The parish of Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York, was founded in 1911 by the late Bishop Charles Edward McDonnell. He appointed Father Robert O'Donovan, Irish-born graduate of both Mount Melleray College in Dublin and the Sulpician Seminary in Paris, as its first pastor to serve a congregation that at the time was approximately 400 strong. Although initial attempts to gain permission to build a church were met with difficulty, Bishop McDonnell eventually prevailed and, in May 1912, construction began on what would serve as the first church. On June 23 the cornerstone was laid in place, and by September the building was complete, with an official dedication by Bishop McDonnell in April 1913.
The small, frame-structure edifice was home to the congregation for less than two decades before their numbers began to outgrow the size of their worship space. By 1928 it was clear that a new, larger building was necessary; consequently, the parish began raising the money for the project. While Father O'Donovan initiated these efforts, he did not, regrettably, live long enough to see the completion of the present church. Injured in an automobile accident from which he never fully recovered, Father O'Donovan died in 1929 and is buried in Ireland. His successor, Monsignor Francis P. Connelly, carried the torch to the next phase. Monsignor Connelly, the youngest of 11 children, came from a sturdy background that included a high-school diploma from St. Michael's in Toronto and further education from Brooklyn's St. John's Seminary. Connelly served as a dedicated priest for nearly 62 years--he was the moderator for the Diocesan Union of Holy Name Societies, chaplain for the St. Patrick Society of Brooklyn, and the Pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church for 35 years. Pope Pius XI entitled him Very Reverend Monsignor in 1929, followed by a second designation, a domestic prelate of Right Reverend Monsignor in 1938. It was Connelly's determined vision and perseverance that raised the funds for the completion of the stately, Gothic-style church made of granite at the corner of Ocean and Foster Avenues. Ground was broken in 1933, and the construction was finished the following year at a cost of $400,000. By that time, the congregants' generosity left the parish free of any debt, one of very few in the United States to achieve such a goal upon the completion of a new church and rectory. The first Mass in the 1,000-seat, artistically ecclesiastical sanctuary took place on June 16, 1934; the dedication ceremony was led the next day by the Bishop of Brooklyn, his Excellency the Most Reverend Thomas E. Molloy, S.T.D.
A French Gothic-style influence pervades the church architecture, reflecting a mandate given by the Diocesan Building Committee to Henry V. Murphy prior to the completion of his design. One first sees the decorated archway upon entering the Ocean Avenue entrance, above which is a Latin inscription reading, "Mother of God, Refuge of men, pray for us." The narthex floor is terrazzo, extending into the north and south entranceways to the church itself, where one finds brick stairways that lead to the balcony. Brick is further used throughout the arches, piers and walls, with the decorated blue ceiling specifically tailored to enhance acoustics. At the crossing, one finds the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help to the south and, to the north, the Sacristy entrance and Baptistery. The two side aisles are flanked by, respectively, statues of St. Anthony and St. Anne; adorning the side aisles are a series of shrines containing marble altars. Mandorlato St. Ambrogia marble and stucco richly covers the reredos and main altar, the steps leading up to the latter done in Rosso Sienna marble. The low section of the altar was fashioned from Algerian onyx. Of special mention are two stained-glass windows that allow ample light to enhance the interior colors. Depicted in the windows are the Stations of the Cross, created from metals and enamel background, all enhanced by well-distributed light fixtures in a star pattern, allowing a balance between glass- reflected light and the inherent lightness of the structure's design.
The placement of the Kilgen organ is off to the side and in the tower, unlike the more traditional placement in the rear gallery at the back of the nave. There is no visible fašade or casework, the pipework being hidden behind a screen at the rear of the side gallery, placed above and behind the choir gallery floor where the console itself rests.
Today, the Our Lady of Refuge parish comprises approximately 1,500 families, evenly divided into three language groups--English, Spanish and Creole. There are some 30 nationalities represented in total. In addition to the full range of religious services offered in all three languages, Our Lady of Refuge serves the social needs of all, regardless of a person's religious affiliation. More than 300 households are provided with food each week, enough for three meals a day. Volunteers from the parish and East Midwood Jewish Center assure this service to the population that is mostly elderly, among them many Russian/Ukrainian immigrants and new arrivals from Pakistan.
The rectory basement also serves as a classroom every day of the week for a GED program for adults sponsored by the New York State Department of Education. The parish offers this space and its amenities at no cost in an attempt to help provide another stepping-stone to those who need it. Additionally, their school classrooms are offered for free, twice a week, for ESL (English as a Second Language) programs. Teachers for those courses are provided by the Board of Education.