Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish History
In 1892 the Redemptorists were serving in two parishes in Manhattan: at Most Holy Redeemer on East 3rd Street, and at St. Alphonsus parish on West Broadway. They were also conducting parish missions in New York area parishes. One of their earliest missions was in 1853, in the town of Flushing, Long Island, just six weeks after the Diocese of Brooklyn had been created.
In 1892 the pastor of St Alphonsus Church, Fr. Wayrieh, asked Bishop Charles E. McDonnell of Brooklyn to allow the Redemptorists to establish a mission church in Brooklyn. The bishop arranged with them to establish the church and form a new parish. On November 1, 1892 the Redemptorists purchased the city block bordered by 59th and 60th Streets and by 5th and 6th Avenues, on the hill (or ridge) overlooking the bay (the Narrows). The block cost forty thousand dollars.
At that time, 60th Street was the southern boundary of the city of Brooklyn. O.L.P.H. parish began at the southern edge of the city, which was a mostly rural area.
By March, 1893 all the arrangements and permissions were finalized and the parish began. It was already known that the new parish would be dedicated to Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, although the church itself had not yet begun. On Easter Sunday, April 2, 1893, the first Mass was celebrated, in a house on 54th Street and 4th Avenue – the Morse family house. Forty people were at this first Mass of the parish. On April 22 the “infant church” was moved to the Neary family house on 5th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets.
There were 85 families in the new parish when the cornerstone of the first church was laid, on October 29,1893. It was to be a frame church, 100 feet long and 40 feet wide, on Fifth Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets. Its seating capacity was 500 people, and cost $10,000. to build. The Fathers moved into the rectory behind the church, on 59th St. on December 7. The finished wooden church was dedicated in honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on January 14, 1894 by Bishop McDonnell.
On May 6 of that year, after the first parish mission, the priests distributed to everyone in church that day a leaflet containing a prayer to Mary Our Lady of Perpetual Help. They said the prayer together at the end of Mass, and thus began the devotion to Mary in the church with her name, a devotion – a perpetual novena – which continues today.
On December 16, 1894 a copy of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a copy brought from Rome, was enthroned in the new church. The original icon dates back nearly a thousand years and is located in the church of St. Alphonsus on Via Merulana in Rome. It is known as a miraculous icon because of extraordinary grace and favors received by people who have knelt before this picture of Jesus and Mary to pray.
The icon you see here at O.L.P.H. was touched to the original before being brought to Brooklyn, in a symbolic gesture to ask Mary to watch over all who come here.
In 1902 Fr Daily began the project of building a parochial school, which opened on September 9, 1903. Our Lady of Perpetual Help School was entrusted to the care of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who lived on its top floor until their convent was completed.
Today’s Lower Church
By 1905 Brooklyn was a borough of the City of New York, a trolley went all the way to 95 th Street, and O.L.P.H. had nearly five thousand parishioners. Father John Frawley, the pastor, with the people and the Redemptorists saw that they needed a church that would keep up with the growth of the parish. In August, 1905 the wooden church was demolished and all the Sunday and weekday Masses were moved into the school building. Construction of the new church began in March, 1907. Fr. Frawley was very persuasive at getting the parish members to commit themselves and their pocketbooks to the construction of their church.
By the winter of 1909 the church was nearly completed, but much of the construction stopped. For more than a month, February 16 to March 23, a “mammoth fair” was held inside the nearly finished structure. It was, we can assume, the first parish Bazaar, and it was a tremendous success.
The new church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help – today’s Lower Church -- opened on Easter Sunday, April 11, 1909. It is 240 feet long, beginning at the doors on Fifth Avenue. It is 190 feet wide. The exterior is solid granite and the interior is terra cotta. The seating capacity is 1800. On that Easter Sunday the parish counted nearly six thousand members.
Those who saw the finished church could see that something more was coming some day. Parish life went on, the school flourished, the parish grew, and in December 1928 the Upper Church was completed.
We are not yet sure who was the first bride to walk down the 220 feet of the main aisle to meet her groom on their wedding day.