St. Joseph’s Church
St. Joseph’s Church is a historic Gothic Revival church in Albany, New York. It is in a state of active stabilization. The current building was the second to hold the title in the city. The first structure was the third Roman Catholic church built in the city and the first north of downtown.
St. Joseph’s Church was constructed to serve the Roman Catholic population in the northern area of Albany. 1 The only Catholic churches that existed in the city at the time were St. Mary’s in the center square and St. John’s in the southern area.
A meeting for the purpose of considering the erection of a new church was held in mid-1842. 1 Father Schneller, the pastor of St. Mary’s, presided. It was decided to purchase land at the northeast corner of North Pearl Street and Lumber Street (today’s Livingston Avenue).
The cornerstone of the first St. Joseph’s Church was laid on July 25, 1842. 1 The new building was completed at a cost of $28,000 and dedicated on May 7, 1843, by Rev. John Hughes.
The Rev. John J. Conroy was appointed the first regular pastor on March 25, 1844. 1 The parish rapidly grew and not long after, the church constructed the Girls’ Orphan Asylum on North Pearl Street, followed by schools for both males and females and a parochial residence at the northwest corner of North Pearl and Lumber streets.
The congregation increased to the point that the existing frame building was at capacity for each service. The church resolved to build a larger building with a more artistic and elaborate design. 1 A large plot of land, bounded by Ten Broeck, Second and First streets, was acquired for $45,000.
Plans for the new building were drawn up by Patrick Keeley who had also designed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. 1 The ground was broken in the fall of 1855. The cornerstone was laid by the Rev. Bishop McCloskey on June 1, 1856. The ceremony was witnessed by over 12,000 people.
The mammoth Gothic Revival styled building, measuring 212-feet and 116-feet, was completed in 1860 at a cost of $250,000. 1
Outside, the church was built of blue limestone trimmed with French Caen stone. 1 Inside were fourteen marble columns, of which ten were monoliths. There were three altars of marble and numerous stained glass windows illustrating the events in the life of the Redeemer. The stations of the cross were imported from Munich. The organ, built by Wilcox & Simmons of Boston, was the second largest in the nation when it was installed. 1
The new St. Joseph’s Church was dedicated on May 13, 1860. 1 The ceremony began at sunrise and did not conclude until 2 PM. 17 At least 3,500 people were within the church building with another 5,000 gathered around outside. In attendance were all the bishops in the ecclesiastical Province of New York including the Bishop of Albany and the Archbishop of New York, the Bishop of Boston, and the Bishop of Newfoundland, 1 and 80 priests. 17
The Caen stone that was used in the exterior did not weather well and was replaced with Ohio sandstone in 1866. 1
St. Joseph’s old church, which had been used as a boys’ school since 1860, was sold to the Albany Steam Bakery Company in 1874. 1 The proceeds paid off the debt of the new church building. The pastoral residence had already been sold, with the proceeds used for the same purpose.
In 1871, a large school for boys was built at the northwest corner of North Pearl and Colonie streets for $46,000. 1 Operated by the Christian Brothers, it boasted eight teachers and a daily attendance of between 500 and 600 pupils. A day school for girls, operated by the Sisters of Charity, had an attendance of 400 students. An Industrial School, also operated by the Sisters of Charity, taught female students to sew and dress make.
In 1985, the Black Apostolate of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese was formed to encourage African-American former Catholics to return to the Catholic Church. 2 The Black Apostolate regular mass was held at St. Joseph’s. The Vietnamese Apostolate also called St. Joseph’s home in the 1990’s. 3
Decline and Closure
St. Joseph’s was in poor financial condition by the 1980’s. In 1981, the church building was sold to Marine Colonel Bronislaus A. Gill for $29,000. 4
Owing to a declining congregation, the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese opted to share three priests among four churches in 1992: St. Joseph’s, St. Patrick’s, Sacred Heart, St. Casimir’s and St. George’s. 5
St. Joseph’s was closed in 1994 with the parish merged with that of Sacred Heart. 3 The Diocese noted that the building had $2 million in deferred maintenance, including cracked stained glass windows, a leaking roof, a stone foundation that was cracking, and a rusted and collapsed iron fence. 4
The Diocese purchased the church from Colonel Gill in 1996 for $30,000. 6 The church then organized a committee of representatives from the church, the Ten Broeck Triangle Preservation League, Historic Albany Foundation, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Mayor Jerry Jennings, Albany County Executive Michael Breslin, and NYS Assemblyman John McEneny to devise a new use for the church building.
It was estimated by the Historic Albany Foundation in 1999 that the cost to repair the church was $445,000, cheaper than if it was torn down at a cost of $500,000. 7
In August 2000, the church sold the building for $1 to the Abate family, who owned a pair of nightclubs and restaurants in the area. 7 The family desired to reuse the church for weddings, banquets, concerts and charity events. The sale faced opposition from Mayor Jennings when it was discovered that the Abate family owned back the city and school taxes in Albany. The neighborhood community also opposed the family when it was discovered that they applied for a zoning variance to allow for noon to 4 AM operating hours for a banquet facility planned in the church. 8
St. Joseph Church was condemned by the city on December 20, 2001. 9 That allowed the city to begin emergency efforts to prevent the building from collapsing by reinforcing two support columns and replacing the roof.
The city desired to purchase the church back from Abate, negotiating overtime over a purchase price. 11 When those talks broke down, the city initiated eminent domain proceedings.
The city won ownership of the church on January 10, 2003, when a judge signed an eminent domain ruling in the city’s favour. 10 The city had still not yet determined a fair market price to offer Abate, who had yet to pay the city’s $240,000 bill for emergency repairs to the church.
The city then turned the deed over to the Historic Albany Foundation who was working towards a $300,000 matching grant for continuing stabilization work. 10 The grant was then awarded in 2003. 12 Over $700,000 in repairs were completed to the building. 16
Ravens Head Brewing Company initially sought to purchase the church but instead acquired the former Cohoes Armory in February 2003. 16 The plan to buy the church had generated opposition from neighbors who feared bar-hoppers and parking dilemmas.
The Albany Historic Foundation and the city hosted Obsequi, a multimedia performance of dance and music at St. Joseph’s in 2007. 12 Further art and musical performances were later held, along with fundraising events. 12 13 14
In 2009, the church was sold to the non-profit organization World Unity Corporation. 15 World Unity, an organization that promoted education, arts and multiculturalism, promised to renovate the building to serve as its headquarters.
The project collapsed when the treasurer Mala Khan was convicted of financial fraud in 2013. 15 Because of the building’s lack of maintenance during World Unity’s ownership, the building’s ownership reverted to the Historic Albany Foundation on May 16, 2013, 16 but the building was divested and turned over to the city shortly thereafter.