History2019-03-01T15:07:10-05:00

St. Paul’s History

The life of St. Paul’s congregation spans more than 150 years. In that time, our history has been shaped by both the changing landscape of South Brooklyn—including waves of immigration from Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America—and the passion and mission of those who have served God here.

The parishioners of St. Paul’s held their first service in a room over a lower Union Street stable on Christmas Day, 1849. In 1850, the congregation constructed and moved to the first St. Paul’s Church on Carroll Street between Hicks and Henry Streets.

In the wake of the Civil War, spurring Brooklyn’s industries, St. Paul’s continued to thrive and expand. In the spring of 1866 the vestry purchased land at the corner of Clinton and Carroll Streets and commissioned Richard M. Upjohn, a member of the vestry and one of the nation’s most prominent Gothic Revival architects, to design the granite and limestone building that stands today. The congregation celebrated its first service here on September 19, 1869, though the church wasn’t consecrated until 1884, when the building loans were paid in full.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Brooklyn’s waterfront economy was booming, nearly doubling Brooklyn’s population. Many Italian, Middle Eastern, and Norwegian immigrants arrived seeking work. St. Paul’s faced declining attendance as Brooklyn became less desirable among many wealthy families. The congregation was also divided over whether to follow a simple Protestant service or incorporate Catholic elements into their worship style—the increasingly popular Anglo-Catholic approach, which emphasizes the Catholic roots of the Anglican Church. Grappling with financial woes, internal strife, demographic changes, and a fire in 1907, the vestry prepared to close the church, sell the building, and relocate somewhere outside of South Brooklyn.

But vestry member William Hall Ford argued that the parish ought to remain in its present location and adopt both Anglo-Catholic social activism in service to the surrounding community, and an Anglo-Catholic form of worship. A new rector, Reverend Andrew Chalmers Wilson, was called by the vestry in 1909. With the help of his wife, Mary Fuller Sturges Wilson (and her family fortune), Fr. Wilson enthusiastically launched outreach services and established St. Paul’s as a leading example of the Anglo-Catholic Revival of the Oxford Movement, which strove to make art, contemplation, liturgy, music, prayer, preaching, revival, sacraments, and teaching available to all people.

After Fr. Wilson’s retirement in 1926, the two rectors who succeeded him, Granville Mercer Williams and Gregory Mabry, continued the work he had begun into the 1930s and 40s. During the Great Depression, St. Paul’s managed a store that provided groceries and clothing below wholesale cost or for free; St. Paul’s Dispensary provided medical care; St. Paul’s employment agency helped the jobless find work; and its free kindergarten was the largest in Brooklyn.

Social barriers also continued to fall at St. Paul’s. A West Indian community arrived at the church between 1928 and 1934 seeking full participation and equal access to the sacraments. They walked to church from their homes near Fulton Landing each Sunday, and their descendants became leaders of St. Paul’s, later welcoming two generations of arrivals from the West Indian community who would sustain the parish into the 1980s.

In the postwar 1950s and 60s, urban flight to the suburbs and new Spanish-speaking immigrant families brought further changes to South Brooklyn. St. Paul’s began offering a Spanish Mass to better serve its neighbors, but by the 1970s, again found itself in decline. In 1981, Bishop Robert Campbell Witcher sent Reverend Samuel Otis Cross to assess whether the diocese should close the church and sell the property. The congregation at the time, about twenty-five people in total, was made up of mostly older members who had grown up in the church.

In 1982, Fr. Cross was appointed vicar, and then rector in 1985, as St. Paul’s took on the status of an aided parish of the diocese. With enormous personal effort, Fr. Cross began the process of growing the congregation and repairing the buildings. He could often be found working on the roof alongside a group of young home renovators, who were then flocking into the neighborhood—now known as Carroll Gardens—to restore its brownstones. St. Paul’s became a self-financing parish again in time for the centennial of the consecration of the church building, in 1984.

The thirteenth and most recent rector of St. Paul’s, Fr. Peter Cullen, was instituted shortly after a catastrophic fire on January 4, 1987. For years, services were held in the parish hall while the rebuilding process continued. A solemn pontifical mass in thanksgiving for the completion of that process was held in 1993. The hallmark of Fr. Cullen’s rectorship was the quiet and unassuming advancement of the building process with the aid of a unified congregation. Once it was completed, work on other infrastructure programs continued, including replacing the parish hall floor, repairing the parish hall ceiling, restoring the church ceiling and rebuilding the rectory ground floor. On his retirement in 2017, Fr. Cullen, having served longer than any previous Rector, had presided over 30 years of congregational growth, organizational stability, and continuing work on the renovation of the infrastructure. The Rev. Dr. Sean M. Wallace was called as interim upon Fr. Cullen’s retirement.

On the occasion of our 160th Anniversary, St. Paul’s produced a video which provides a look back at some of the people and significant events in the history of our parish.

Enjoy the Show!