A Brief History
The story of the first Italian parish to be established in Brooklyn, the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, began 125 years ago. It is but one parish, yet its saga says much about the wider experience of Italians in New York. Just as important, this story is also emblematic of the experience of so many immigrants, both then, and today.
The Catholic Mission of the Italian Colony of the City of Brooklyn was formally begun in the year 1882 under the title of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary by Fr. Joseph Fransioli. This mission was the first Roman Catholic parish community established specifically for Italian immigrants in the Diocese of Brooklyn, which comprised the whole of Long Island, including the counties of Kings, Queens, Nassau and Suffolk. Sacred Hearts was established as a national parish that served neighborhood parishioners but also welcomed all Italians. Initially, the new Italian parish occupied space belonging to St. Peter’s church, at the corner of Warren and Hicks Streets.
In order to be closer to the center of the Italian Community a new building for Sacred Hearts Parish opened in May 1885 on President Street off of Van Brunt Street. During the time on President Street Mother Cabrini came to work at the parish of Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. Recognizing a need to educate the Italian immigrant children, Mother Cabrini and her sisters established a school in the parish in 1892, which was placed under the direction of her order. Brooklyn’s Bishop McDonnell bought a former church building to be used as the school on Van Brunt Street from the Moravian church. It was named the St. Charles School.
By 1900 the number of Italian immigrants living in the vicinity of the President Street church was the largest single concentration of Italians in the country. Convinced of the need for a larger church, Father Vogel found property on Degraw and Hicks Streets to build a new larger church. Upon completion of the new church, Father Vogel felt it necessary to keep the prior church building at President Street open to serve the community as a chapel for the parish under the title of Saint Charles Chapel. In 1921, a new pastor of Sacred Hearts, Monsignor Alfonso Arcese, realized a larger school was required to meet the demand of the thousands of local Italian children. The Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary School opened its doors under the direction of Mother Cabrini’s order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, in September 1922.
To make room for what would become known as the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), the Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary was to be demolished. On the morning of December 7, 1941 a final Mass was celebrated at Sacred Hearts of Jesus & Mary Church, followed by a grand procession of the parish’s Italian Societies, the statues of their patron saints held aloft, on their shoulders, to their new home at St. Stephen’s Church. As Italian immigrants and their children gained a better life through education and economic opportunities, many left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey and other, more upscale Brooklyn neighborhoods. Today, those Italian-Americans who remained in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood form the foundation of the Sacred Hearts-St. Stephen parish community, while hundreds of others still flock to the parish from outlying areas on special occasions returning to the place where it all began for the Italian Catholics of Brooklyn.