By Bill Miller and Jessica Easthope
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A few days after becoming pastor and rector of the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in June 2019, Father Bryan Patterson noticed something odd about the historic church. He had been in DUMBO running errands; his evening stroll back to the parish came after sundown. But as he approached the campus at Jay Street and Cathedral Place, the basilica itself was anything but glorious.
“I noticed there were no lights on any of the buildings, except for two lights in the front,” Father Patterson said. “The two lights made it look like a police precinct.”
Comparisons to a haunted house also crossed his mind — not the image of a parish famously known as the “Mother Church” because it was the first Roman Catholic place of worship on Long Island.
“It bothered me that there was no light in the tower,” Father Patterson said. “I think that part of the issue is that I was ordained here. That’s when I realized, yeah, we’ve got to do something.”
Mission accomplished. On Nov. 29, passersby — and especially parishioners living nearby — beheld a renewed nightly glow beaming from a set of large LED lights in the tower.
They appeared just in time for Christmas, and to add an exclamation point on a bicentennial; St. James Parish celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2022.
A timer activates the globes each night to illuminate the neighborhood and surrounding skyscrapers, beckoning all to come worship God.
Parishioners are ecstatic. Many who had attended for more than 20 years could not remember ever seeing lights from the tower. Among them is Beatrice DiCostanzo, a lector who has attended St. James since 2016.
“I think it’s a beautiful addition to our church,” she said. “It’s a beacon of light. It’s Christ shining in the darkness. I don’t recall this ever being lit before. I know it brings me a lot of joy. Hopefully, it brings others joy, too. Lord knows we need our joy.”
Camille Ferdinand is a eucharistic minister and parishioner of 25 years who lives on the top floor of an apartment building across the street.
“Right away, I took pictures, and I started sending them out,” said Ferdinand about her first time seeing the lights on Nov. 29. “I think it’s wonderful with the season of Advent and Christmas upon us. It’s an amazing miracle.”
St. James was the first Catholic church built on Long Island in 1822. Previously, Catholics in Brooklyn took the ferry to Manhattan for Mass. It became a cathedral in 1853 with the creation of the Diocese of Brooklyn. A cemetery was also built there. But a fire in 1903 damaged the building beyond repair, so it was replaced with the current building, now nearly 120 years old.
Throughout its history as a cathedral, it has also been known as the “Bishop’s Church.” Father Patterson said that proper lighting from the tower would help honor that legacy.
The pastor said providing lights proved to be a challenge for him.
“There were other things in the church that I was able to fix by myself, with my own two hands,” he said. “But this [the lights] just evaded me. I don’t know that much about electrical fixtures, and the voltages, and current regulation, and all that.”
He decided to call AMC Electrical Inc. of Brooklyn, who had everything working by the end of the day.
Father Patterson added that the new lights added momentum to improvements at the cathedral that began during the run-up to the bicentennial. Now he hopes to add interior paint, brickwork, and even more lighting to the façade and the tower’s exterior.
“There is a statue of St. James up there that I don’t think anybody ever sees, other than pigeons,” he said.
Ultimately, all these efforts are not just to improve the cathedral’s appearance but to glorify the Creator, Father Patterson said.
“My intention in all of this,” he explained, “was to echo what Jesus has said, that you are the light of the world and that a city on a hill cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14).
“And then He instructed us not to put a light under a bushel basket, but to let it shine, that all might see our light, and our good works, and give glory to God.
“And the same life-giving spirit that Jesus has given to us, we can now share with others.”
Deacon Ron Rizzuto, pastoral associate and business manager, has been at the parish for a decade. He joins Father Patterson and the parishioners in hoping the shining tower would be a new tool for evangelization.
“That is exactly what the hope is — that it will draw more people here,” he said. “Downtown Brooklyn and DUMBO have lots of people, and they keep building more buildings for them to live in. And I believe that many of them are Catholic, but they haven’t come to church.
“And so maybe that light will say, ‘Oh, look what’s here.’ We’ve already gotten a few new parishioners through that.”