A History of Greenpoint in 25 Buildings: St. Stanislaus Kostka Church
Perhaps no local building defines Polish Greenpoint than St. Stanislaus Kostka Church at 607 Humboldt Street. St Stanislaus Kostka is home to the largest Polish Catholic congregation in Brooklyn. Each weekend nine masses are celebrated, five in Polish and four in English. This parish also has an elementary school with 300 students and another 300 who attend Sunday school. Each Sunday thousands of the faithful attend mass there. It is where many locals were christened, received their first communion and were married. When Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope, visited New York he had to visit his people’s church. John Paul II, still as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, prayed in the parish during his 1969 visit when he spoke from the marble pulpit, prayed near the altar and received the heartfelt wishes of hundreds of local Catholics. There is a statue of John Paul II outside the church, which implores the faithful, “Nie Boj sie,” Don’t be afraid.
The scale of the church is monumental and its tower can be seen from outside the area. Constructed of pressed brick, it is 134 feet deep, 70 feet wide at its transept, and its towers are 138 and 152 feet in height. The church can seat 1,000 people with an additional 250 in the gallery.
St. Stan’s is so iconically Greenpoint that it is hard to imagine that the Polish parish was at first unwelcome in the area. By the 1880s a Polish community was forming in Greenpoint. Many Poles did the grueling low paid factory work in local refineries or in Greenpoint’s hemp rope factories many native born Americans would not. Although the community was expanding rapidly, local Poles still had no church. Prior to 1896 there was only one Polish parish in all of Brooklyn: St. Casimir’s. Greenpoint Poles were forced to make a long Sunday Journey to St.Casimir’s in far away south Brooklyn for services.
The Catholic Church realized that it needed to build a parish for its Poles, but there was strong local resentment from some local bigots who did not want to see a Polish Catholic Church in their area of Greenpoint. To acquire the land for the parish, the future church pastor, Fr. Leon Wysiecki, had to act secretly. Father Wysiecki using an intermediary in all but the final stages of negotiations, appeared in person, seemingly a German speaking businessman, not a Polish Catholic priest. The German-American seller had no idea what the buyer intended to do with the lots he was selling, or he never would have sold the lots. In October, 1894 Wysiecki bought the original ten lots on which St. Stanislaus Kostka Church now stands at the corner of Driggs Avenue and Humboldt Street for fifteen thousand and five hundred dollars. Those who questioned the wisdom of selecting a parish site in the midst of a somewhat hostile German area vigorously criticized Father Wysiecki’s conception, but he ignored them—he was a man with a vision of building a strong parish.
The original church was a small wooden structure, but Fr. Wysiecki had a vision of a large and splendid brick church with mighty steeples and a graceful façade. Father Wysiecki signed a contract for the new church in 1903, and groundbreaking began July of 1903. This church cost seventy-five thousand dollars, a staggering sum in those days.
The months, following the consecration of the cornerstone, saw unceasing efforts to make the interior as magnificent as the exterior. Father Wysiecki implored his poor parishioners to sacrifice and they rewarded him with continuing contributions from individuals and organizations for the altars, statues, organs, and clock. Even the school children participated, canvassing parishioners’ homes to buy the beautiful stained glass windows. In November 1904, the Gothic-style church, with twin spires reaching toward heaven, was ready.
If the church was ready, then some bigots in the community were still hostile to the church. There was an anonymous warning that the new church would be dynamited. A 1904 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article recounted how local police ringed the church on its opening day to protect the parish from violence. The threat proved idle and the parish grew so quickly that two new Polish parishes had to be built to accommodate the huge number of local parishioners.
The rest, as they say, is history. Tens of thousands of locals have been baptized there. Thirty-three parishioners became priests and the school helped many first-generation Polish children into well-educated, solid American citizens. The parish continues to thrive today and there is still no better way to experience Polish Greenpoint than a visit to the church Fr. Wysiecki envisioned more than a hundred years ago.