by Patricia Thomas
On the occasion of the 160th anniversary of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, we are thankful for the blessings of the past and look forward to a bright future. As is customary at each commemorative event, the church history is revised and retold. It is a “work in progress.” The 160th anniversary will become a part of our shared and personal history. Future generations will read about this event, look at photographs or listen to stories of those who were here. May they be witness to the threads that run through our church history – faith, an ecumenical spirit, community spirit, a reverence for the past and a dedication to the growth of the church by clergy and parishioners.
1849 – 1959
St. Charles Borromeo, the sixth Catholic parish in Brooklyn, predated the formation of a separate Brooklyn diocese by four years. The original church first belonged to the Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church of Emmanuel. Located on the east side of Sidney Place, south of Livingston Street, it stood on the site of the present parish school. It had been built in 1842 and was purchased by Archbishop John Hughes of New York in 1849. After the purchase, the Episcopalian congregation built Grace Church on the corner of Grace Court and Hicks Street.
St. Charles parishioners worshipped in the building for 20 years until it was badly damaged by fire in March 1868. The first pastor was Rev. Charles Constantine Pise, D.D. He had been appointed by Archbishop Hughes. Father Pise was a poet, professor and the first American Catholic novelist and founder of popular Catholic literature in the United States. He was a well-known speaker across the country and the only Catholic chaplain of the U.S. Senate in its history. He had been nominated for this position by his friend Henry Clay. Father Pise, who loved church music, fostered a tradition of community outreach and held regular concerts and music festivals at St. Charles. In 1850, he founded a school in the church basement. The rectory at Sidney Place was purchased and the church was remodeled. He also started the St. Vincent de Paul Society to care for the needy of the parish.
The next pastor was Rev. Francis J. Freel, the former assistant of St. James Pro-Cathedral; Father Freel enlarged the rectory and purchased land to build a new church. After the March 1868 fire forced construction to begin, the present red Philadelphia brick edifice trimmed with Belleville stone, and in the English Gothic style, was built at a cost of $75,000, including property. It was dedicated on May 30, 1869, by the Rt. Reverend John Loughlin, Brooklyn’s first bishop. The architect was Patrick C. Keely who was recognized as the foremost architect of his day. He had built many churches and 20 cathedrals. St. Charles was his 328th church. The old church building was remodeled as the parish school. It was first staffed by the Sisters of Charity and lay teachers. Later the Franciscan Brothers from the monastery on Butler Street were in charge of the Boys’ Department.
In 1860, the organ maker J.H. and C.S. Odell installed in the church the Opus Number 178, a three-manual instrument of 35 stops. It was reputed to be the finest organ in Brooklyn. Other pastors are remembered for their contributions to the spiritual and physical growth of St. Charles. Rev. Thomas F. Ward, who became pastor in 1884, expanded the school. He also installed in the church stained glass windows of German and Bavarian art, enlarged the sanctuary and added depictions of the life of St. Charles Borromeo on wall frescos and one window. Rev. James E. Bobier became the pastor at the turn of the century and served for 20 years. He completed the installation of the stained glass windows. When fire destroyed the old school building, a new one was built for $125,000. It was dedicated on November 5, 1917.
Rev. Thomas J. O’Brien became the fifth pastor in 1918. In 1919, he shared in the celebration of the Golden Jubilee of the dedication of the church. He undertook a renovation of the church interior. The renovations were completely paid for by funds raised by the parishioners’ Campaign Committee. He also presided at the Diamond Jubilee on November 23, 1924, commemorating the founding of the parish. Contributions were made by parishioners to build a marble altar. The next three pastors were Very Rev. Francis J. Oechsler, Rev. Ambrose P. Dunnigan and Rev. John J. Robinson. Father Dunnigan began the first midday Mass in the diocese, supervised the planning and completion of a new rectory and established the Confraternity of Christisn Doctrine. Father Robinson initiated the introduction of the first kindergarten class at the parish school. Rev. Ambrose S. Aitken became pastor in 1941. Father Aitken renovated the school and established a residence for the convent next to the school. Prior to the new convent, the Sisters resided at the Community Convent on Congress Street. In 1942, Father Aitken, beginning preparations for the Parish Centennial, made improvements to the church such as painting, installing a new roof and a new approach to the front of the church and renovating the pews and kneeling benches.
1959 – present
After Father Aitken, the next three pastors were Rev. Charles E. Diviney, V.G. (1959-1978), Rev. Francis J. Murphy (1978-1989) and Rev. Charles A. Kraus (1989-2007). Msgr. Diviney translated the directives of Vatican II into meaningful changes for parishioners. A new altar facing the people was installed, English replaced Latin, and music changed. In 1966, the Odell organ was overhauled by the firm Louis F. Mohr and Co. In addition, there were renovations such as new pews, new air conditioning, improved lighting, resurfacing of the marble and terrazo floors, painting the interior and exterior of the church and repairing the steeple. Father Kraus presided over the 150th anniversary of the parish. In February, 2007, the school, at first staffed by the Sisters of Charity and the Franciscan Brothers but later by the Sisters of St. Joseph, closed due to a basement fire and low enrollment. After Father Kraus’ retirement, there was a brief stay by Rev. Msgr. Alfred LoPinto as administrator. A new pastor, Rev. Edward P. Doran, Ph.D, was appointed on October 1, 2008.