Another Disaster for Brooklyn in 1957: New Catholic Diocese for Long Island
[Reprinted from Newsday, June 7, 2007]
By Paul Moses
As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rockville Centre deserves to be celebrated for speedily bringing a wealth of schools, parishes and other services to Nassau and Suffolk counties. But it should not be forgotten that its creation has been a disaster for the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn.
Before the Rockville Centre diocese was formed in 1957, the church included all of Long Island – from Brooklyn to Montauk – in the Diocese of Brooklyn. After it was partitioned 50 years ago, the new Diocese of Brooklyn was left with the smallest territory of any Roman Catholic diocese in the United States - 179 square miles in Brooklyn and Queens. More to the point, it is the only U.S. diocese that is entirely urban.
The Archdiocese of New York, for example, includes Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, and then rolls northward over hill and dale to fast-growing Dutchess and Ulster Counties - 4,683 square miles in all. Affluent parishes in Westchester County and growing ones in the exurbs have helped the finances of the archdiocese.
Unlike every other big-city diocese in America, the Diocese of Brooklyn lacks that benefit. As a result, it had to start making painful cuts as early as the 1970s that other dioceses made only later. Now, it faces even more difficult choices involving closure of schools and parishes in low-income neighborhoods without having the ability to use money collected in wealthier suburban communities to subsidize poorer inner-city parishes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the health, educational and social services the diocese has strained to provide in some of New York City’s poorest communities.
As a result, the decision to make fast-growing Nassau and Suffolk counties a new diocese should be ranked with the trio of disasters that define Brooklyn's post-World War II decline: the closing of the Brooklyn Eagle, the end of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles in 1957.
Archbishop Thomas Molloy, who led the Diocese of Brooklyn, reportedly opposed breaking off a separate diocese - and with good reason, since by the mid 1950s, it was obvious that entire neighborhoods of Brooklyn Catholics were moving to the suburbs. After Molloy died in November, 1956, it didn't take long for church authorities to make their move. Within five months, Pope Pius XII announced that the new dioceses would be formed.
The main proponent appears to have been Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of the New York archdiocese. The bishops he installed to head the two dioceses, Bryan J. McEntegart of Brooklyn and Walter Kellenberg of Rockville Centre, were both priests of the New York archdiocese who had worked closely with Spellman.
The size and growth of Long Island seem to have been the major reasons given to form a new diocese. But the New York archdiocese was three times the size of the old Diocese of Brooklyn (when it included Nassau and Suffolk), and its parishioners also were moving from the city to the suburbs. No one dismantled the New York archdiocese, and it would be impossible to imagine Spellman, known for his political savvy in matters of both church and state, allowing that to happen.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre has turned out to be an excellent one, and it now faces challenges of its own as the inner suburbs become urbanized and as arriving immigrants head straight for the suburbs instead of settling into inner-city neighborhoods.
This anniversary is indeed cause for celebration. But the 50th anniversary also offers an occasion for church officials and their congregations to reflect on whether they can correct a structure that works against the interests of the urban poor.
Paul Moses teaches journalism at Brooklyn College and is the former director of the Center for the Study of Brooklyn.