St. Cecilia’s: Hollywood East Grows in Brooklyn
By: Dominika Dabrowska
Playfully called “Hollywood East” by current pastor Fr. Jim Krische, St. Cecilia Roman Catholic Church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is a sought after location for film, art, and music. Faced with the closing of the parish school and other budgetary restrictions, Krische got creative. For several years now, he has been renting out space in the church to moviemakers, who love the location, and artists, who have set up studio space on the grounds.
“I have no interest in art whatsoever,” Krische said. “I benefit when people are brought onto the property.”
St. Cecilia School was opened in 1906 and the school thrived as Catholic families were large, lived close by, and parents wanted their children there. Over the years, the school’s enrollment slowly dwindled and when Krische joined the church in 2008 the school was at its most critical time. With only 107 students registered for the upcoming 2009 school year, he had to make the tough decision to close the school. The school was in debt, and many ideas sprung up as to how to use the space; perhaps a hospital, public housing, orphanage, or church offices? None of these ideas came to fruition, and to make matters worse, the economy was heading into a recession. The school building stood abandoned and became a worsening burden for the church. The school’s closing created uproar in St. Cecilia’s alumni community. Although the school was not salvageable, alumni still recount their memories on a Facebook page. Photos of the class of 1927, memories of the nuns, and alumni returning to marry at the church prove that the school’s spirit is not forgotten.
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While the school’s debt was growing, ironically, the show “Rescue Me” called St. Cecilia’s for scouting. After this opportunity, other shows like “30 Rock” and “Boardwalk Empire” called. This was a welcome source of income since the church’s debt, bills, and vandalism were worsening. The movie crews are good for the church, but Krische worries “people could lose interest, this could be the last group to come in. There’s no way we as a church could plan to become an art center.” At the same time the emptied buildings on Milton Street gathered dust, a band from California relocated to New York to reconnect with their fan base here. After spending time fruitlessly looking for a place to practice, their real estate agent recommended they “talk to her priest.” The band approached a baffled Krische in November and a deal was worked out. The defunct school’s brick basement was cleaned out, a usage fee implemented to cover electricity, and a practice space came to be. Soon after that, another artist, Andrew, looking for a new studio was given the same advice. A few weeks later, the basement was teeming with a few artists working in old classrooms, moving desks, and producing their crafts.
[kml_flashembed movie="http://thaller.webng.com/church/Dominika%20Dabrowska/soundslider.swf" width="800" height="600" wmode="transparent" /]While the artists worked next door, the convent had stood empty for two winters, and Krische had to wonder if it could be utilized. He thought to himself, “maybe some artists might want to use the space for two weekends, free of charge, to show their art.” The next step was a post on Craigslist: “100 Year Old Convent Available for Art Show.” The responses were great, and the two week calendar filled up quickly. A curator volunteered, and the event was dubbed “Convent Gallery” with 25 artists showing both weekends. The success of this gallery led to much more interest in the studios, or classrooms, next door. The waiting list currently has 103 artists anxiously waiting for a studio and Convent Gallery is now up to its 37th showing. The gallery has also expanded to include video presentations, movie showings, performance art, and mini concert shows.
The school building is now a host to many interesting ventures. On the fourth floor Talisa Chang and Jose Serrano-McClain work for a non-profit public arts organization called Trust Art. Chang says of the studios,”the camaraderie extends past the studios, we’ve even had potlucks.” Serrano-McClain adds, “we feel so lucky to have this space to work in.” Trust Art hopes to stay in the school longer than their November deadline, and want to actively develop Krische’s vision for the future of St. Cecilia School. Another student writes scripts and operates a music studio in the school. He says,” at first, it was creepy working in this abandoned school. I got used to it and have produced some of my best work here. I never want to leave.” Eli Winnegrad has been working in a music studio in the cavernous basement for two years. He says,” Fr. Jim is the man. He has been so understanding and everyone has worked hard to keep this place alive.” When asked about the future of the building, Eli says, “this is all snowballing, and the location, price, and good vibes are what keep us here.” Another unexpected use of St. Cecilia’s property is its Tenth Acre Farm developed by three College Humor staffers. The farm is located in the old basketball court and grows organic vegetables in above ground boxes. The program now allows for those interested to buy shares in the farm and pick up vegetables at the end of the season.
The rebirth at St.Cecilia’s school has also affected the church next door. Msgr.McGolrick knew he wanted to build the new church that St. Cecilia’s parishioners deserved 120 years ago. The building is a remarkable Romanesque architectural treasure in Greenpoint. Its steeple was the highest point in Greenpoint for over 100 years. Its white limestone façade whitens and the interior of the church is lit by the beautiful stained glass windows on both sides. McGolrick left a piece of himself in the murals painted over the sacristy doors; they are reproductions of ones he saw in Ireland. The solid oak pews can seat 200 comfortably. Most recently, HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” shot a scene in the church. Krische says, “I’ve got “Boardwalk Empire” ripping out some pews in the church right now but that’s okay.” He does not want to limit the creativity in the area. He says,” I provide the platform; the artists make what they like.” Krische does not suffocate the creativity in the studios, but enjoys the life the artists have brought back to 1 Milton Street.
Although the success has been continuous, St. Cecilia’s “Art Renaissance” as Krische calls it, has no future plans. He says,” this can all end tomorrow. The film crews can decide to leave, and I will have an empty school again.” A deal with a developer would be ideal for St. Cecilia’s, but the artistic energy would have to travel elsewhere. St. Cecilia’s has found a way to intertwine spirituality and artistic energy to stir up their block again. Krische says,” people are always saying “the school’s lights were on at 2 A.M.’ and I always say ‘isn’t it great?’”