The cornerstone of St. Mary’s Church at the center square in Albany was laid on September 13, 1797, 18 and when it opened, it became the first parish established in what became the Albany Diocese in 1847. St. John’s was constructed in 1837 to serve an emerging neighborhood in the southern fringes of the city and a meeting to consider a proposal for a new church on the northern edge of the city was held in mid-1842. 1 Father Schneller, the pastor of St. Mary’s, presided and it was decided to purchase land in the Arbor Hill neighborhood at the northeast corner of North Pearl Street and Lumber Street. The cornerstone of St. Joseph’s Church was laid on July 25, 1842, and the new $28,000 wood-framed sanctuary was dedicated by Rev. John Hughes on May 7, 1843.
Rev. John J. Conroy was appointed the first regular pastor of St. Joseph’s on March 25, 1844. 1 Because of the rapid growth of the congregation, the parish 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 Street. It was not long before the sanctuary was at or past capacity for each service and a plot of land, bound by Ten Broeck, Second and First Street, was acquired for $45,000 and plans were drawn up for the new church building by Patrick Keeley who had also designed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
The ground was broken for the second iteration of St. Joseph’s Church in the fall of 1855, with the cornerstone laid in an elaborate ceremony attended by over 12,000 people by Rev. Bishop McCloskey on June 1, 1856. 1 The mammoth Gothic Revival-style building was completed at the cost of $250,000 and dedicated on May 13, 1860. The ceremonies, attended by 8,500, began at sunrise and did not conclude until 2 PM. 17 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 new sanctuary was built of blue limestone trimmed with French Caen stone. Inside were fourteen marble columns, of which ten were monoliths, three altars of marble, and stained glass windows that illustrated the events in the life of the Redeemer. 1 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. The Caen stone that was used in the exterior did not weather well and was replaced with Ohio sandstone in 1866.
The old church building, reused as a boy’s school, was sold to the Albany Steam Bakery Company in 1874. 1 The former pastoral residence was also sold and the proceeds from the two sales paid off the debt of the new church building.
In 1871, a large school for boys was built at the northwest corner of North Pearl and Colonie Street for $46,000. 1 Operated by the Christian Brothers, it boasted eight teachers with 500 and 600 pupils attending daily. A day school for girls, run by the Sisters of Charity, had an attendance of 400 students, and an Industrial School, also managed by the Sisters of Charity, taught female students home economics and to sew and craft dresses.
Decline and Closure
Urban sprawl contributed to white flight by the 1970s and the Arbor Hill neighborhood began to lose much of its population, and by the end of the 20th century, the area had become distressed and predominately African-American—many of whom were not Catholic. With St. Joseph’s church attendance and finances in steep decline, the high-maintenance and costly church building was sold to Marine Colonel Bronislaus A. Gill for $29,000. 4
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 with regular mass being held at St. Joseph’s. The Vietnamese Apostolate was also called St. Joseph’s home in the 1990s. 3 In 1992, the Albany Diocese opted to share three priests among four churches to save costs in 1992: St. Joseph’s, St. Patrick’s, Sacred Heart, St. Casimir’s, and St. George’s. 5
Owing to $2 million in deferred maintenance, which included cracked stained glass windows, a leaking roof, and a subsiding stone foundation, 4 St. Joseph’s was closed in 1994 and the parish was merged with Sacred Heart. 3 The Diocese purchased the church from Colonel Gill in 1996 for $30,000 and then organized a committee of representatives that included 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. 6 It was estimated by the Historic Albany Foundation in 1999 that the cost to repair the church was $445,000 which was cheaper than the $500,000 it would take to tear the building down. 7
The Diocese sold the church building to the Abate family for $1 in August 2000. 7 The family, who owned a pair of nightclubs and restaurants, wanted to reuse the structure as an events venue but the sale faced opposition from Mayor Jennings when it was discovered that the family owed deferred city and school taxes. The neighborhood community also opposed the family when it was discovered that they applied for a zoning variance to allow for noon to 4:00 AM operating hours. 8
Unfortunately, the church structure was condemned by the city on December 20, 2001, which allowed the city to begin emergency efforts to prevent the building from collapsing by reinforcing two support columns and replacing the roof. 9 The city desired to purchase the church back from the Abate family, negotiating overtime over a purchase price, but when those talks broke down, the city initiated eminent domain proceedings. 11 The city won ownership of the church when a judge signed an eminent domain ruling in the city’s favor on January 10, 2003. 10 The city had still not yet determined a fair market price to offer to the Abate family who had not yet paid the city’s $240,000 bill for emergency repairs to the church.
The city turned St. Joseph’s deed over to the Historic Albany Foundation who received a $300,000 matching grant in 2003 12 to continue stabilization work on the structure. 10 Over $700,000 in repairs were completed to the building. 16
Ravens Head Brewing Company initially sought to purchase the church but it received opposition from neighbors who feared bar-hoppers and parking dilemmas. 16 The brewery instead acquired the former Cohoes Armory in February 2003. 16
The Albany Historic Foundation and the city hosted Obsequi, a multimedia performance of dance and music at St. Joseph’s in 2007, 12 and further art and musical performances were later held to raise money to continue stabilization work on the church building. 12 13 14 In 2009, the church building was sold to the non-profit organization World Unity Corporation who had proposed to renovate the building to promote education, arts, and multiculturalism. 15 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 structure’s ownership reverted to the Historic Albany Foundation on May 16, 2013, and then to the city shortly thereafter. 16
- Howell, George Rogers, and Jonathan Tenney. “St. Joseph’s Church.” Bi-Centennial History of Albany: History of the County of Albany, N.Y., from 1609 to 1866, W.W. Munsell, 1866, pp. 755-56.
- Thurman, Ken. “Shephard Seeking ‘Lost Sheep’ Diocese Reaching Out to Blacks.” Times Union [Albany], 31 May 1986, p. D1.
- O’Brien, Tim. “St. Joe’s Final Mass Parish Merges With Sacred Heart.” Times Union [Albany], 11 Jul. 1994, p. B1.
- Yu, Winifred. “Neighbors Fear for Arbor Hill Church’s Fate.” Times Union [Albany], 29 Jul. 1994, p. B3.
- Clabby, Catherine. “5 Inner-city Churches to Share 3 Priests.” Times Union [Albany], 9 Apr. 1991, p. B2.
- Yu, Winifred. “Diocese Buys Back Historic Church.” Times Union [Albany], 8 Mar. 1996, p. B7.
- Wechsler, Alan. “Historic Church to Regain Past Glory.” Times Union [Albany], 19 Aug. 2000, p. B1.
- Polgreen, Lydia. “Arbor Hill Neighbors Object to Plan for Historic Church.” Times Union [Albany], 11 May 2001, p. B5.
- Crowe II, Kenneth C. “Historic Church Condemned.” Times Union [Albany], 21 Dec. 2001, p. B8.
- Duggan, Erin. “Ruined Church Returned to City.” Times Union [Albany], 11 Jan. 2003, p. B1.
- Scruton, Bruce A. “City Set to Sign Over St. Joseph’s.” Times Union [Albany], 4 Feb. 2003, p. B1.
- Kane, Tim. “A Resurrection.” Times Union [Albany], 6 Sept. 2007, p. P31.
- “Albany County Edition.” Times Union [Albany], 7 Sept. 2007, p. D1.
- “Calendar.” Times Union [Albany], 15 Sept. 2007, p. B3.
- Fries, Amanda. “Former Catholic Church in historic neighborhood faces uncertainty.” Times Union [Albany], 5 Jun. 2017.
- Brown, Kristen V. “St. Joseph’s reverts to city ownership.” Times Union [Albany], 16 May 2013.
- “Dedication of St. Joseph’s Church, Albany.” New York Times 14 May 1860, pg. 5.
- “Our History.” Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, 2020.
- Fries, Amanda. “Ten Broeck residents want historic church as focus in downtown revitalization.” Times Union [Albany], 15 Feb. 2019.