St. Mary's Park
St. Mary’s Playground
This playground is named for the nearby St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Roman Catholic Church on Court Street. The park is located at the intersection of Smith, Huntington, Nelson, and Luquer Streets, and it borders the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Red Hook, Gowanus, and Carroll Gardens.
The name “St. Mary’s Star of the Sea” is not uncommon among Catholic parishes in coastal areas. This title for the Virgin Mary is most likely derived from a biblical reference in 1 Kings 18:41-45. The passage refers to a small cloud seen from Mount Carmel that appeared above the sea as a symbol of hope. Because it gave the hope that rain would soon fall and end the land’s drought, this tiny cloud was called “the Star of the Sea.” In Catholic theology, Mary the mother of Jesus is the greatest saint and therefore the patroness for all who hope that redemption and deliverance will soon be at hand. In the 12th century, the reformist monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) wrote,
“If the winds of temptation arise;
If you are driven upon the rocks of tribulation look to the star, call on Mary;
If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry,
look to the star, call on Mary.”
From the 19th to the mid-20th centuries, these neighborhoods collectively served as one of the busiest shipping centers in the United States. Dominated by taverns, rooming houses, and a small collection of row houses, the area once catered largely to sailors, transient laborers, and local Italian and Irish dock-workers. When it was founded in 1851, this parish chose a name that reflected the sea-faring tradition of the local Catholic community. In 1867, St. Mary’s opened its school, and shortly thereafter the children began gathering here each morning before beginning their classes. Nearly a century would pass before it became official parkland. In 1918, the Church was the location of a famous marriage. Alphonse (Al) Capone (1899-1947), a Brooklyn native who later became the most notorious leader of the Chicago Mafia, married Mary May Coughlin at St. Mary’s.
The two parcels of land for this park were acquired by the New York Department of Transportation in 1934 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) Works Progress Administration’s urban revitalization initiative. Originally they were to be utilized for the new Gowanus Expressway (1941), but many in the community thought the land straddling Nelson Street would be an ideal site for a playground. In 1955, the Department of Transportation transferred ownership of the land bordering the busy commercial thoroughfare to Parks. In the late 1960s, as the neighborhood population began to swell, Parks developed one of the parcels into a fenced-in playground for small children. Within a few years, Parks added basketball courts for older children and adults on the adjoining land.