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The HISTORY of St. James Cathedral

















 Founded in 1822, St. James was the first Catholic church on Long Island and thus the cradle of Catholic Christianity for two dioceses and 388 parishes.

March, 1, 1822. Peter Turner, foremost founder of St. James and President of the Roman Catholic Society, gathered together with 70 lay persons to buy property for a church.

July 25, 1822. On the feast of St. James the Greater, Bishop Connolly laid the cornerstone of the first church in Brooklyn. It was the third church in New York City and the sixth Roman Catholic Church in New York State.

1823. The site of the first Catholic Cemetery on Long Island is established at St. James. Between 1823-1849 there were 7,000 burials of clergy and laity. Today, this beautiful country cemetery is still preserved and revered as an urban oasis for prayer and reflection.

November 9, 1853. John Loughlin is installed as the first Bishop of Brooklyn at St. James Cathedral.

May 2, 1892. Most Reverend Charles E. McDonnell was installed at St. James Cathedral as the second Bishop of Brooklyn in the presence of Archbishop Corrigan of New York and Bishop Francis Chatard of Indianapolis who had ordained McDonnell to the priesthood in Rome.

February 15, 1922. Most Reverend Thomas Edmund Molloy was installed as the third Bishop of Brooklyn at St. James Cathedral by Archbishop Patrick J. Hayes of New York.

June 13, 1957. Most Reverend Bryan J. McEntegart installed as the fourth Bishop of Brooklyn.

September 12, 1968. Most Reverend Francis J. Mugavero was installed as the fifth Bishop of Brooklyn.

October 3, 1979. On his first visit to the United States as Pope, His Holiness John Paul II stopped and walked among the faithful assembled in front of St. James Cathedral, blessing those who had gathered to greet him.

May 6, 1982. On this date during the 160th anniversary year of its founding, an Official Decree designating St. James Cathedral a basilica was issued by Rome. Henceforth the Diocesan Church of Brooklyn and Queens will be titled, “The Cathedral-Basilica of St. James.”

April 16, 1990. Bishop Thomas V. Daily installed as sixth Bishop of Brooklyn.

November 9, 1997. Installation of the basilica symbols - the Tintinnabulum and Ombrellino - on the fifteenth anniversary of its elevation to the rank of minor basilica. On this occassion Bishop Daily chooses the motto, Infinem Dilexit Eos (He loved them to the end. Jn. 13)

June 14, 1998. The 175th Anniversary of the Parish of St. James observed at a Solemn Mass celebrated by Bishop Daily.

September 29, 2003. The first pastoral visit of then Bishop Designate Nicholas DiMarzio to celebrate Vespers with the priests, deacons, and their wives, those in consecrated life, and seminarians before his installation as the seventh Bishop of Brooklyn on October 3, 2003 in Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica, Brooklyn.











 By the early 1800’s, immigrants were coming to Long Island in larger numbers. Many of them were Irish and Catholic. Before the Navy Yard was founded, Brooklyn’s Catholic population was miniscule. A significant portion of them worked at the Navy Yard. One of them was Peter Turner(1787-1862...see below), who emigrated from County Wexford in Ireland in his teens and settled on Fulton Street.

An Irish neighborhood known as Vinegar Hill, named for a battle fought during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, soon formed near the Navy Yard. For Mass, Brooklyn Catholics had to take the Fulton Street Ferry to Manhattan, where they attended St. Peter’s on Barclay Street. Tradition has it that Brooklyn’s first Mass took place in 1820 at William Purcell’s home on the corner of York and Gold Streets.

Father Philip Laricy, an Irish-born Augustinian priest, celebrated it. As Catholic numbers
increased, Brooklyn Catholics started to talk seriously about getting their own church. On January 1, 1822, Peter Turner sent out a petition to his fellow Brooklyn Catholics...

"Whatever we do in word or in work, let us do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ: giving thanks to God the Father through Him. Therefore, in the name of the Lord, and with the advice and consent of the Right Reverend Bishop, let the Catholics of Brooklyn, having common interests to pursue, and wants to relieve, establish an association, the better to attain these desirable objects. In the first place, we want our children instructed in the principles of our Holy Religion; we want more convenience in hearing the Word of God ourselves. In fact, we want a Church, a Pastor, and a place for Interment: all of which, with the assistance of Divine Providence, we have every reason to expect by forming ourselves into a well-regulated Society: and as we have not only cheerfully assisted in building the churches in this diocese, from time to time, but nearly all the churches in the United States lately erected, we have every reason to expect the cheerful assistance of the laity, as well as the Right Reverend Bishop and all his clergy."




Daniel Dempsey’s house on Fulton Street served Catholics as a place for business meetings as well as Mass, which was celebrated by priests traveling from Manhattan. Mass was advertised in the Long Island Star, a local newspaper. On April 25, 1822, Bishop John Connolly, OP, the second bishop of New York, blessed the ground along Chapel and Jay Streets, where the new church would be built. One reporter described the scene ...

April 25, a warm day... In the morning about 11 o’clock I went to see the Roman Catholic Church Yard of the Village (Brooklyn) consecrated - The ceremony was performed by the Rt. Rev. Bishop Connolly and two priests - one of the priests [Father Richard Bulger] delivered a handsome address, very apropos to the occasion - His only fault was that he could not pronounce the letter ‘H.’ He utterly denied that the worship of images, and buying the remission of sins of the priests, were tenets of the Roman Catholic belief - Saw a great many pretty faces."







  In 1822, Brooklyn was the frontier of New York Catholic life. Peter Turner and compnay started the framework for Catholic life which lasted well into the twenty-first century. After the basic building blocks were in place, they petitioned Bishop Connolly for a resident pastor. In April 1825, Father John Farnan, native of Ireland, was assigned to St. James as pastor. Farnan remained there for four years.

History does not leave a detailed description of Father Farnan’s ministry at St. James. We do know that he traveled on horseback to the small Catholic communities forming throughout Long Island, from Jay Street to Sag Harbor. In Octorber 1826, he celebrated the first Mass in Flushing, at a shop on Main Street. During Farnan’s pastorate, collections were taken at St. James to help the newly arrived Irish immigrants, as well as for the Catholic Emancipation movement in Ireland. Bishop John England of Charleston spoke at St. James as part of his fundraising campaign for a seminary.







It was Peter Turner who led the move to establish Catholic institutional life on Long Island. On January 7, 1822, he issued a circular, calling for a meeting of all Brooklyn Catholics. At the meeting, he was elected president of the newly-formed Roman Catholic Society of Brooklyn. Under Turner’s leadership, the Society bought land for St. James, Long Island’s first Catholic church (now St. James Cathedral Basilica). St. James School and a parish cemetery followed in 1823.

Born in County Wexford, Peter Turner came to America as a teenager, settling in what was then Brooklyn Village. Like many Irish immigrants, he found work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which opened in 1801. Prior to that date, Brooklyn’s Catholic population was small, but the numbers would grow rapidly over the next twenty years. The closest Catholic Church, however, was St. Peter’s on Barclay Street in Manhattan, which meant that Brooklyn Catholics had to take the Fulton Street Ferry to get to Sunday Mass.

In 1830, Turner was elected the first President of the Roman Catholic Orphan Society of Brooklyn, an organization founded to care for orphans and needy children. He helped bring the Sisters of Charity to Brooklyn in 1831. Turner was a leading figure in the formation of the Emerald Association, whose annual ball has raised money for Catholic childcare on Long Island.

 In 1845, he was elected President of the Brooklyn Benevolent Society, another organization founded to provide for Brooklyn’s orphans. Active in civic affairs, Turner served as health warden for the City of Brooklyn, and was a member of the city’s Poor Relief Committee.

Turner died at his home on Front Street on December 31, 1862, but the Turner family continued his legacy of service to the Catholic Church on Long Island. His son, John was among the first priests ordained for the Brooklyn Diocese. In 1857, he became Rector of St. James Cathedral, the church his father had helped build. He later became Vicar-General of the Diocese.



In 1895, a monument was erected to Peter Turner at St. James. At the dedication ceremony, Turner was described as “our pioneer Catholic layman.” According to The Brooklyn Eagle, he “virtually founded the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.” Today, his legacy of service to the Church in Brooklyn continues through the Peter Turner Insurance Company, an orgnization founded to serve the particular needs of our parishes and diocesan agencies.


By Patrick J. McNamara, Ph.D., Assistant Archivist
Diocese of Brooklyn.