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Down Memory Lane

St. John the Baptist Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, NY, founded before the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, is the mother church of the diocesan seminary, a university, and one of the city’s largest food distributing charities. No wonder Bishop Sanchez, on the recent occasion of the 150th Anniversary of St. John the Baptist Parish, highlighted some of the parish’s impressive history.

St. John’s, circa 1870

In the Spring of 1868, Vincentian Father Edward M. Smith, C.M., was sent by his superiors to Brooklyn to open a new parish. It became the religious home for the thousands of Irish and Italian immigrants who poured into Bed-Stuy in the late 19th century.

Who would have dreamed what was to come?

Addressing One Need Led to Another

With the establishment of a place of worship came the realization of a need for educating young Catholic immigrants. The multiplication of parishes led to an awareness of the need for priests who would serve them. So the major seminary for the Diocese was founded there in 1889. A grammar school was added in 1903, and a high school, St. John’s Prep, in 1927.

The Great Depression hit the area hard. Economically, the neighborhood never recovered, and the parish suffered. “In the mid-1950s, the ills of the neighborhood began to seep through the six-and-a-half-foot granite walls, and, by the 1970s, Bed-Stuy had achieved full-blown slum status – a place one of the community’s developers, Barry Stein, dismissed as ‘the largest ghetto in the country.’” See two Brooklyn Tablet articles 20182014, and video for 135th Anniversary (2003).

All this, in turn, gave rise to a new need and the Bread and Life Ministry, at one point the largest soup kitchen in the metropolitan area.

The area is once again changing — this time in the direction of “gentrification.” Who knows what the parish will give birth to today.

… To the Future

It is said St. Vincent just about changed the face of France with his dedicated associates in all walks of life and ranking in the social order. He did it by recognizing and collaboratively addressing a need, and then the next… and the next. He did it by enlisting the aid of all, rich and poor, priests, sisters, and laity.

All this got me thinking about the words of St. Vincent. When sending forth his first missionaries, St. Vincent de Paul said, “Our vocation is to go, not just to one parish, not just to one diocese, but to all over the world, and to do what? To set people’s hearts on fire, to do what the Son of God did. He came to set the world on fire in order to inflame it with His love.”

This has always been and remains our charism and our mission; our place and our role in the Church; our sermon in the pulpit and on the city’s streets.

At the close of the Thanksgiving Mass, current pastor, Vincentian Father Astor Rodriguez, C.M., quoted Vincent, “We are not what we were, nor what we shall be,” emphasizing the need to trust God and His divine plan, not worrying too much about the past and the future, but being grateful for the present.

Today, thanks to the words and example of Pope Francis, there is greater recognition that all are called to follow Christ the Evangelizer of the Poor.

We hope that those of you who have walked down this memory lane might join us in the mission of the Eastern Province of the Congregation today and in the future. This mission requires the time, talent and treasure of all kinds of people  Together we are on a mission to be, and to bring, good news for the marginalized of today and tomorrow.

As we move forward to the future, who knows what historians will be saying 100 years into the future about the ministries of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission today.