Saint Brigid's Roman Catholic Church

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Saint Brigid's Roman Catholic Church

Coordinates: 40°43′31″N 73°58′51″W / 40.72528°N 73.98083°W / 40.72528; -73.98083

St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church, or St. Brigid's, or Famine Church, is a church located on 123 Avenue B and East Seventh Street, on the eastern edge of Tompkins Square Park in the Alphabet City section of the East Village of Manhattan. Associated with the church is the parish school. Saint Brigid School consisting of grades Pre-K thru 8, has been in existence since 1856.

The church is named after St. Brigid, the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle, chicken farmers, children whose parents are not married, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, Ireland, mariners, midwives, nuns, poets, printing presses, scholars and travellers. Like the neighborhood it serves, Saint Brigid's Church has had a colorful and tumultuous history since its beginnings in 1848.


The architect of the church was Patrick Keely, who handcarved the gothic reredos himself. Building was begun in 1848 by Irish shipwrights for those fleeing the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849).

St. Brigid's and the East Village

Throughout its history, St. Brigid's opened its doors to people who were more accustomed to having them shut in their new city. Beginning with its construction by Irish immigrants, the church accepted whoever showed up in its pews, even as the East Village changed from German to Irish to Puerto Rican to whoever landed on its doorsteps, in whatever shape. A special feature of the New York Times in 1901, mentioned the church among other Catholic structures in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, describing the group "for the most part...limit themseves to the functions of a parish church, in districts where social needs are otherwise supplied." Clarifying that the upper church was Irish and the basement used by Italians. In addition, the Sisters of Charity had a convent next door to the church, and there was an attached parochial school.

Fr. Mooney and Bull Run

The second pastor of the church, the Reverend Thomas Mooney, also served as pastor to the nearby 69th New York State Militia. Upon its formation in 1851 it was called the 2nd Regiment of Irish Volunteers, a citizen-militia made up of Irish-Catholic diaspora from the Great Irish Famine. In 1860, Michael Corcoran, Colonel of the 69th, refused to parade them past the Prince of Wales to protest the British response to the famine.

Fr. Mooney travelled with the 69th to Virginia and was beloved by the men for his spirit and sagacious counsel. Fr.Mooney held daily Masses for the regiment and served as confessor for the largely Catholic regiment. The regimental choir was headed by Capt. Maxwell O'Sullivan, formerly the choirmaster at St. Brigid's church. Mooney was lauded for his establishment of a temperance society and for encouraging many wayward souls to return to the Faith.

Father Mooney was recalled by New York Archbishop John "Dagger" Hughes in response to Mooney's baptism of a 64 lb. Columbiad cannon. Archbishop Hughes later suggested that Mooney was recalled after climbing the flagstaff of Fort Corcoran. Mooney was in the process of straightening an American flag that became stuck during a flag raising ceremony.

Mooney's return was much bemoaned by the men of the regiment, but Mooney was warmly welcomed on his return to the city by 4,000 parishioners assembled in Tompkins Square. When the 69th returned to New York following the Bull Run Campaign, Mooney marched at the head of the regiment. On August 14th, 1861 a Requiem Mass was held for the men of the 69th NYSM who had been killed in action. The St. Brigid's choir sang Mozart's Requiem during the service. Fr. Mooney was conspicuously present at all future Irish Brigade functions and was much beloved by the men who survived to remember him.

Fr. Kuhn and the riots

During the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Police Riot the church allowed homeless advocates and protesters of the police action to mobilize under its roof.

A year later when a shanty town in the park was dismantled, church pastor Rev. George Kuhn led a group of parishioners taking food to protesters and homeless people holed up in an abandoned school on East Fourth Street. Father Kuhn was arrested when he defied orders to not cross a police line to deliver the food, saying, "I'm working under orders, too. The order I have is to feed the hungry, and that comes from a higher authority."

In the 1990s the school was ailing: attendance had plummeted from 200 students to 74 in two years, teachers fell from nine to five.

Father Kuhn, who was the church's pastor at the time, attributed it to local poverty. However others in the community reported as the cause anger by some local parents at Father Kuhn because in a dispute over direction and control of the parish school he fired the popular principal, Maureen Delaney, and three teachers in the middle of the school year.

In 1995 a spokeswoman for the Schools of the Archdiocese of New York stated, "The Cardinal believes very much in the school. We are all operating on the premise that St. Brigid will be with us for a while."

In 2005, a partnership between the school and St. John's University started. As of 2010, the school enrolls about 120 students.

Closing and reprieve

The church's main building closed in 2001 because of a crack in the structure. Mass was then held in the adjoining school while the parishioners ralled to raise money to save the church.

In September 2003 the Archdiocese of New York filed with the city an application to convert the church into apartments, but an archdiocese spokesperson said was only protecting its options. In September 2004 the Archdiocese disbanded the parish. The announcement of St. Brigid's closing with only two weeks notice was handled by the vicar general, rather than Cardinal Egan, and without taking questions. In 2006 they began to demolish the church, stating, "It's a hazard. It could have literally fallen over at any point in time,".

At that time the spokesperson for the Archdiocese further insisted the property would not be turned into condominiums or apartments, a fate that befell nearby St. Ann's Church (on East Twelfth Street), which was converted into a dormitory for New York University. The church claims there is no interest in selling the property. "It will be used for some other form of ministry, whether for educational or charitable or healthcare purposes, possibly senior housing," said a spokesperson for the archdiocese.

Criticism of Archdiocese

Some criticized the Archdiocese for what New York Times columnist Dan Barry called its "tone-deaf" handling of parishioner and community concern.

On August 24, 2006, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Barbara Kapnick extended an order staying the demolition of the church.

Destroyed artifact

On July 26, 2006, Judge Barbara Kapnick declined to halt demolition plans, but asked lawyers on both sides to appear in her courtroom to hear arguments on the building's ownership. Before those arguments were to take place, a demolition crew arrived and demolished the stained glass windows and remaining pews, knocked an eight-foot hole into one wall and erected scaffolding.

The seven, 25-foot-tall, painted, stained-glass windows depicted Jesus’ life and bore the names of victims of the Great Irish Famine and benefactors of the church. Community leaders mobilized that afternoon, among them St. Brigid's parishioner and City Councilmember Rosie Mendez, then-Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, State Senator Martin Connor, and Assemblywoman Sylvia Friedman.

They made statements denouncing the demolition and accusing the Archdiocese of greed during an overheated real estate market. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese said the demolition had nothing to do with money, again pointing out that there are no designs to sell the property. He also stated that there are no definitive plans for the property yet.


Earlier in 2006, Justice Kapnick ruled against the Committee to Save St. Brigid's (CSSB) and allowed plans for demolition to proceed. In June, the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division upheld that decision.

Then in August Kapnick agreed to hear a separate suit in which the CSSB asserted that ownership and right to demolish are invalid due to the lack of a five-person board of trustees (including two parishioners) governing the church as required by New York law. The archdiocese said it convened such a board, in a single meeting on July 18, where it agreed on demolition. The archdiocese also pointed out that the city did not question the church's ownership when they filed the building permits for demolition.

Anonymous donation revives parish

On May 22, 2008 the Archdiocese of New York announced it had received an “unexpected but very welcome gift” of $20 million from an anonymous donor after a private meeting with Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the archbishop of New York. The gift includes $10 million to restore the building itself; $2 million to establish an endowment for the parish “so that it might best meet the religious and spiritual needs of the people living in the community”; and $8 million to support St. Brigid’s School and other Catholic schools in need.

Cardinal Egan further said in a statement: “This magnificent gift will make it possible for Saint Brigid’s Church to be fittingly restored with its significant structural problems properly addressed. The two additional gifts, to create an endowment for the parish and to support the parish school, are a powerful testament to the donor’s goodness and understanding. He has my heartfelt gratitude, as I recently told him at a meeting in my residence.”


Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that a precise date for reopening the parish had not been set. “We obviously need to talk to priests in the area. It’s also going to take some time to restore the building. This is something that’s going to take months, at the very least, if not a couple of years. We can’t really tell yet. We’ve got architects who are starting to develop plans. Then we’re going to have to hire construction firms to do the work. There are significant structural problems that need to be repaired.”

Building Activity

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