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New Brighton, Staten Island
In the New Brighton section of Staten Island, ten minutes from the famous Staten Island Ferry, stands St. Peter's R.C. Church. The history of this 159 year-old parish stands as a testament to the growth of Catholicism in Staten Island, while the church itself conveys the great spiritual beauty of Gothic architecture.
Genesis of Catholicism in Staten Island
Before the establishment of St. Peter's in 1839, the Mass was not regularly celebrated on Staten Island. In fact, Catholics on the island had to travel to either St. Peter's in Manhattan or St. James's in Brooklyn if they wished to partake in the Mass on a regular basis. Bishop Hughes, after considering that the Catholic population on the island had grown to around100 people, decided that a parish should be established on Staten Island. Father Ildelfonso Medrano, an exiled Spaniard, was assigned by the bishop as St. Peter's first pastor on 1 April 1839. The Catholic population in Staten Island and the surrounding areas was so small that Father Medrano was responsible for the Catholics of Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, and Princeton, as well as Staten Island. The Spanish priest could only get to his various assignments on horseback. Father Medrano's first Mass for the parish of St. Peter's was celebrated in an abandoned gun factory, this setting though, was temporary. On 25 March 1844, the Church was completed, and mass was celebrated for the first time in the church on the Feast of the Annunciation during that year.
Growth of Catholicism on Staten Island
As St. Peter's grew, so did Catholicism on Staten Island. During the late 1840's, a quarantine hospital was built in Tompkinsville to house the thousands of Irish immigrants who contracted cholera on their way to America. Father Patrick Murphy, pastor of St. Peter's at the time, died from the same disease because he administered Last Rites to the many Catholics who died in this hospital. By 1856, the pastors of St. Peter's had directed the construction of a cemetery, a grammar school, and three other parishes in Staten Island. In the late 1890's, unfortunately, tragedy struck. The original church burned down, but the spirit of St. Peter's parishioners ensured that a new church would soon be built. By Thanksgiving Day of 1903, the new church was dedicated by Archbishop Farley. St. Peter's continues to lead the Catholics of Staten Island on their spiritual journey. The current pastor of St. Peter's, Msgr. James J. Dorney, is responsible for a grammar school, a high school, a cemetery, as well as the church itself. Staten Island currently has over 200,000 Catholics with about thirty-five parishes. It is amazing to think that this substantial Catholic population is the fruit of 100 Catholics who worshiped in an abandoned gun factory.
Of all the Roman Catholic churches on Staten Island, St. Peter's is the most beautiful. The church shows that gothic architecture is possible in an average sized church as well as in grand cathedrals.
St. Peter's exterior is impressive. Since it is built upon a hill, the church can be seen from quite a distance. Many sailors have used St. Peter's bell tower as a reference point when at sea. The crockets point towards heavens, each having a Celtic cross as their finial. The archivolts, jamb columns, and tracery of St. Peter's are all essential elements of Gothic architecture. To one degree or another, such elements are present in all Gothic churches. The bell tower, with a gold cross on top of it, serves as the church's highest point. The bell tower is reminiscent of the bell tower of the Houses of Parliament in London. The two side towers are quite small when compared to the towers of Chartres or other Gothic cathedrals. Still, these mini-towers are just another Gothic element of this local church. As a whole, the exterior of the church emanates a feeling of spiritual exultation. The sense of spiritual exultation is brought on by the fact that almost all of the exterior features of the church point up towards the heavens, reminding one of God.
The interior of the church is doted with artwork imported from Europe.
The stained glass windows were imported from Germany. They are exceptional works of art. The example illustrated here depicts the Visitation. Once can easily perceive the realism and color of this window. The angels above the window seem to be watching over those in prayer. The angels, combined with the windows, adds to the distinctively Gothic feeling of the church's interior.
The Stations of the Cross were made in France and are the church's most beautiful works of art, but at the same time, they are poor examples of Gothic art. Instead, they more closely resemble works of Renaissance art. The detail of each station, as well as the muscularity of each character, all point to the obvious Renaissance character of each station.
Janson, H.W. History of Art. New York: Prentice Hall, 1995. 307 - 388.
Pennington, Catherine. History of St. Peter's R.C. Church, New Brighton, Staten Island.
In Honor of the 150th Anniversary. Ed. Hamilton, Gertrude. [Staten Island] n.p, . n. pag.
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