St. Mary Star of the Sea was established to serve the Catholic community of Carroll Gardens. The cornerstone was laid on July 17, 1853 before a crowd of over 10,000 people. The new church was dedicated on April 29, 1855. St. Mary’s soon grew to meet the need of the community. The parish at one time included a school, a convent and a nursery.
Renowned architect Patrick C. Keely, who during his career designed over 600 churches and 16 cathedrals, designed St. Mary’s. The Carpenter, Thomas Houghton of 57 Nelson St. was Keely’s son-in-law. When constructed, the church sat on a lot with a clear view of New York Harbor, hence the name “Star of the Sea”.
Constructed according to a classic floor plan, St Mary’s is a neo-Gothic design with one center aisle and two side aisles. The central nave ends in the altar, where Mass is celebrated.
The Altar is an extraordinary sculpture. When purchased in 1895, it cost $20,000. The altar is 20ft high and has four towers, each featuring an angel. A crown tops the altar. The figures of the evangelists are carved into niches on the altar, each shown with his attributes. The paintings on either side feature the Offering of Melchisedech on the left and the Sacrifice of Isaac on the right.
Famous artist Colombani designed the altar rail installed in 1899. The rail is three ft. high and 60ft. long and features marble from a variety of well-known quarries in northern Italy. The base of the rail is from the Breccia quarry near Carrara; red marble on the base of each column is from a quarry in Verona. The caps of the columns are gray marble from Mt. Altissimo in northwest Tuscany and yellow Siena marble runs along the top of rail. The two steps leading to the rail are from a quarry in Venice.
Each of the panels of the altar rail is filled with Venetian mosaic, with the tiles a burnished gold in the Venetian tradition. There is no grout between the tiles.
Stations of the Cross
Interspersed among the windows are the Stations of the Cross in beautiful mosaic. The Stations were created by the same company that created the altar rail. Each of the 14 Stations depicts a scene from the Passion of Christ. Interestingly, the artist, Colombani, included his dog in Station Three, and his wife and daughter can be seen in other Stations.
Stained Glass Windows
A series of stained glass windows line both side walls and appear above the altar in the sanctuary and on the rear wall of the church. St Mary Star of the Sea purchased the windows from Franz Mayer & Co. of Munich, Germany in 1897. The scenes represent a chronology of events in the life of the Virgin Mary and the life of Christ.
Above the altar, the central window portrays Mary, Star of the Sea, standing on a rock among the waves, holding the infant Christ.
St. Mary’s Playground
This playground is named for the nearby St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church on Court Street. The park is located at the intersection of Smith, Huntington, Nelson and Luquer Streets, and it borders the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook, Gowanus, and Carroll Gardens.
The name “St. Mary’s Star of the Sea” is not uncommon among Catholic parishes in coastal areas. This title for the Virgin Mary is most likely derived from a biblical reference in I Kings 18:41-45. The passage refers to a small cloud seen from Mount Carmel that appeared above the sea as a symbol of hope. Because it gave the hope that rain would soon fall and end the land’s drought, this tiny cloud was called “the Star of the Sea.” In Catholic theology, Mary the mother of Jesus is the greatest saint and therefore the patroness for all who hope that redemption and deliverance will soon be at hand. In the 12th century, the reformist monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153) wrote,
“If the winds of temptation arise;
If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary;
If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary.”
From the 19th to the mid-20th centuries, these neighborhoods collectively served as one of the busiest shipping centers in the United States. Dominated by taverns, rooming houses, and a small collection of row houses, the area once catered largely to sailors, transient laborers, and local Italian and Irish dock-workers. When it was founded in 1851, this parish chose a name that reflected the sea-faring tradition of the local Catholic community. In 1867, St. Mary’s opened its school, and shortly thereafter the children began gathering here each morning before beginning their classes. Nearly a century would pass before it became official parkland. In j1918, the Church was the location of a famous marriage. Alphonse (Al) Capone (1899-1947), a Brooklyn native who later became the most notorious leader of the Chicago Mafia, married Mary May Coughlin at St. Mary’s.
The two parcels of land for this park were acquired by the New York Department of Transportation in 1934 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) Works Progress Administration’s urban revitalization initiative. Originally they were to be utilized for the new Gowanus Expressway (1941), but many in the community thought the land straddling Nelson Street would be an idea site for a playground. In 1955, the Department of Transportation transferred ownership of the land bordering the busy commercial thoroughfare to Parks. In the late 1960s, as the neighborhood population began to swell, Parks developed one of the parcels into a fenced-in playground for small children. Within a few years, Parks added basketball courts for older children and adults on the adjoining land.