5815 Catalpa Avenue
Architect: Francis J. Berlenbach, Jr.
Added to National Register of Historic Places: 2012
Located in Ridgewood South Historic District, designated 26 October 2010
My hope is that this project will take me into houses of worship I’ve passed by and admired from the outside but never had the nerve to enter, and it has already introduced me to places I didn’t even know were there. This week, however, I visited a church that I am a little more familiar with than most I will be visiting. St. Matthias Roman Catholic Church towers over the heart of Ridgewood, Queens, just north of the bustling shopping district lining Myrtle Avenue. For five years, until 2016, my family and I lived in the adjacent neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and we wandered the beautiful streets of Ridgewood and its historic districts often. My family and I also frequented local places such as the Ridgewood branch of the Queens Library and Rosemary’s Playground. After these visits we would often wait for the M train at the elevated Forest Av subway station nearby. From the platform I would admire the clock tower of St. Matthias Church, which rose above the surrounding apartment blocks. At night in particularly I loved how it stood out bathed by floodlights against a black landscape punctuated by light from street lamps and windows.
As I recall, I walked into St. Matthias once before, as my wife and our daughter and I were passing by. But I was more than happy to wander in once again.
The front steps lead to a small porch with a ceiling of Guastavino tile, one of the few elements that belie the present church building’s age. The front doors lead through a small vestibule whose inside doors open directly into the sanctuary, though the overhang of the choir loft above, together with cabinets behind the last row of pews, creates a narthex of sorts. As I peered in through the glass in the doors from the vestibule, I noticed that a small gathering in the sanctuary was just breaking up. I gathered that a child’s baptism had just taken place. The timing was perfect, because the lights of the sanctuary were burning brightly, enhancing the shafts of soft, yellow sunlight pouring in the stained glass on the south side of the nave.
I walked counterclockwise around the sanctuary. The present St. Matthias Church was completed in 1926 and designed by Francis J. Berlenbach, Jr. I actually didn’t know this at that moment, but I could have guessed it. In week 5 of this project I visited the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph in Brooklyn, and the Romanesque arches defining the aisles on either side of the nave, with a barrel vault overhead and roundels above each of the bays in the arcades, seemed very familiar.
But St. Matthias is not a carbon copy of its sister church in Prospect Heights. Here the transepts break across the arcades to create a cruciform space that fills the height of the church. St. Matthias is also smaller than St. Joseph, with a more modest altar at the back of the apse lacking the baldachin at the co-cathedral, though made of a similarly brilliant white marble. And while St. Joseph has its Marian murals in the roundels above the arcades, St. Matthias devotes ten roundels in the barrel vault above the nave and transept to each of the Ten Commandments.
As the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report (PDF) for the surrounding South Ridgewood Historic District, of which St. Matthias is a part, notes, “Dedicated in 1926, the new church, cruciform in plan and featuring a bell tower with a clock face atop the narthex, made a grand architectural statement for the thriving parish, yet complemented the existing buildings with its modest scale, pale-yellow brick, and elegant Classical forms and ornament. … Berlenbach’s design for the new church was rooted in the ecclesiastical architecture of the Italian Renaissance, particularly expressed in the two-stage central bell tower with cupola, and thus was an appropriate choice for a Roman Catholic parish” (pages 22–23).
Want to visit?
The church’s website lists various services every day of the week. It does not, however, have much, if any, historic or architectural information about the church.
Fortunately, as I noted above, St. Matthias Church is in the heart of an area that was designated an official New York City historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in October 2010. The LPC’s thorough designation report (PDF, 158 pages) on the South Ridgewood Historic District has a succinct history of the parish and the present church, which is the second on the site (see pages 21–23 as numbered on the report, which are pages 26–28 in the PDF). The designation report also has a thorough architectural description of the church’s exterior on pages 36–38 (41–43 in the PDF) along with some excellent photos of the church and the other buildings in the St. Matthias Church complex, such as the rectory and school, on pages 148–152 (153–157).
While I’m on it, if you are ever interested in learning more about the history and architecture of a building or district that has been designated historic by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, I would highly recommend these designation reports. They are thoroughly researched and well written, and they offer some of the best, most reliable, and most succinct information you can find anywhere on New York City’s historic buildings, particularly the less famous ones. Start with locating a building or district on the LPC’s map (works best from a desktop) and go from there. You can also search for designation reports by name, keyword, address, borough, and type.