The incredible growth of a Ridgewood church: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

The spire of St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood, looking east along Catalpa Avenue, is one of the neighborhood's most recognizable structures.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons/Alt 55 Victor

Ridgewood was fast developing in the spring of 1908, as more houses began sprouting up across the once-rural landscape. As more residents moved into the area, new institutions followed to serve their every need, from the metaphysical to the spiritual.

One such institution is St. Matthias Church, which held its first Mass on Aug. 30, 1908, about a month after the first issue of the Ridgewood Times was published.

St. Matthias was formed in May 2, 1908, when Bishop of Brooklyn Charles McDonnell conceived the parish’s formation while traveling to Rome, Italy, with a young priest, Nicholas Wagner, whom he named the new church’s first pastor.

Wagner celebrated St. Matthias’ first Mass in the dance pavilion of Ridgewood Park, one of the many popular picnic parks in the area at that time. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Brooklyn searched for a place to build the church’s permanent home.

They didn’t have to look far to find it, as on March 6, 1909, Bishop O’Donnell purchased 1.28 acres of the former Meyerrose farm on the north side of Elm Avenue (present-day Catalpa Avenue) between Woodward and Onderdonk avenues. Once one of the largest farms in Ridgewood, other parcels of the Meyerrose estate were purchased and developed into row houses and multifamily apartment houses.

Just 12 days after closing the deal, the diocese began building a combined church and school building on March 19, 1909. Designed by architect F.J. Berlanbach, the project cost about $50,000 (or about $1.26 million in today’s dollars) and was completed in less than six months.

St. Matthias Church was dedicated on Labor Day, Sept. 6, 1909. Fr. Ambrose Schumack, rector of St. Fidelis Church in College Point, celebrated the first Mass, and Fr. Francis Siegelack of St. Margaret Church in Middle Village delivered the homily.

The two-story building included meeting rooms in the basement, the church seating 600 parishioners on the ground floor and six classrooms on the second floor. St. Matthias School would open a year after the church, operated by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

St. Matthias Parish grew rapidly, and the church expanded quickly in the following few years. The church/school building was expanded in 1913, and a year later, the church constructed a convent for the School Sisters of Notre Dame nearby.

Ridgewood’s population continued to explode, and by 1918, St. Matthias Parish — facing a sharp increase in both church members and school students — decided to undertake an even greater expansion. Father Wagner received permission from the Diocese to build a new St. Matthias Church located about 150 feet east of Onderdonk Avenue.

The front of St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Estimated to cost $150,000, the church building — constructed in the 1600s Italian Renaissance style — would be 184 feet long, 62 feet wide and include enough seating to accommodate 1,200 parishioners.

The parish broke ground on the new church on April 1, 1918, but construction was delayed due to America’s entry into World War I, which reduced manpower and raised raw material costs. Enough money was secured to complete the foundation, but the rest of construction would need to wait.

But that wait would extend beyond the conclusion of World War I in 1919, and with each passing year, construction estimates continue to grow. It seemed the project would never get underway, but by 1924, Father Wagner made the decision to move forward with construction, high labor and material costs be damned.

A Good Friday service in 2010 in the ornate upper St. Matthias Church (Ridgewood Times archives)

Wagner turned to his own parishioners, especially those in the building trades, to volunteer their services to the effort. The parish also raised funds for the new church’s four bells. By December 1924, much of the church’s exterior was finished, and the parish’s various associations raised the $20,000 needed to purchase the high altar.

Finally, on April 18, 1926, the new church was dedicated by Bishop of Brooklyn Thomas Edmund Molloy. The celebration went on throughout the following week, as parishioners reveled in the completion of Ridgewood’s newest and grandest house of worship.

A 2013 Ring Day Mass in the Lower Church of St. Matthias (Ridgewood Times archives)

St. Matthias Church features stained glass windows imported from Germany and fresco paintings on the ceiling of the Ten Commandments, St. Anthony, portraits of the Doctors of the Church, the Fourteen Holy Martyrs and a group picture showing parish members dedicating St. Matthias Church.

Reprinted from the April 9, 2015, Ridgewood Times.


If you have any remembrances or old photographs of “Our Neighborhood: The Way It Was” that you would like to share with our readers, please write to the Old Timer, c/o Ridgewood Times, 38-15 Bell Blvd., Bayside, NY 11361, or send an email to editorial@ridgewoodtimes.com. Any print photographs mailed to us will be carefully returned to you upon request.

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