Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church is a granite and limestone Gothic Revival church in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that was dedicated on May 15, 1904.
Expand the sections below to learn about our church's architecture, sacred features, stained glass and more.
Before entering please note the tympanum. This is the term for the sculpted figures over the central doorway or portal. Depicted is our parish patron, Saint Francis Xavier, preaching.
In this sculpted tympanum we see Saint Francis preaching with a Cross in his left hand while performing a baptism with his right hand. The seven individuals around him represent the Asian peoples to whom he ministered.
Saint Francis Xavier was one of the first members of the Catholic religious order of priests known as the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus), which was founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Saint Francis Xavier met Saint Ignatius while they were both students at the University of Paris. Francis Xavier was ordained a priest in 1537 and eventually preached the gospel in India and Japan. He died on December 3, 1552, on an island not far from China where he had hoped to preach the gospel.
With the first glance of the nave, a visitor is struck immediately by the colorful interior and the richness of detail in the decoration.
Thomas F. Houghton, the gifted architect of our parish church, gave astonishing attention to the minutest details of his design. There is no feature, both of the structure and of the decoration, which did not receive his full and careful consideration.
The parish is blessed that so much of that glorious vision was achieved and that every part of the church of St. Francis Xavier retains its original form. It is a gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, of the highest order. Throughout the tour, there will be references to his original designs – the parish has 142 of his drawings – and to those elements of more recent date.
The interior reflects the polychrome taste of the period. In contrast to the cool gray of the walls and ceiling, the rust and gold columns stand out with a warm tonality. Each of these columns is faced with scagliola, a special plasterwork material that simulates the appearance and texture of marble.
The scagiola columns at St. Francis Xavier are superb examples of this demanding architectural-artistic technique. Their coloring matches the pillars and columns of the altar.
Notice that each of the columns is surmounted by a foliated capital of stylized acanthus leaves. Interestingly, each of these capitals is unique; they are variations of the same theme, but no two are alike.
The lamps suspended by chains from the nave and transept vaults are two-storied lights of bronze and glass, hexagonal in section, and ornamented with fleurs-de-lis. They were installed in the early 1940’s by the Rambusch firm, a company long distinguished for its work in ecclesiastical design.
From the grilled arches of the triforium are hung the parish flags, which add color to the cool gray of the interior. They were first hung in 1986 for the Centennial of the Parish to celebrate the immigrant character of the community.
On the south side, in place of honor, is the American flag; the papal flag occupies a similar position on the north side.
The inclusion of the national flag in the church seems to be a peculiarly Anglo-American tradition; it is quite unknown, for instance, in most European countries.
The spaces, which you see to the left and the right in the picture below, are called the transepts. They intersect the nave of the church and thus give the building its cruciform plan.
High on either side you see the two great St. Francis Xavier windows created by J. Morgan and Sons of Brooklyn and set in the magnificent five-light stone tracery designed by Houghton.
The design of the right window is based on a Peter Paul Rubens painting, “The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier,” executed in Belgium in 1621. This is the only known copy of a Rubens work executed in stained glass. This masterpiece depicts the missionary activity of the saint in India. With St. Francis are a novice and fellow Jesuit, Francis Marsilhas and Martim Alfonso de Sousa, Royal Governor of the Portuguese colony of Goa, along with the poor, sick and invalid to whom St. Francis so faithfully ministered.
The second great window on the left complements the other by depicting the death of St. Francis Xavier off the coast of China and his glorification in heaven. Surrounding the Saint are Anthony, a Chinese convert who was St. Francis’ translator, and Diego Vaz, a Portuguese merchant who befriended Francis. Also included are several representations of the Saint’s work in the Orient.
The central marble altar and its three-spired reredos (or altar piece) were sculpted out of Carrara marble in Rome by Victor Fucignas. The small columns that adorn the altar are cut from yellow marble found only in Siena, Italy.
There are six sculptures: On the far left is Saint Peter, holding the keys of the kingdom. At the far right is Saint Paul, holding the book of the Epistles, which he wrote. The four smaller sculptures represent the four Evangelists with their attributes. From left to right, they are Matthew with the sack of coins (he had been a tax collector), Luke with the ox, John with the eagle, and Mark with the lion.
Turning our attention to the wall behind the reredos, we see a choir of 27 angels.
All are executed in appliqué, that is to say, they are painted on canvases, which are then glued or applied to the wall. The number 27 connotes the Trinity: 3x3x3=27.
Above the angels are five additional appliqué medallions. The central one depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove. Cardinal virtues are represented by the other medallions. Fom left to right: Prudence, holding a mirror; Justice, holding a sword and a balance; Temperance, holding a bridle; and Fortitude, with a wooden beam. All of these appliqués were executed in the summer of 1950 by E. Richard Panzironi.
Set in the center of the chancel is the altar of sacrifice where Mass is celebrated. This altar is a relatively recent addition to the chancel and was blessed by Bishop Francis Mugavero on October 5, 1986, during the Parish’s Centennial Liturgy.
Designed by Yan Rieger of Long Island, it is crafted of rich, dark oak. The clustered bronze columns at the corners of this altar were cast from molds of the columns on the marble altar behind it. The two tables and all the brass candlesticks in the chancel are original designs of Mr. Houghton.
In the front of the chancel area on the left is the pulpit, the enclosed platform from which the Word of God is proclaimed during the Mass. This pulpit has an octagonal plan with two side panels open for access via a curving stair.
The pulpit was sculpted by Martino Basanti to the specifications and design of Mr. Houghton but was not installed until 1908, four years after the dedication of the church.
At each of the corners formed by the sides of the pulpit are statues of evangelists and notable preachers. Among them are St. Francis Xavier, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Augustine, St. Mark, St. Jerome, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John. The elegant wooden lectern on the pulpit was added on Sept 26, 1986, in time for the principal Centennial Liturgy. It was carved from oak by Yan Rieger to match the Centennial altar.
The foliage design along the sides and front was adapted from the carving on the lectern in the chapel. The front panel has an open book displaying the Greek letters, Alpha and Omega, flanked by branches of willow.
The Mary altar is on the far side of the pulpit.
The focus in the deep alcove is an altar of Carrara and Siena marble with the reredos in the style of the main altar but simpler and on a smaller scale. The statue of Mary positioned above this altar shows her as the woman of the Book of Revelation, standing on a starry sphere with a crescent moon and the serpent beneath her feet. The wall behind the altar is blue, the color usually associated with the Virgin Mary.
To the left of this altar we find a window honoring St. Anne (below), the mother of the Virgin together with her daughter. This window is replete with flowers, which are emblems of Mary: a fleur-de-lis, roses, lily of the valley, Madonna lilies and marigolds. Bags of food are left weekly at this altar for distribution by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
The great painting hanging to the left of the St. Anne window shows the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus appearing in glory to St. Dominic and bestowing on him the gift of the rosary. This work by Richard Panzironi was commissioned in 1960 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the parish Rosary Society.
Turning left to the far aisle wall, we find a memorial tablet honoring the founder and first pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish, Rt. Rev Monsignor David J. Hickey. He was the first (and only) priest in the history of the diocese who, having founded a parish, also celebrated its golden jubilee. The tablet was dedicated in 1937 from a “grateful community.”
You are now standing before the Blessed Sacrament which, in recent years, has been reserved in the tabernacle of Saint Joseph’s Altar.
Although the founding Pastor was Irish and the community heavily Irish-American at the time of the parish’s founding, there are no Irish Saints nor any symbolism related to Ireland in the decoration of the Church.
Rather, in this English-inspired Gothic church, there are French motifs, most notably the fleurs de lis, seen on the wall behind the altar of Saint Joseph, also on top of the Baptistry gate to your right, and on the iron fence outside.
As you leave St. Joseph’s altar and approach the Baptistry gate to your right, please note the sculpture of Saint Anthony and, in the corner, the recently added shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, as well as the statue of Juan Diego, a gift to the Parish from a devoted parishioner.
As one enters the Baptistry, a mural of the Baptism of Clovis (on December 25, 496 A.D.) is immediately seen. Here, again, a French theme is sounded in the choice of Clovis, first Christian King of the Franks.
This mural was also painted by E. Richard Panzironi, who also executed the appliqués in the chancel. The theme of Baptism in this mural is continued in the stained glass window to your right, depicting the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist.
The font, of white Carrara marble with stem columns of yellow Siena marble (like the main altar), is the center and focus of the Baptistry. The basin of the font, when not in use, is covered by a great bronze lid, which is raised and lowered on a cable.
It was most unusual, in 1904, for a Baptistry to be located in the front of the church, as here at Saint Francis Xavier. Normally Baptistries were found at the rear of the church, adjacent to the narthex or vestibule.
Few U.S. Catholic parish churches created in the Nineteenth Century have an attached chapel. St. Francis Xavier's Chapel is dedicated to Mary and as a remembrance of those parishioners who served their country as members of the armed forces.It is used for daily celebrations of the Eucharist.
On the left side of the altar there is a stained glass window depicting the Immaculate Heart of Mary and on the right a stained glass window of St. Joseph with the Child Jesus. These windows differ from those in the main church being more opaque and richer in color due to painting of the glass rather than creating hue through firing.
The four side windows are grisaille stained glass windows that are usually grey or silver in tone. In Christian symbolism, the evergreen ivy represents fidelity and eternal life; grape leaves refer to the Christian laboring in the vineyard of the Lord.
Please note the window on the left closest to the altar. It is dedicated to Mississippi Snyder whose father, an ardent Southerner, married a Northern woman and settled on Prospect Park West. Her father converted to Catholicism and Mississippi and her sister, Carolina, followed him into the church.
Chapel pews are examples of the originally designed pews once in the main church.
The nave is flanked on either side by an arcade of four arches. The space above the arcades is the triforium; the triforium opens into the nave as a gallery of triple arches (hence the origin of the name).
The clerestory is the expanse of nave wall that extends from the triforium to the ceiling; it is pierced with windows which give light to the church. The tripartite elevation of the nave—its vertical division into aisle, triforium and clerestory—is an innovation of Gothic design that maximizes the wall space available for light and stained glass.
The grandeur and brilliance of the rose window in the west wall of the church is seen to best advantage especially in the late afternoon. The stone tracery of the rose extends nearly eighteen feet across, almost filling the nave gable.
This is a “simple” rose, having but a single cycle of twelve petals. In the center of the rose is David, King of Israel, playing the harp. Radiating from King David are 12 angels each playing a different musical instrument.