A pastor shares the story of why the Baptist Church of the Redeemer is being demolished

Eye on Real Estate: A neighborhood coalition seeks landmark status for the Victorian Flatbush church

April 4, 2018 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This is the Baptist Church of the Redeemer, which is slated for demolition so affordable housing and new church space can be built. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan
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This is the story of a Victorian Flatbush congregation that seeks to serve its community — and its momentous decision to demolish its century-old church.

The plan to tear down the Baptist Church of the Redeemer and construct a nine-story affordable-apartment building and a new church has been a long time in the making.

“It has taken years to come to this understanding of who we are and what God is calling us to do,” said the Rev. Sharon E. Williams.

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“This is big,” she said. “This is very big. This is not a casual thing.

“We have prayed over this. We have read the Scriptures over this. We have cried over this.

“The only thing we will not do is we will not fight over it.”    

She spoke of not fighting because Eye on Real Estate had just asked her about a neighborhood coalition that’s campaigning to get the Baptist Church of the Redeemer designated as a city landmark. This protected status would halt the planned demolition and new construction.  

“I do not want to fight with our neighbors,” said Williams, who has been the pastor of the church on the corner of Cortelyou Road and Ocean Avenue since 1984.



‘Save this church,’ preservationists say

The group, called Respect Brooklyn, objects to the height of the apartment building that the congregation plans to construct.

“It’s needlessly tall,” coalition member Harry Bubbins told Eye on Real Estate. “It would be the tallest building for blocks.”

He said 77 people had signed a petition calling for the landmarking of the Baptist Church of the Redeemer.

The church was designed by distinguished architect Frank J. Helmle of the firm Helmle & Corbett and was constructed in 1919.

Coalition members believe it’s an important part of the neighborhood’s historic fabric.

“It would be a shame to lose this architecturally and historically significant building and church, especially since other work by the same notable architects has been preserved in other parts of New York City,” a letter from Respect Brooklyn to city Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan says.

The letter notes that this part of Brooklyn “remains woefully without individual landmarks.”

It calls 1921 Cortelyou Road a “noble specimen of a church with Romanesque and Deco motifs” that’s “fantastically austere” in comparison with other design work by Helmle & Corbett.

“This is a century-old church,” Bubbins told Eye on Real Estate. “To even contemplate demolishing it is sacrilegious.”


‘What’s beautiful about this building is what goes on inside it’

The pastor and congregation don’t share the preservationists’ point of view.

“We are more than a building — that’s our theme,” Williams said.

“On the outside, this building is not beautiful. What’s beautiful about this building is what goes on inside it.”

The decision to demolish it was made by the Baptist Church of the Redeemer’s entire congregation.

In some religious organizations, leaders at the top of a hierarchy call the shots about property disposition. With the Baptists, the congregants are the decision-makers.

At every step of the way in the years-long process of shaping 1921 Cortelyou Road’s affordable housing construction plan, the congregation held votes.  

This isn’t the kind of voting where the majority wins the day. Congregants must come to a consensus.

“If there’s somebody who just can’t accept it, then we don’t proceed,” Williams said.


Building’s poor condition hampered community-service efforts   

Williams and the congregants consider their church building as “an instrument for ministry,” she said.  

It’s in poor condition, which has hampered their ministry work.

“We have all this space and it’s unusable,” Williams said. “So we can’t serve our neighbors. We can’t serve our community.”

The congregation had shared space inside 1921 Cortelyou Road with numerous organizations and activities that had to move out as the building deteriorated.

Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York set up Saturday reunion time for kids in foster care and their families.

There were after-school programs and daycare, GED programs for people earning high-school equivalency diplomas, community group meetings and a crochet club.

During Williams’ years as pastor, the Baptist Church of the Redeemer shared its building with at least 10 other church congregations.

More than $1 million in repairs needed

The Baptist Church of the Redeemer was able to keep a soup kitchen going until last month, when it was moved to a location a few blocks away. But for years, meals had to be catered because food couldn’t be cooked at 1921 Cortelyou Road.

Also, as of last month, Sunday worship services were moved to a different nearby location.   

It would cost more than $1 million for the congregation to stay in the Cortelyou Road building, Williams said. It would need new wiring, new plumbing, a brand-new roof and a gut renovation.

The church has 60 congregants. But “money is not the issue here because we tithe,” Williams said.

Tithing means congregants are expected to give a portion of their incomes, traditionally 10 percent, to their church. The money covers the church’s basic expenses and special programs.


Campanile is a micro-neighborhood’s ‘visual anchor’

Preservationists see the Baptist Church of the Redeemer’s planned demolition as part of an emerging trend.

“This is the third religious building that we know of in Brooklyn threatened with demolition since the new year, and in every case it is the church itself that is selling off the property,” Kelly Carroll of the Historic Districts Council said in an email.

“Brooklyn was known as the ‘City of Churches’ because of the vast number of religious edifices that characterized the borough at the turn of the 20th century, but it seems that Brooklyn is now becoming a place of steel and glass excrescence,” she said.

A Historic Districts Council letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s chairwoman says the Baptist Church of the Redeemer’s distinctive campanile is the “visual anchor” to the eastern boundary of Beverley Square East.

The area is one of several historic Victorian Flatbush micro-neighborhoods that haven’t been granted landmark status — but should be, in order “to safeguard their unique context in Brooklyn,” the letter says.


Apartments for formerly homeless young women

The Baptist Church of the Redeemer’s development partner is affordable-housing developer MHANY Management Inc. The acronym stands for Mutual Housing Association of New York.

The 76-unit rental-apartment building will house low-income tenants.  

Forty-six apartments will be occupied by young women coming out of homeless shelters. Social services will be provided for them onsite five days a week, Williams said. There will be 15 apartments for seniors, 14 units for families and one super’s unit.

There will be space for community groups to use.

“We’re not here just to come in on Sundays. We’re here to serve this community,” Williams said.

“And the new building will serve this community.”

She added, “This building is going to be a blessing to this neighborhood.”

The Baptist Church of the Redeemer will be able to live-stream worship services from its newly constructed church.

“Millennials would rather watch our service on their phones than come here,” Williams said of the existing church.

“People don’t bring their kids to Sunday school like they used to. This is not 1953. Things have changed.”


Peeling plaster and a leaking roof

Williams showed Eye on Real Estate around the church.

Its sanctuary is a soaring space. Rows of tall columns with high arches stand along the side walls, which have stained-glass windows designed in abstract patterns.

The eye-catching ceiling is clad with timber laid out in precise geometric patterns.

Bits of plaster are peeling off the walls and lie sprinkled on the wood floor.

Semi-circular oak pews are covered with plastic sheets. Here and there, puddles have collected on the plastic.

The roof leaks, though $50,000 was spent to repair it. So the congregation stopped using the sanctuary more than a decade ago and held worship services in an adjoining room.

At the front of the sanctuary, where you’d expect to see an altar if this were a different Christian denomination, there’s a baptismal pool. It has built-in steps so congregant and pastor can climb in and out of it.

The Baptists’ baptism ceremonies involve total immersion.

In a room in another part of the church, there’s a pair of hip waders Williams wore to perform the baptisms.

Behind the sanctuary, there’s a room where a chunk of the plaster ceiling is missing. It had been her office.

The pews will be kept for use when the new church building is constructed, Williams said. Stained glass windows will be made into a light box for its new fellowship hall. There will be an archives room.

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