Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Capuchins in Brooklyn

A record is cold. It doesn't tell the real story of sorrows and joys, of grace and repentance.

From the pen of a former pastor of St. Michael Parish, Brooklyn, undated


For this post, I am backtracking to Monday's class, a history lesson on St. Michael Parish. It is the church next door to the friary where I now reside, and for over a century it was in the custody of the Capuchins.

Fr. John Gallagher, a former pastor at St. Michael and also a former provincial minister for the Capuchins in New York and New England, gave us an overview of the founding and described how the friars assumed stewardship of the church. He also shared with us his portion of institutional memory of this particular Catholic community.

Like many U.S. Catholic churches in the mid-19th century, St. Michael was established to serve immigrants who fled Europe to escape from economic and political crises. This church, also like many others, was dedicated as a national church, meaning it would serve immigrants united by a common ethnicity, language, and culture.

From a commemorative book, published in 1985 on the 125th anniversary of the founding of St. Michael:

The melting pot that was New York City boasted numerous ethnic groups, each with its own geographical terrain clearly mapped out for the newcomers. But many of the reticent Germans found the city too crowded and noisy. Some went farther west; others looked to the east of New York City in order to fulfill their dreams of open space and a house of their own.

A simple frame church was dedicated on July 8, 1860, by the first bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, John Loughlin. The challenges of serving a rapidly growing immigrant community exhausted a succession of diocesan priests over the next 40 years.

The second bishop of Brooklyn, Most Rev. Charles McDonnell, petitioned the Capuchins, who maintained Our Lady of Sorrows Parish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and had many German-speaking friars in their number, to care for the parish. The province sent two friars immediately and voted later that year in the provincial chapter to accept the care of the community on a permanent basis.

Brother John chronicled the changes in the faith community and the parallel changes in the physical plant of the parish. German immigrants gave way to Italian immigrants. Raised by nickels and dimes and patterned after a Veronese basilica, a new, larger church building was dedicated on June 25, 1922. By 1928, English had become the vernacular of the parish. An elementary school, in operation from 1864, was augmented by a two-story building in 1910. Secondary school classes of various kinds met on the second floor over the years until a proper high school building was completed in 1956.

After the Second World War, the neighborhood of East New York took a new shape with the arrival of Puerto Rican immigrants and other Latin American nationals, including Dominicans and Ecuadoreans. African Americans also migrated into the community from the South. The economic decline of inner-city neighborhoods led to rising crime and drug-related violence. The St. Michael community was not unaffected. A Capuchin priest, Pancratius Krieg, was murdered on Feb. 3, 1976, at St. Michael Friary by intruders in the act of robbery. The high school closed and became a consolidated parochial school for St. Michael and the parish of St. Malachy (later the parishes, too, would merge); and the elementary school was converted into a parish center.

Through all the tumult, St. Michael continued to serve the community in ways both prophetic and pastoral.

On the prophetic side, St. Michael was a charter member of East Brooklyn Congregations, an ecumenical and interfaith organization of churches dedicated to grassroots organizing of their faith communities and neighborhoods for economic and social empowerment. At the height of its involvement in EBC, St. Michael could turn out 200 of its parishioners for rallies or mass meetings to demand accountability from elected officials, public servants like the police, and business and economic leaders. The church led the way in campaigns to improve public spaces like Highland Park, protect their communities from violent crime and drug trafficking, and build affordable housing. Through the EBC-initiated Nehemiah Plan, developers built thousands of "no-frills" homes in East New York, Brownsville, Bushwick, and Ocean Hill. The Nehemiah project has become a model nationwide for promoting home ownership and economic and community development.

On the pastoral side, the church was home to a variety of vibrant liturgical, educational, and social ministries. Many gifted leaders discovered their vocation in the parish. From the commemorative book:

St. Michael's has contributed more than its share of vocations. Over the years, the parish has seen more than twenty-five young men ordained to the Capuchin Order, more than half a dozen to the Diocese [of Brooklyn] or other religious orders, and more than fifty young women become sisters.

Some of these religious have returned "home" to serve the people of St. Michael's. From 1958 to 1973, the pastors of St. Michael's--Fr. Godfrey Leuchinger, Fr. Owen Shelley, and Fr. Ernest Reardon--were all former parishioners who had entered the Capuchin Order.

In June 1984, St. Michael's was honored with the celebration of the first Mass of Fr. Michael Marigliano. It was a true homecoming. Father Michael had lived opposite the church on Jerome Street before entering the Capuchin Order and had been active in many parish ministry. Another honor was bestowed on St. Michael's in June of 1984. Fr. Gregory Reisert, who as a boy had lived in the parish and attended its elementary school, was elected Provincial Minister of St. Mary's Province of the Capuchin Order. Fr. Philip Fabiano, then pastor of St. Michael's, was chosen as Vicar-Provincial Minister at the same time.

Also, for one year, 1945-46, St. Michael was blessed by the presence of the Venerable Solanus Casey, whose cause for sainthood is currently being promoted.


Of course, all things must change. Around 2004, the Province of St. Mary had to make the difficult decision to relinquish custody of two churches, one under its care for less than a generation, and the other for longer. So the province let go of a church in Manchester, N.H. St. Michael in Brooklyn was the other. The parish, now St. Michael-St. Malachy, is operated by the Religious Family of the Incarnate Word. There remains a parochial school, now called Salve Regina after the merger of neighboring schools, St. Rita and St. Sylvester, with St. Michael-St. Malachy. The church nowadays focuses much more on the cultivation of personal discipleship through its worship and social ministries, and much less on the kind of prophetic outreach it achieved in its heyday as a beacon and vanguard of the community.

While the Capuchins do mourn the loss of their once-robust presence in Brooklyn, they can certainly be proud of their century of service to the generations of immigrants who came in search of a place of their own, a stable community, and a future illuminated by faith in the Christ who promises to make a place for us with God the Father.


  1. I have great and fond memories of St, Michael's I lived on Warwick St. a block away. I would routinely greet Fr. Pancratius as he would walk by bringing Holy Communion to someone. I also knew Fr. Godfrey and Fr. Owen and went to school with Fr, Michael Marigliano. The church still looks great. There were having yearly concerts in the church during lent and I attended a couple of times. The school provided me with the best education and a respect for authority. Some of the greatest times! AL Pugliese Staten Island NY

  2. I grew up on Jerome Street between Jamaica and Arlington Avenues and went to Church at St. Michael's. I remember those times fondly as I lived in ENY from 1969 until 1993. My family has a long histroy in that neighborhood. I remember Father Philip Fabiano and Brother Andrew Kuhn quite well. I looked up Father Philip back in 2009 and corresponded with him via e-mail. He was at a church in Florida at the time but said his time at St. Michael's parish was his fondest memory. We had quite a community. I also remember Michael Mirigliano and actually played trumpet as his ordination. His was ordained with 7 other priests by Cardinal O'Connor at St. Patrick's cathedral if my memory serves me correctly. Also I played trumpet at St. Michael's 125th Anniversary and still have the booklets and pin. This brought back memories.