By Jessica Easthope and Paula Katinas
It was a night of songs, laughter, and warm wishes as Futures in Education presented the “Spirit of Christmas Concert” at the new Emmaus Center on Monday.
The concert, featuring performances by Grammy-nominated contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Matt Maher and famed tenor Danny Rodriguez, marked the grand debut of the Emmaus Center as a prime venue for arts and culture for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“Merry almost Christmas! Are you having a good Advent so far?” Maher asked as he stood on stage with his guitar and his backup band. He performed songs from his album, “The Advent of Christmas.”
Rodriguez set the mood initially, combining the renewal of a hometown landmark with musical classics of the season. He began with a powerful rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”
Another performer, tenor Christopher Macchio, held the audience spellbound with a show-stopping version of “Ave Maria.”
There was also time for laughter. At one point, actor Dan Roebuck reached into his pocket to pull out a piece of paper. Out came a metaphorical lump of coal. “I’ve been in Brooklyn all of three hours and I got a ticket!” he announced.
Officially dedicated in June, the 600-seat Emmaus Center is housed in the historic Williamsburg Opera House, a majestic performance space built in 1897. The center, located above Saints Peter and Paul Church, also contains an art gallery and a space for receptions.
“This is a big night for us. It’s the start of hopefully big things,” said Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, diocesan vicar for development and chairman of the board of the Emmaus Center.
A theme of Christmas generosity was implicit in the role of Futures in Education, a non-profit organization supporting students in Catholic schools of Brooklyn and Queens. Funds raised at the concert will help provide financial aid.
Lauren McCormack, director of Mission Advancement for Futures in Education, said the concert raised over $100,000.
Actor Anthony Mangano, who served as master of ceremonies, told The Tablet in an interview that the best thing about the event is the debut of the Emmaus Center as an important arts venue for the Diocese of Brooklyn.
“We’ll be able to go there and see things on an ongoing basis,” he said prior to the gala event. “Concerts and all sorts of things can be done there, which I think is really amazing. You never really had anything like that,” said Mangano, who hosted the Emmy Award-winning series “City of Churches” on NET-TV. He recalled advising that performance planning always focuses on Carnegie Hall: “You don’t have to do that anymore because we have our own place.”
Craig Tubiolo, the center’s executive director, said he is hoping to present a cornucopia of arts events, including live theater, films, concerts, talks by artists, and art exhibitions.
Roebuck, the host of “Classic” on NET-TV, said opening a performing arts center in Williamsburg, a trendy neighborhood with a vibrant arts scene, was a good step in evangelization.
“The diocese is extraordinarily smart to understand that reaching people in a different way, through the arts, is important,” Roebuck told The Tablet before the concert. “It’s the same Jesus. But you’re giving people a different way in. Going into a neighborhood filled with artists is brilliant.”
Bishop Robert Brennan touched on the same theme in his welcoming remarks onstage. “You go where the people are. And in Brooklyn, we know where the people are!” he said.
The performance center owes its name to Luke 24:13-35. In that passage, two disciples on the road to Emmaus grieved the death of Jesus. Then, a stranger walked up and reminded them how the crucifixion fulfilled a prophecy. The disciples later realized the stranger was the resurrected Christ.
Renovation of the ornate building — which had fallen into disrepair in the early 2000s — began in 2016. That work stretched into this year.
Then-Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who joined Bishop Brennan in the concert audience, had called the renovation a “monumental task.” Upon its recent completion, he proclaimed, “It is most beautiful, and certainly worthy of God.”