Father Sylvester Malone- Influential Catholic Priest in Williamsburg

stpeterstpaulext-250x382 Screen shot 2015-01-26 at 10.32.52 PM

The Reverend Sylvester Malone is one of the great, but forgotten figures in the history of Williamsburg. He arrived in Williamsburg in 1844 when anti-Catholic feeling was running so  high that  six hundred protesters came to denounce his  building of a local  Catholic Church, yet fifty- five years later when he died Malone was a revered figure, not only in the Catholic community, but also amongst Protestants and Jews.

Malone was born in Westmeath Ireland in 1821. He came from a large family and was recruited to come to America and enter the seminary with the goal of becoming a priest. He was a tall, handsome broad shouldered man with a genial and kindly face and affable manners. In Ireland he was a student of both Latin and Greek and he was educated by many Protestants for whom he had a deep respect. His religious toleration of other sects was unusual in the eighteen forties, but Malone was a man who all his life never  discriminated against people on the basis of race, creed or nationality.

Malone was ordained in 1844 and was sent to St. Mary’s Parish in Williamsburg, which had a few hundred parishioners at most. The church was not only saddled with debt, but was also  the focal point of Nativist Anti- Catholic agitation. At one point hundred of Nativists, or as they were known, Know- Nothings, arrived at the church with the aim of destroying it. Three Irishmen succeeded in locking the doors and the gates of the church, but the crowd shook the gates so strongly that they knocked the metal cross on the top of the gates down. The crowd was only stopped when the mayor of Williamsburg William Wall  ( It was an independent city then with its own mayor) said that the protesters would have to march over his dead body. Malone was often subject to verbal abuse by Protestants, especially the local private fire brigade, which was a hot bed of Know Nothing sentiment. Malone never responded with anger to these taunts.

Malone began his tenure as head of the church just as Ireland was experiencing the worst years of the famine. The church population soon rose to five thousand and a new church building was needed. The parish was renamed Saint Peter and St. Paul’s and  needed a new larger home for its large congregation. Father Malone convinced a young Irish born carpenter to try his hand at doing the architectural drawings for the church. The architect’s name was Patrick Keely, who  succeeded in building a beautiful church on Wythe and South Second. Keely would become a major church architect and  go on to design more than six hundred churches, including Saint Anthony of Padua in Greenpoint.

There was another unusual thing about Father Malone, his politics. In a city where the Irish were overwhelmingly Democratic and often pro-slavery, Malone was a Republican abolitionist and an ardent and outspoken supporter of the union during the Civil War. His church was the first Catholic church in America to fly the stars and stripes and many of his sermons supported Lincoln and emancipation of slaves.

Many Catholic priests of his day had little to do with Protestant ministers and spoke against Protestantism from the alter. Malone, however, was different and used to walk arm-in arm with the local Protestant Clergy. Malone would go one step further. He would become a true friend of the local Jewish community that was rapidly growing in Williamsburg. Challenged to attend a local Purim celebration by Brooklyn Mayor Martin Kalbfleisch, Malone, not only accepted the invitation, but also became an intimate friend of local rabbis and was loved by the Areas Jews for his support of their community.

Although a proud American citizen, Malone never forgot Ireland. He visited in the 1870’s and was shocked at the way the landlords abused their tenants. He became a strong supporter of the Land League and an advocate for home rule. In 1861 he founded the Irish- American fraternal organization The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, which still exists today.

Malone had a few brushes with death while ministering to the sick of the parish. He contracted both Cholera and smallpox, yet survived both. Malone ended up serving in his parish for fifty-five years, dying in december 1999 just two days before the start of the new century.  There was grief all around Williamsburg. Tributes came from all the people of Williamsburg, especially those of other faiths. A great had passed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s