Divine Mercy Parish is a merger of three Catholic formerly parishes in the Williamsburg/Greenpoint neighborhoods. This parish was founded by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio in January of 2011. Whenever possible, the parish seeks to unify the diverse members of its community by offering a wide variety of activities in each of our three worship sites.
Following is a brief history of each church:
St. Nicholas Church
St. Nicholas Church the oldest of the three communities that comprises Divine Mercy Parish and was founded in 1866. In 1865 the Rev. Monsignor Michael May in 1861 had succeeded the venerable pioneer priest Rev. John Raffeiner as Rector of Most Holy Trinity Church on Montrose Ave. Rev. Msgr. May found it necessary to build a church for the German Catholics (about forty families) that had settled in the Old Bushwick Section in what is current day East Williamsburg. The community, founded by German speaking Catholics, were coming to the United States and settling in great numbers during the mid-nineteenth century. The decade of the 1850’s saw over 1 million German speaking people arrive on the shores of the United States. At that time, German was the second language of New York City. The activity of this educated and ambitious class of immigrants permanently changed the character of this area from a charming Dutch farming enclave of “Williamsburgh” to the urbanized and industrialized “Williamsburg” of the Germans.
The oldest building in Divine Mercy Parish is part of the St. Nicholas worship site. This is the St. Nicholas ‘old school building’ found on the corner of Olive and Powers. It was a multipurpose structure that served as the first church, rectory, convent and school. Eventually, the community outgrew the multi-purpose structure and it was realized that the community would have sufficient support to build a more worthy and lasting structure. The present Gothic Revival Church and adjoining rectory was designed by the well-known architect William Schiekel and constructed in 1886. In 1867 a community of the Third Order of Dominic religious sisters came to Williamsburg to take charge of instructing the girls in the parish school. During these early years the parish also hosted a community of cloistered sisters but after a few years, it was realized that their cloistered way of life was inadequate in addressing the needs of the flood of immigrants arriving in New York. And so their charism was changed from a contemplative to active ministry. The upper chapel above the sanctuary area of St. Nicholas Church is a reminder of the many Dominican Sisters that actively served this parish as teachers in the school up until very recently (2012).
During the 20th Century new waves of immigration changed the ethnic character of the neighborhood as Italians and Poles came to the area around St. Nicholas. During the 1950’s and 60’s Spanish speaking immigrants from Puerto Rico began to arrive followed by immigration from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Ecuador and many other countries from the Caribbean and Latin America.
St. Cecilia Church
St. Cecilia’s Church was founded in 1871 by the many Irish immigrants who settled in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It goes without saying that the Irish have had a lasting impact upon the character of the city and most especially the Catholic Church in New York City since their arrival in great numbers during the mid-19th century particularly after the years of the ‘Potato Famine’ (1845-1849). New York City still has the largest percentage of Irish of any city in America and five of the seven Bishops of Brooklyn have been of Irish decent.
The founding of the parish of St. Cecilia was made to the Diocese of Brooklyn at the request of several families in the neighborhood of the present church. Rev. John McDonald, Pastor, of Immaculate Conception on Leonard and Maujer Streets was named the first pastor. A house was purchased on Herbert Street, midway between North Henry and Monitor Streets. A shed on the premises was annexed to this modest dwelling and the combined buildings served as St. Cecilia’s earliest Church. Here the Holy Sacrifice was first offered on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th, 1870.
In November of 1871, Bishop Charles Loughlin, the First Bishop of Brooklyn, laid the corner stone of the first church building. During these early years the St. Cecilia’s Church was served by the priests of St. Mary’s on Maujer Street. In 1874, the first resident pastor, Rev. Florence McCarthy was assigned to St. Cecilia’s Church. Fr. Michael Malone became acting pastor of St. Cecilia’s in 1884 and continued in that capacity until November of 1888 when failing health necessitated his retirement.
Without a doubt the most consequential appointment of any priest to serve in the nearly 150 years of St. Cecilia’s existence was the appointment of Rev. Edward J. McGoldrick as pastor on November 9th, 1888. His bouant and strong personality saw to completion the present day Church of St. Cecilia which certainly numbers amongst the most distinguished of any church in Brooklyn—known as the Borough of Churches. Father McGoldrick hired the architect Thomas H. Poole who designed a church in the Romanesque Basilica style. The corner stone was laid by Bishop Charles Loughlin on September 27th, 1891 and the firm of Byrne and Perry were contracted to complete the structure. Of particular note is the white marble blocks used in construction of the main church and on the rectory. They are of Georgian Marble and it is believed that they were originally intended for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. As the color was not quite the right match—the material sat in a warehouse for many decades before Rev. McGoldrick obtained it for his construction. It is believed that the statues of Sts. Mary and Joseph which flank the main altar and the stained glass were designed by Joseph Siebel. Also worthy of mention is the main or high altar which is behind the present day Post Vatican II altar used on Sunday’s. It is constructed of Caen marble and extremely rare and expensive material that was considered highly experimental at the time of construction.
Over the years the church has welcomed many diverse ethnic groups and enjoys a large Spanish speaking community which reside principally in Cooper Houses.
St. Francis of Paola
St. Francis of the Paola is the ‘youngest’ of the churches that comprise Divine Mercy Parish. The parish was founded in 1918. Although the church is the most recent of the three in Divine Mercy Parish, the history of the land upon which it is built has the oldest documented history.
The Dutch first arrived in present day New York City in 1609. In 1640 Peter Stuyvesant, acting for the Dutch government, was appointed the first governor of the City of New Amsterdam—later called New York when the British took control in 1665. The area surrounding the present day church was considered the heart of Dutch Brooklyn. Peter Stuyvesant is said to have lived on present day Humboldt Street and he oversaw the construction of a wall to protect the Dutch colonists in the village from raids by local native Indians. Remnants of this wall were still standing on church property as recently as the 1920’s and the stones of Dutch structures—which included a wooden church—can still be found in the basement of 206 Skillman Avenue. On the site of the present day St. Francis of Paola Church, a small octagonal church was built on this site by the Dutch followed by a wooden church in 1840. This last structure was known as the ‘Church on the Hill’ by the local community. As the Dutch moved out of the neighborhood this last church fell into disuse.
In 1903 the Williamsburg Bridge was first opened. This joining of our neighborhood to Manhattan Island brought many Italian and Jewish immigrants who were formerly living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to our neighborhood. Their presence in Williamsburg is still felt to this day. At that time, the Lower East Side had the population density and sanitary conditions of Calcutta, India. People were desperate to leave. As the Italian population continued to explode (over 1 million Italians immigrated to the United States in 1906 alone!), it was recognized that the needs of this ever increasing Catholic population had to be addressed by the diocese.
In 1887 the parish of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel was founded, but that soon proved inadequate to the growing needs and the fact that the immigrant Italians were not welcomed in other ethic parishes (German, Irish, Polish, Lithuanian, Czech, etc.). The Second Bishop of Brooklyn Charles McDonnell saw the necessity of another Italian parish and in 1918 purchased the old Dutch “Church on the Hill,” which was then dedicated as an Italian National Parish. This meant that St. Francis of Paola had no specific parish boundaries like other churches. Rather, St. Francis would welcome Italian Catholics who wished to worship in their own language who were not welcome in other Catholic communities. Rev. Leo Arcese was named the first Pastor of St. Francis of Paola. Fr. Arcese also purchased a building on 25 Orient Avenue to serve as rectory and later as convent for the Franciscan Sisters who served and taught in the community. A larger Church was built in 1923 and dedicated by the Third Bishop of Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Molloy. Yet, even this structure was not adequate to the growing community so that finally a third structure—the church that stands today was built and dedicated on April 26th, 1942.