For many Greenpointers there is no more iconic local image than the façade of St. Anthony of Padua church on Manhattan Avenue at Milton Street. The 240-foot-high church steeple is a landmark and the church is angled in so that it commands a sweeping vista of Milton Street. It is one of the most elegant churches in all of Brooklyn, and was built by one of the most prolific church architects in American history, Patrick Keely of Ireland, who designed at least six hundred other churches around North America—but few with the simple elegance of St. Anthony. Many say that the church on Manhattan Avenue is, in fact, his finest creation.
The Manhattan Avenue structure is not the first St. Anthony of Padua. The original church was built on India Street in 1858, but it proved too small for the mushrooming Catholic population and the famous Bishop Loughlin sought to buy a site to construct a much larger church. In 1865 Samuel Tilden sold five lots along Manhattan Avenue to the Catholic Church, generously charging the church for only one lot, even though Tilden was not a Catholic. The church acquired more land on Leonard Street in 1873 and in the same year the cornerstone was laid.
In 1875, the high gothic-style church was completed and it was a thing of singular beauty with a stunning façade made of Philadelphia pressed brick and trimmed with Nova Scotia freestone. The façade has three symmetrical sections: the higher central section with a clock and steeple and two lower flanking sections. Each section has a pointed arched entrance. St. Anthony’s is also a church with an identical twin. The Church of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary at 108 Carroll Street was built by the same architect in the same year, and the two churches are the only identical houses of worship in New York City.
Despite its beauty, the new St. Anthony’s was in financial trouble. The parish had accumulated a large debt to build the elegant structure and the first pastors were not up to the task of raising the large sums needed to keep the parish solvent. In 1884 Bishop Loughlin appointed Irish-born Patrick O’Hare as St. Anthony’s pastor. O’Hare would not only solve the parish’s financial problems, but would also through force of personality create one of the largest and most dynamic Catholic parishes in Brooklyn. He tore down the old church and erected a school there. O’Hare got a rich former parishioner to refurbish the sanctuary, pay for the beautiful frescoes in the church and to fund the installation of a large organ. When these expensive renovations were done, the interior beauty of the church rivaled the exterior.
O’ Hare would serve as pastor until his death in 1926. His flock grew to an amazing ten thousand souls, but his authority also extended beyond the church. He was active in many civil questions in Greenpoint and was known for many years as the Mayor of Greenpoint. The church that he helped save and steady has stood for more than a hundred years as a local landmark and a center of faith for tens of thousands.