Along Ocean Parkway, a major thoroughfare in Brooklyn, New York, just past the entrance to the Belt Parkway, stands a small Roman Catholic Church dedicated to the Guardian Angels. It is the sole Roman Catholic Church in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and, since 1880, has proudly reflected the community that it serves. It is a small parish, but one alive in ethnic diversity and full of God’s Holy Spirit. If the Brooklyn Diocese is a Microcosm of the world, as our retired Bishop Thomas V. Daily claims, then Guardian Angel Roman Catholic Church is a pure microcosm of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
In the 1800’s among the major developers of New York City was George Tilyou. Mr. Tilyou developed ingenious ways of attracting tourist to the beachfront areas of the outer borough of Brooklyn. Although he was Protestant, he was exceptionally generous to the Roman Catholics in the area and it was through the generosity of Tilyou and others like the Blamer, Kramer, and Ward families that the first roots of Catholicism were established in the Brighton Beach area.
In 1870, Saint Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Parish was established to serve the vast area and the growing Catholic population around Ocean Parkway. By 1880, due to the large influx of Catholics in the area, Bishop John Loughlin assigned Father James McKiverkin to establish a new parish encompassing all the settlements along the ocean and the territory to the north, back to the boundary of Saint Rose of Lima on Parkville Avenue. On July 18, 1880, Bishop Loughlin came to Brighton Beach to preside at the dedication of the original Guardian Angel Church. That structure now serves as the Parish Hall. Until the church was actually built, a dance hall on West 3rd Street and Park Place was used for the celebration of the Eucharist.
While he remained in full-time ministry at Saint Rose of Lima, Father McKiverkin ministered to the parishioners of what would eventually become Guardian Angel Parish as we now know it. In 1844, Father Henry 0’Loughlin was appointed by the Bishop to minister sacramentally to the people of Guardian Angel.
He never resided in Brighton Beach, but instead lived and ministered full-time at the Parish of Saint Mary, Star of the Sea in Cobble Hill (Red Hook), Brooklyn. It is uncertain, but it is believed that the parish rectory was established by Father 0′ Loughlin around 1885. Father 0′ Loughlin died in 1887. Upon his death, the Catholic population of Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay was established as two separate missions, again under the pastoral care of Saint Rose Lima.
In 1888, Father John Heffernan was assigned to the Brighton Beach/Sheepshead Bay area. He provided pastoral care for the people of Guardian Angel. In 1891 Father Matthias Farrelly came as the first full-time resident pastor of Guardian Angel. It is difficult to determine exactly when Guardian Angel was establishment as a separate parish from Saint Mark in Sheepshead Bay. Services and staff were shared in those days freely (as the Brooklyn Diocese hopes to do again with the establishment of the Office of Cluster Planning by Bishop Daily during his tenure as Bishop of Brooklyn).
In 1893, Father John J. Cullen began a long term as pastor of Guardian Angel which lasted until 1918. He was known for his financial acumen and it is said that he wiped out a debt of $10,000 at the inception of his pastorate. It was deemed necessary to build a larger church due to the increased Catholic population of the area. Father Cullen began a building campaign that was severely affected by the creation of Ss. Simon and Jude Parish (Gravesend) in 1897 and Our Lady of Solace Parish (Coney Island) in 1901.
The creation of these two parishes drastically reduced the Roman Catholic population of Guardian Angel to no more than a few hundred people. It is ironic that first the Diocese curtailed the growth of Guardian Angel at the turn of the 20th Century, and then big business curtailed the growth and expansion of the parish in the 1960’s with the construction of the Trump family developments in the area, consequently taking over more than half of the territory of Guardian Angel Parish.
The present church’s cornerstone was dedicated by bishop McDonnell on December 1, 1900 and on August 5, 1905 he solemnly dedicated the new parish church. (A celebration Mass of Thanksgiving for the 100th anniversary of the completed Church was pre-sided by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio on October 9, 2005.) If one were to study the original schema of the architect, one would see the plan for twin spires on the church and a church surrounded by much open park-like space with not a building in sight. The total cost of the construction of Guardian Angel church was $65,000 and the tiny community only had $3,000 on arrears at the time of the dedication.
The property on which Guardian Angel Church is built was leased to the Diocese by W.J. Engemann, a large property developer in those days. The church edifice is 125 feet long and 65 feet wide, with a height of 75 feet. By all estimations, we can assume that Father Cullen intended a large church with the twin towers soon to follow. The towers were intended to reach about 175 feet in height. As previously stated, they were never completed but one can see the inner walls for those towers in the current church structure above the side entrances of the church. A magnificent rose window was created for Guardian Angel Church but was destroyed by severe weather conditions in 1950 and replaced with the lovely, if slightly less imposing, rose window of today.
The building material for the church is a combination of red and gray brick with decorative highlights in terra cotta. The three alters in the church, the confessionals, and the pews are constructed from antique quartered oak. The stained glass windows are products of the Josef Mayer studios in Munich at an original cost of $500 each. Today, these windows are considered to be works of art and are valued at over $25,000 per window. Each small piece of glass is pure crystal and is difficult, if not impossible to replace. The Stations of the cross which consisted of life sized figures were imported from Munich, Germany. In 1971, they were replaced by the current stations and were restored in 2000. Especially noteworthy were the crystal chandeliers from Vienna. Those chandeliers were replaced at some later date.
The original organ was replaced by a Jardine organ in 1921 and subsequently replaced by a Rodgers electronic organ in 1973. This was replaced in 2002 by yet another Rodgers organ. The murals in the church were commissioned in 1981 to the Jean-Charles Charuest firm of Montreal and designed by Jean-Louis Quiviger. A Local firm, Jack Loconsolo, painted and decorated the church under the direction of Mr. Quiviger. John Breglia was given the task of creating the triptychs in the church and the life sized murals that adorn the vestibule walls. All of the murals were restored in 2000. (One of the murals on the church ceiling was replaced in 2005 with a new one entitled “The Angels Over Brighton Beach”).
Another Montreal firm, Decoration Andrea, produced the new main altar. In 2000, D’Ambrosio Ecclesiastical Art Studios completely restored the church and produced the lectern and the first baptismal font ever in Guardian Angel. The new main altar, lectern and baptismal font actually contain the beautiful oak filigree taken from the altar rail which was removed during the restoration project in 2000.
Anthony Properzio was the architect for that project. It should also be noted that the Durhan studios created the stained glass windows that are now in the vestibule. The crystal chandeliers were cleaned and refitted with new light bulbs as part of the restoration project. Monte Brothers, Inc. installed a new sound system in the church. Air conditioning and accessibility for persons with disabilities were furnished by G & E Mechanical Corporation. Guardian Angel Church was solemnly rededicated by Bishop Thomas V. Daily on November 5, 2000. The Parish Hall’s basement was restored in 2000 by Mario Neziri, who in 2001 began the restoration of the rectory.
The church bell is 200 years old and resides in its own gazebo, guarded by a guardian angel. It is now located in a garden on the property adjoining the rectory. The relocation and restoration of the bell was completed in 2001 by Verdin, Inc. Continuing with restorative projects, Mario Neziri revamped the Parish Hall in 2005 to provide an updated kitchen and additional classroom space. Also in 2005,
Gargiulo Brothers installed new church doors including a beautiful stained glass transom above the center door depicting Guardian Angels. Perhaps due to the small geographic size of Guardian Angel, no parochial school was ever established.
The religious education of children was originally under the auspices of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Brentwood who were living at Saint Brendan’s Parish in Midwood, Brooklyn. The program is currently staffed by a dedicated group of laypersons
Ethnically, the original population of Guardian Angel was Irish. Many Italian immigrants had also come to the area and became long time parishioners. Over the years, the ethnic makeup of the area has drastically changed. At the moment, it is primarily Russian while Judaism is the predominant religion. Our Catholic population is currently 35% Hispanic and 15% Polish with Irish, Italian, Filipino and Indian peoples constituting the remaining percentage. It should be noted that the first Mass celebrated in Spanish at Guardian Angel was in 1973; the first Mass in Polish was in 1992; the first Mass in Tagalog (for the Filipino community) was on January 14, 1996; and the first mass in Malayalam (for the Indian community) was on February 25, 1996. What makes Guardian Angel such an active parish is the unique ethnic diversity of its faith community. The parish has always enjoyed a fine relationship with the Jewish population of Brighton Beach, originally fostered by the work of Father Thomas Kelly and others.
Under the guidance of Monsignor Perfecto Vazquez, the parish has actively reached out in dialogue with the growing Russian and Islamic population. One of the annual highlights of the parish is the celebration of “International Night” in the parish Hall, in which parishioners share food and cultural traditions from their many lands. Currently, the parish is staffed by a pastor born in Spain, a parochial vicar born in Poland, and an Italian-American deacon. From the inception of the parish, the lives if the fine pastors of Guardian Angel Church have been an inspiration to its parishioners and the Diocese.
Monsignor Perfecto Vazquez, was appointed as pastor in 1993 by Bishop Daily after serving with dist
inction as pastor of two other Brooklyn parishes: Visitation (Red Hook) and Saint Agnes (Carroll Gardens/Gowanus/Cobble Hill). There are two former pastors of Guardian Angel who are in retirement. Father Thomas Kelly was pastor from 1970 to 1988 and now resides at Our Lady of Angels, Bay Ridge and actively ministers there.
Father Joseph Keane, formerly a distinguished member of the faculty of Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, served as pastor from 1988 to 1993 and currently resides in Florida. Notable also were the distinguished parochial vicars of Guardian Angel and the dedicated men and women who have served in lay ministry.
To our knowledge, the parish has only produced two vocations to the priesthood and religious life: Father Leonard Villa, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, and Sr. Mary Loretta, SV (Linda Graffeo), a member of the congregation of the Sisters of Life. Thy Guardian Angel Parish is not only alive but also thriving in the year 2005.
A group of our diversified lay community initiated the parish in the process of Stewardship Enhancement in the spring of this year. Guardian Angel is one of the most ethnically diverse parishes in the Brooklyn Diocese with its recent immigrants continuing to give life to the parish community. Certainly, the Guardian Angels of the Lord are watching over this small church in Brighton Beach as it continues to be a source of spiritual and sacramental life today and in the future.
See a list of our previous pastors and administrators here.