happy now. Now many people will come.”
A few aisles closer to the altar, Genao’s niece, Marisela Raez, marveled at how the renovated building could allow doubling the size of the parish. She first brought her two sons to the parish nearly 30 years ago.
Raez said that the night before the dedication, she could not sleep.
“I’m so excited, I don’t even know how to put it into words,” she said. “But I think this came to be open at a perfect time with all that has been happening, and with COVID.”
A New Chapter of Outreach
In 1844, an Irish priest, Father Sylvester Malone, planned the parish’s first church building on Wythe Avenue. Completed in 1847, Saints Peter and Paul Parish’s new church was the third in Kings County, according to parish history records. Meanwhile, the diocese acquired the building, known as the Henry McCaddin Hall, and used part of it as a school until 2002.
By the late 1950s, the old church needed renovations, but a fire sealed its fate, and the parish demolished it. A few years later the congregation was worshiping in a provisional church on South Second Street.
Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Octavio Cisneros attended Tuesday’s dedication and shared a special recollection of his best friend, Msgr. Augustin Ruiz, who was the parish’s pastor in the early 1970s.
Bishop Cisneros, a native of Cuba, said he had just been ordained, and Father Ruiz of Spain — not yet a monsignor — befriended him. He said he loved to visit Williamsburg, but sometimes it was scary; more than once he had to dodge bullets as gang members shot at on each other.
Still, he said, Msgr. Ruiz and priests from nearby parishes became “giants” for social justice in the neighborhood, often partnering with Jewish clergy to help the poor.
“This was a very poor area,” Bishop Cisneros recalled. “There was a lot of struggle, with a lot of pain and suffering, but they did a lot for the community.”
In 2007, Saints Peter and Paul Parish merged with Epiphany Church. But within a decade, the parish still struggled to be self-sufficient. The diocese, at the recommendation of Msgr. Anthony Hernandez, then the parish administrator, devised a plan to move the congregation to the old McCaddin Hall, but also renovate the building as an arts center for the diocese.
Msgr. Hernandez attended the Mass Tuesday, seated next to the parish’s current administrator, Father Jason Espinal.
“Today is a very important day for Saints Peter and Paul Epiphany Parish and the Diocese of Brooklyn,” Msgr. Hernandez said. “With the inauguration of this new church and center, this parish, which has existed since before the Civil War, will begin a new chapter of outreach and evangelization to the people of Williamsburg, as well as to the people of Brooklyn and Queens.”
‘I Am Counting On You’
Father Espinal explained that because the building “was never a worship site” it had to be officially dedicated as a new church, with the consecration of a new altar.
The last time a new church was opened in the Diocese of Brooklyn was in 2008 at Our Lady of Snows in the Floral Park section of Queens, Father Espinal said. According to information from the diocese, the last church renovated and re-dedicated was in 2014 — the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights.
Bishop DiMarzio performed the consecration rituals, oil of chrism on its walls, and on the altar, just like the altars of sacrifice were in the days of the Old Testament. Also blessed were the pulpit, the tabernacle, and the baptistry. Next, incense was shared at the altar and down the aisles.
Bishop DiMarzio said that Father Espinal has a big job, but parishioners can help.
“I am counting on you to pray for him and with him for the success of this place,” he said.
“There is so much evangelization to take place here, so many new people, so many strangers, so many people who do not have any roots or home,” he added. “We reach out to others who need us: those who are already Catholics; those other Christians; those who know not the faith and need to encounter Jesus Christ.
“You are His disciples. Do your best and God will do the rest.”