Yet conflict, drama and wrenching change occurred within its walls, too.
In the church founded by Irish immigrants who fled the famine of the 1840s, the pews were in turn occupied by Poles, Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans.
The church played a role in the clashes in nearby Tompkins Square Park in the late 1980s and in this century was nearly demolished itself before a mystery donor stepped forward with millions of dollars to rescue it.
On Sunday, worshipers, including descendants of some of the original Irish parishioners, gathered as Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan consecrated and dedicated the newly renovated building. After 12 years and nearly $15 million, the church, on Avenue B and Eighth Street, was once again a parish church.
“You don’t believe in miracles, and then something like that happens,” said Peter Quinn, an author whose grandparents were married at St. Brigid’s in 1899. “It seemed so hopeless.”
From the altar, Cardinal Dolan praised his predecessor, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, who also took part in the Mass, for making the decision to restore the church.
“It was your dream, your trust, your daring at a time when so many dioceses were cutting back and closing,” he said. “You wanted something brand-spanking new.”
But in 2001, the parishioners and the Archdiocese of New York were on opposite sides when the archdiocese announced that it would close the church because of structural defects.
“The back wall was literally pulling away from the rest of the building,” said Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the archdiocese. “The back wall was six inches from the floor and walls. We had engineers in there who said: ‘Literally, the roof can fall at any moment. You cannot have people in this church.’ ”
Masses were moved to the church school. Parishioners formed a committee to restore the building, which was built in 1848, and raised about $100,000 of what they believed was the $300,000 cost.
“A ridiculous number, which I think was made up,” Mr. Zwilling said of that estimate, adding that the archdiocese’s estimate was closer to $8 million.
Then one day in 2006, demolition crews arrived. A painted glass window was smashed, pews were removed and an eight-foot-by-eight-foot hole was punched through a wall.
“We had to change the Committee to Restore St. Brigid to the Committee to Save St. Brigid,” said Edwin Torres, the committee’s leader.
Mr. Torres said parishioners felt that the archdiocese had strung the congregation along, letting it raise money knowing all along that a wrecking crew was coming: “I kept thinking: If we lived on Park Avenue or Madison Avenue, they would not be treating us like this.”
Mr. Zwilling insists that the archdiocese had no choice but to close the church, because the price tag to keep it open was too steep. With 375 parishes, he added, the archdiocese simply could not pour so much of its resources into one.
Undaunted, the committee hired lawyers and went to court, where it lost.
Then in 2008, the anonymous donor appeared and offered $20 million to restore St. Brigid and start a fund to help the parish school.
“We had lost at every step of the way, and now we’re going to the 5 p.m. Mass,” said Marisa Marinelli, a lawyer who handled the case on a pro bono basis. “Usually when you lose, you lose. We lost, but in the process kept the church standing.”
The archdiocese hired Michael F. Doyle of the Acheson Doyle Partners architecture firm to supervise the renovations. He said he found daunting structural problems.
He explained that St. Brigid’s, like much the rest of the neighborhood, was built on marshland, and with each flood over the years, the wood pilings it stood on had deteriorated.
“We had to underpin the entire church,” he said.
“The architecture and engineering that went into it is mind-boggling. People say: ‘How could you spend $15 million?’ We had to do all that work, otherwise it would have come down.”
The pews were replaced and the exterior restored to resemble the original brownstone.
Stained glass windows were brought from St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Harlem, which closed in 2003.
Mr. Doyle also restored an elaborate inscription along the top of the east wall that had been painted over in the 1960s, although there was not enough money to put the original bell back in the tower.
The parish has been merged with St. Emeric’s nearby, and the parish and the church are now known as St. Brigid and St. Emeric.
“It’s so gorgeous, I hardly recognize it,” said Sister Theresa Gravino, who taught at St. Brigid’s school from 1955 to 1959 and had not seen the church in half a century.
“It was Puerto Rican and Polish children who were very poor, whose parents sacrificed a lot to send them here. There was something special here, something they felt willing to donate money to fix.”