New York is always reinventing itself, and nowhere is this more true than in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section, now a haven for the young and trendy. Over the years, Williamsburg has been home to numerous ethnic and racial groups: Hispanic, Jewish, Italian, Polish and many more. For many years, Germans composed the single largest group. At the century of their community, on the corner of Montrose and Graham Avenues, stood a towering edifice named Most Holy Trinity Church.
It was there that author Betty Smith was baptized Elizabetha Sophia Wehner. In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith’s protagonist Francie Nolan calls it
the most beautiful church in Brooklyn. It was made of old gray stone and had twin spires that rose cleanly into the sky, high above the tallest tenements. Inside, the high vaulted ceilings, narrow deepset stained-glass windows and elaborately carved altars made it a miniature cathedral.
The stone was imported from Wurzburg, the windows from Innsbruck, and the people mainly from Bavaria and Hesse. Together they created one of America’s first mega-churches, known as “the German Cathedral.” This German, Catholic, urban parish has a unique story of its own, one worth a retelling.
It begins in the 1830’s, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, then a bustling German community concentrated in crowded tenements. St. Nicholas Church on East Second Street, founded as the city’s first German Catholic parish, had some eleven thousand parishioners. The people wanted to get back to the open country and fresh air they knew back home. Williamsburg, a largely unsettled area across the river with affordable housing, seemed to fit the bill.
In the summer of 1841, Father Johann Raffeiner (1785-1861), St. Nicholas’s pastor, purchased property in Williamsburg for a church. Before being ordained at age forty, he was a soldier and a successful surgeon. He paid out of his own pocket. When the church opened in October, Raffeiner became pastor. He slept in the basement, which doubled as a schoolhouse for twenty students under Miss Barbara Baer. At the time, one parishioner recalled, there wasn’t a house in sight of the church.
The first congregation was made up of seventy families, all German. In time a German village would be recreated in urban America. One Brooklyn historian writes: “the singing societies and the Turnvereins [gymnasiums] and dance halls and beer gardens… helped make life pleasant in the good old German way.” Language and customs remained German for at nearly three generations. For German immigrants, preserving these was paramount. “Language preserves the faith,” was a popular saying among them.
A German priest serving at Most Holy Trinity in 1843 described a typical Sunday as “work all day”: morning confessions, Mass, afternoon catechism, evening prayers, “pastoral conversation.” One could reasonably hope, he suggested, for a congregation of “more than one thousand souls.” By the time of Father Raffeiner’s death, there were over nine thousand.
Yet not everyone welcomed them. Protestants calling themselves “Native Americans” joined a group, about which they pledged to reveal nothing except its deep hatred of Catholics. (Hence they were called the “Know-Nothings.”) During the 1850’s, as Bill “the Butcher” Poole’s* gang set out to burn Williamsburg’s Catholic churches, Father Raffeiner stationed armed men around the parish grounds:
In these stirring times the martial spirit of the old soldier-pastor of Holy Trinity came back to inspire his devoted flock to take measures to ensure the safety of their lives and property.
In the late summer of 1853, in New York harbor, four Sisters of St. Dominic (Dominican) from Bavaria stepped off the ship Germania. They had intended to go work in Pennsylvania, but their priest escort never arrived. When Father Raffeiner heard about this, he offered to bring them to Williamsburg. They were much needed. If priests were scarce in the 1850’s, teaching nuns were scarcer. They agreed to go.
That fall they started teaching at the parish school (in German). Soon there were 1,500 students. Tuition was fifteen cents a week. By the time of the parish’s 75th anniversary in 1916, it was estimated that some 150 parishioners had joined the Dominicans, for decades a predominantly German community. (Until the turn of the century, their official correspondence was in German.)
The parish grew beyond anything its founders could have imagined. By 1880, there was a hospital, an orphanage, an old age home, even a newspaper. There was a veterans group, a St. Aloysius Dramatic Society, a young men’s club, and a parish library. The St. Joseph’s Society provided for sick members and their families. On holy days, the church’s Union Guard marched on Montrose Avenue while German hymns like Maria Meine Koenegin (“Mary, My Queen”) were sung. Nearly every need was met.
After Father Raffeiner and his successor, the Bavarian-born Michael May (Brooklyn’s first Monsignor), most of the parish priests were native sons. For three decades there was always a Father Hanselman in the parish, sometime two. (In a family of eight, five became priests and two nuns.) One pastor was raised in the parish orphanage. And the parish supplied priests for other German parishes throughout the area.
By the turn of the century, however, things were changing. The neighborhood became less exclusively German as Italian, Hispanic, Polish and Jewish residents arrived. As Most Holy Trinity welcomed a new group of parishioners, it ceased to be a German parish. Many of the old families moved east to Queens and Long Island. By 1940, English was the main language, and the parish centennial featured “Old Timer’s Night.” But Long before the term “megachurch” was coined, Brooklyn’s German Catholics lived it.
A parish’s story involves more than just a building. It’s about all the people who built and sustained it. It’s about the hardships they endured to build a faith community, how they preserved that faith and handed it on to a new generation. Today, a new generation of immigrants does the same in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
*Portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film “The Gangs of New York.”