Catholic Church Extinguishes Arts Community at St. Cecilia’s in Greenpoint

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Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

Earlier this summer, if you’d wandered by the grounds of the Catholic parish of St. Cecilia’s in Greenpoint, you would have found an artists’ idyll, with the local pastor revising the Church’s historic role as arts patron. In the imposing brick building that once housed the parish school, you might have heard bands rehearsing in the basement and seen young artists in classrooms turned studios upstairs. Next door, in buildings once home to the nuns and brothers who ran the school, you might have seen a gallery show featuring the work of dozens of young artists or encountered a big crowd at one of their opening-night parties. Behind the buildings, you’d have seen an organic farm sprouted from wooden planters on the blacktop of the old schoolyard, and in the auditorium or the school or even in the church itself, you might have seen the telltale signs — lights, production assistants, craft services tables — of a film or music video shoot in progress. But this north Brooklyn enlightenment was short-lived: The gallery spaces are now shuttered, film shoots have been halted, and on Sunday, the last of the artists moved out.

The parish’s impromptu arts program started two years ago, after a plan to market the school building to developers (the school had closed in 2008 after years of dwindling enrollment) was stymied by the cratering real-estate market. The pastor, Father James Krische, left with empty buildings and no way to pay for their upkeep, invited a couple of film shoots in, and those people told their friends, and then a parishioner told a band looking for rehearsal space to talk to her priest, and another parishioner told an artist tenant of hers the same thing. "Father Jim," as he's known to the artists, kept saying yes to the requests, and St. Cecilia’s was soon home to 36 artists-in-residence (with 93 more on the waiting list), as well as a full schedule of shows for the convent turned gallery and an average of ten or so film and video shoots each week, ranging from no-budget shorts to TV shows like 30 Rock and Boardwalk Empire.

Father Jim’s commitment to the arts, and his latent talent for logistics, kept it all humming, and the donations the artists made (in lieu of rent) paid for the upkeep of the buildings. The program generated tremendous goodwill in the north Brooklyn arts community and even proved popular with parishioners, who were happy to see signs of life in the disused buildings, and even happier to tell the new arrivals about what the neighborhood used to be like.

But unfortunately, the same realities that left the buildings vacant in the first place were working against the new artist tenants. With changing demographics and the corresponding decline in parishioner numbers, a plan to merge St. Cecilia’s with two other nearby parishes had been in the works for several years. When the merger finally went through earlier this year, it was inevitable that Father Jim would be reassigned and the buildings emptied. In early June, the artists were informed that they would have to be out by the end of July.

Though the artists knew they were not guaranteed a future at St. Cecilia’s, the idea that they were kicked out to pave the way for a real-estate deal left some of them embittered. The Diocese of Brooklyn says it is merely acting in the interest of the newly created parish. “The future for that site, whatever it’s used for, whether it be for sale or whether it be to house ministries in the future, that decision will be made in the best interest of the long term stability of the new parish,” says Stefanie Gutierrez, Press Secretary for the Diocese, who does not rule out music or art being a part of the future of those worship sites. “No decisions have been made, so anything alluding to [selling the buildings] is rumor at this point.”

Father Jim, who served as an Army Chaplain in Iraq prior to his posting at St. Cecilia’s, is planning to resume his military ministry and ship off to Afghanistan in September. And though his stable of artists has moved on, they won’t soon forget their time at St. Cecilia’s, or the priest who made it possible.

“Watching everything he was able to juggle, and his example of keeping on doing what you do while also giving back — it was really kind of inspirational,” says Celia Rowlson-Hall, a choreographer and filmmaker who said good-bye to her studio of two years by shooting a music video there all day on Sunday. “We were all really aware of how lucky we were. And we knew it could be over at any time. It just stinks when it is.”

Earlier: Slideshow: The Opening of ‘A Sequence of Waves’ in Former Greenpoint Convent
Related: Artists Find Accommodating Landlord: A Struggling Brooklyn Parish [NYT]