Editor's note: This article was originally written for the Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. It has been revised and updated with new information as of November 2011.
Now known as Most Holy Trinity and St. Mary*, the parish was originally founded as the German Church of the Holy Trinity in 1841. It was the first National parish in the Brooklyn diocese, and the second Catholic parish in Williamsburg (Sts. Peter and Paul being the first). It was also the mother church for a host of other German parishes over time. Holy Trinity was founded by Father John Raffeiner, a wealthy doctor-turned-priest from Austria. Raffeiner came to the United States in 1833, settling in New York where, in 1836, he founded St. Nicholas Church on East 2nd Street (the oldest German church in the New York Diocese). Raffeiner is also credited with establishing a German parish in Boston during this period. In 1841, Raffeiner moved to Williamsburg, a village that at the time was seeing a huge influx of German emigrés. There, largely with his own funds, the priest purchased property on Montrose Avenue from Abraham Meserole.
The first Holy Trinity church was a frame structure, completed in 1841. A rectory was constructed in 1844. In 1853, the parish constructed a new church building on Montrose near Manhattan (roughly where the school is located today) 1. Between 1863 and 1871, Holy Trinity's parish boundaries were divided numerous times - yielding Annunciation (1863), St. Nicholas (1865), All Saints (1867) and St. Leonard (1872) parishes. Still, the original Holy Trinity parish continued to grow, and in 1880, construction began on a third church, this one on the site of the original frame church2. The cornerstone for the new church was laid in 1882, and the building was completed in 1885. The new church was constructed of Belleville (N.J.) brownstone, with two towers of 250' each and a 70' tall nave (the spires, also constructed of brownstone, were covered in lead-coated copper sheets in 1990).
The architect for the new church was William Schickel. Schickel was active in the late 19th century; he designed a number of churches and German-related structures in New York and Brooklyn. Among his more prominent works are the Century Building on Union Square (now home to a Barnes & Noble), the Freie Bibliothek und Lesehalle on Second Avenue (now the Ottendorfer branch of NYPL) and, next door, the German Poliklinik (now the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital)
Betty Smith (née Elisabeth Wehner), author of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" was baptized at Holy Trinity in 1897. In her novel, the church is described as "the most beautiful in Brooklyn... it was made of old gray stone and had twin spires that rose cleanly into the sky, high above the tallest tenements".
The parish's property encompasses much of the block bounded by Graham, Johnson, Manhattan and Montrose. It includes the former Catholic Orphan Asylum on Graham Avenue (erected between 1865 and 1885), two school buildings, a rectory and a faculty residence. The rectory, constructed in 1872 (Joseph Berendach, architect)3, is located immediately east of the church. The elementary school is located to the east of the rectory; constructed in 1888, it was, prior to its closing in 2005, the oldest parish school in Brooklyn. The high school, which closed in 1972, was located on Johnson Avenue. This building appears to be an amalgam of two older residential buildings (note the shift in sill height from one side to the other), flanked by recessed stair towers with glass-block slot windows running from the second through fourth floors. Judging by the design, this rehabilitation took place in the 1930s or 1940s. In the 1880s, the church's two schools enrolled 1,600 students. The faculty residence, at the corner of Montrose and Manhattan, was designed by Beatty and Berlenbach in 1952. In addition to the buildings on its block, Holy Trinity was responsible for the construction of the original St. Catherine's Hospital, on Bushwick and Devoe.
*Most Holy Trinity merged with Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in 2007. St. Mary's was founded in 1841 as an Irish church, and was located at Leonard and Maujer Streets.
Most Holy Trinity - St. Mary: History
Most Holy Trinity - St. Mary: Tour of the Church
New York Architecture Images
BushwickBK - Bushwick Geographic: Most Holy Trinity Cemetery
Smith, Betty A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
"Five Years in Building: The New and Handsome Church for German Catholics in Williamsbug." New York Times, August 24, 1885, page 8.
100th Year Marked by Brooklyn Church." New York Times, October 13, 1941, page 12.
"Catholicism: A Significant Page of Local History." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 1, 1877, page 4.
"A New Parochial School." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 14, 1888, page 6.
"Building Plans Filed." New York Times, June 23, 1952, page 32.
- 1. According to the church's published history online, the second church was located on the corner of Graham and Montrose. This appears not to have been exactly the case - the 1880 Bromley atlas of Brooklyn (and earlier atlases back to 1869) shows a convent at that corner, and two churches - as shown in the photo above, both churches were midblock (the newer second church about 100' west of Graham, and the older wood-frame first church about 125' east of Manhattan (then Ewen Street), where the existing church now stands. The church history also states that the second church forced the removal of the cemetery to Bushwick, but the exact location of the cemetery is not clear.
- 2. Construction of the third church was contemplated as early as 1872, see "Local Improvements." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 26, 1872, 3.
- 3. "Local Improvements", Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 26, 1872, 3. Note that "Joseph Berendach is probably Francis J. Berlenbach.