Among Bushwick’s mottled architectural legacy, one of the neighborhood’s most imposing and eye-catching structures is also one of its most unexpected. St. Barbara’s, the creamy white Roman Catholic church on Central Avenue at Bleecker Street, would simply be a beautiful piece of old Bushwick if it were not so perplexing: a more or less Spanish Neo-Baroque church approximating the Mission Style so popular in California and Latin America, but never in Brooklyn. If it were built in recent decades it would be a strong statement of the neighborhood’s changing ethnic identity, but in fact the church prefigured its current congregation: it was constructed in 1910, for a parish that was entirely German.
The choice of architectural style remains a mystery and an interesting coincidence, but the reason for the church’s grand scale is well established in the largesse of Leonard Eppig. Eppig was one of the most successful of Bushwick’s brewery owners and a Catholic devoted to building for the church in his neighborhood. For St. Barbara’s he employed architects Helmle & Huberty, whose work can be seen all over Brooklyn (try the Greenpoint Savings Bank and McGolrick Park), and who were proficient in the various revival styles of the decade. Eppig may simply have wanted to build a church that would make an impression, and in this he certainly succeeded. Two towers of 175 feet and a tiled dome crown an exterior ornate with baroque flourishes and cherubim, while the inside is packed with frescoes, statuary, and more than 25 stained glass windows.
The most popular legend surrounding the church relates to its name. Barbara was, depending on who’s telling the story, either Leonard Eppig’s daughter or his wife, and as the brewer was footing the bill, he insisted on its dedication to her namesake saint. The confusion is understandable, as Leonard and Barbara Eppig produced a son and daughter (the latter in 1886, seven years before the parish was founded) who they also named Leonard and Barbara. The name of the church may have been inspired by the mother, the daughter, or neither: Saint Barbara was prominent enough in German Catholicism to inspire plenty of christenings and churches on her own merit. But this footnote has always been a part of the story of St. Barbara’s, as though something about the church’s grand eccentricity demands a good origin tale.
The senior Leonard Eppig also donated the land and funds for an earlier church by the name of (unsurprisingly) St. Leonard’s, a large but comparatively reserved structure built closer to the center of the brewery district on Jefferson Street and Wilson Avenue in 1896. Just a block away from Eppig’s own brewery, St. Leonard’s stood as a masculine counterpoint to its sister church, though the towering steeple that was originally planned for it was never built, possibly sacrificed for the sake of St. Barbara’s construction. The new church far surpassed St. Leonard’s – and everything else in Bushwick – in height and grandiosity. St. Leonard’s eventually languished and was merged with a neighboring congregation; its empty shell was demolished in 2001.
Showing us around St. Barbara’s, Father Ed Mason tells us about the congregation’s gradual shifts from German to Italian to Latino: at first predominately Puerto Rican and increasingly Mexican, sitting side by side with Dominican, Ecuadorian, and "about 15%" African American parishioners. Father Mason has been at St. Barbara’s for two years but has been at just about every Catholic church and school in Bushwick through the last thirty-five – including several that have since closed down. His family history here goes back even farther: "My mother was married at this church in 1914," he says.
Father Mason takes us up to the choir loft to see the elegant pipe organ spanning the rear of the church, where it was installed in 1931. The electro-pneumatic organ was built by M.P. Möller, Inc., and is labeled as the famous Maryland organ builder’s Opus 5948. The instrument was restored to working order in 1982, a powerful statement of rejuvenation in dark days. Father Mason arrived in the neighborhood soon after the 1977 blackout and saw Bushwick’s decay in the crack years. "At my church in 1989, the median age for funerals that year was thirty-two," he remembers. The St. Barbara’s congregation had shrunk to a few hundred by the 1980s, but the determined parish secured funds from the American Guild of Organists to restore the organ. Eleven years later, they pooled their own donations – more than half a million dollars – for a full restoration of the church by artist Tony D’Ambrosio of Mount Kisco, NY. During the restoration many of the pews were removed and the altar brought forward, creating a closer circle for the small but tightly knit congregation.
The organ is still playable but has recently been covered for protection until leaks in the rear wall can be addressed. The water damage in the rear is one of several problems that continue to worry the church, but on the whole it’s been riding high since the 1993 renovation. The congregation is growing and, in the finest Brooklyn tradition, remains politically vital. The attached school, which closed in 1973, was replaced in 2009 by the new Pope John II Family Academy thanks to a large anonymous donation. Almost every Sunday’s bilingual mass is standing room only, and the downsized pews are sorely missed. Easter Sunday is, of course, the busiest of the year, and the school’s auditorium will be used for an overflow mass. If you want to experience this Bushwick original, get there early.