In 1970, Ed Wilkinson was fresh out of college with a degree in philosophy, and he was looking for a job. The Tablet, the newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens, was looking for a reporter, and Wilkinson had a mutual friend who worked there.
He interviewed for the position, and The Tablet decided to take a chance on him — offering him a six-month trial period. Wilkinson had no prior journalism experience, but he had attended Catholic school, and he picked up all the necessary skills – writing, reporting, taking photographs — on the fly. He snapped photos of popes, presidents, mayors, and everyday churchgoers.
A half-century later, in 2020, Wilkinson retired with plenty of photographs and 50 years’ worth of stories, written and remembered. His friends and colleagues urged him to write a book — and, finally, he agreed — and he just released “Chasing Church News,” a retrospective of his time on staff at the paper.
“Everything I learned about journalism I learned on the job, they were very patient with me,” Wilkinson said. “When I started as a reporter, you were a one-man band — you wrote your own stories, you did your own photos.”
He loved taking pictures — especially when they switched from a boxy old camera to a new 35mm, which was much better for sports photos — and started honing his skills even outside of work. Wilkinson took photos at schools, sports games, holidays, visits from religious figures – if it affected the Catholic community, he was there.
Every so often, he’d take a photo he thought was particularly good and would print and frame it for himself. At home, Wilkinson had a whole folder of his favorite photos — so when he started seriously considering writing a book, he decided to find one or two negatives to represent each year of his career at the Tablet.
“I just collected them all and I said, ‘This is it, I’ll tell the story of the last 50 years in these photos,’” Wilkinson said. “This was like a snapshot for me of what it meant to be a Catholic in the last 50 years.”
It wasn’t easy — as a reporter and editor, Wilkinson stored his negatives in envelopes with the year written on the outside. When he started on the book, he headed down to The Tablet’s storage facility in Red Hook — and found it vacant.
Thankfully, he found another address at The Tablet’s office, one for a warehouse in Jersey City, where he found all his old negatives stashed away. Sheet by sheet, he started sorting through the negatives, picking out the best ones — the most impactful photos, or the ones with the best stories behind them.
Covering the diocese meant, of course, plenty of photos snapped inside churches, at services and church events. But the scope of the Tablet was broader — when he started, the paper’s philosophy was to find out how the church and local Catholics were affected by secular news, and how the church fit into the latest events.
When Eastern Airlines Flight 66 crashed as it landed at John F. Kennedy Airport in 1975, Wilkinson heard that a number of Catholic chaplains had headed to the crash site, where the wreckage of the plane was scattered across Rockaway Boulevard. They blessed bodies and helped out in any way they could.
“Things like that all of the sudden came real news stories for us, because there was a church connection,” he said. “To us, this was real news, and we were supposed to be reflecting what was going on in the community.”
Wilkonson recalled photographing Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit to Brooklyn — the first time any pope had come to Brooklyn.
To represent 1976, he chose a photo he had taken outside the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. He had headed to Midtown to find any religious angle, maybe speak to some locals who had been chosen as delegates. As he roamed outside the venue, he spotted someone carrying a sign that read “JC Can Save America,” featuring a depiction of Jimmy Carter as Jesus.
“A lot of them are really just local scenes, though,” Wilkinson said. “I have a picture back in 1972 from a local cemetery strike … of the priest, who was a chaplain at the hospital, he was actually burying the dead. The gravediggers were on strike, and this priest was actually digging graves and lowering coffins into the ground.”
Each photo in the book is accompanied by Wilkinson’s musings on the moment — under a photo of then-governor Mario Cuomo kissing the bishop’s ring, he recalls the recent rift between Cuomo and the church. A happy snap shows a former Tablet editor being ordained a deacon at a church in Rockville Center.
Since his retirement, Wilkinson still helps out at The Tablet occasionally, writing a story and taking photos here and there when they have time — or providing commentary on the diocese’s live TV news station for Pope Benedict XVI’s funeral.
Over five decades at The Tablet, he’s seen a lot of change within the diocese and its churches and parishioners.
“One of the great changes has been the real diversity, the shift in demographics,” Wilkinson said. “It’s always this constant shifting of who we are as a church here in Brooklyn.”
Since 1970, the Catholic community in Brooklyn has grown to include more Catholics from China, the Philippines, Mexico, and Latin America – who each have their own separate customs and celebrations. The once-homogeneous population now celebrates everything from Lunar New Year to Our Lady of Guadalupe Day, and the best part, for Wilkinson, is how many of those celebrations spill out of the church and onto the street with colors and music.
“It’s really been great to see that the faith has really come alive more,” he said. “Back in the 70s, it was beginning to die off a little bit, become dormant. And with these new ethnic groups coming into the diocese, it’s really given a new life to the church.”
With the new book out, Wilkinson is touring churches in Brooklyn and Queens for signings. He had his first event at Our Lady of Angels Roman Catholic Church in Bay Ridge, his home parish, on Jan. 29, where he got to meet up with family and friends he’s known for years. Additional signings are scheduled at St. Andrew the Apostle in Bay Ridge on Feb. 5 and The Church of St. Mel in Flushing on Feb. 12.