Tuesday, May 11, 2010
The church has recently taken on several renovation projects to maintain its status as a landmark and to preserve its rich history in the heart of Old New York in honor of its 2009-2015 anniversary campaign. Last summer, newly appointed Archbishop Timothy Dolan celebrated Mass at the old cathedral to kick off the anniversary campaign, complete with a celebratory parade up Mott Street, which included Civil War reenactments and several floats, one of which was of a scale model of the cathedral.
The church has an active youth ministry along with a close relationship with the Sisters of Life, founded by John Cardinal O'Connor, who meet interested parties for Mass on the first Saturday morning of every month, and then head to pray in front of abortion clinics. Next to the cathedral is the church's Russian Catholic Chapel, which serves the small community of Russian Rite Catholics.
Pierre Toussaint was a slave until 1807 when his owner died. He became an active abolitionist along with his wife whose freedom he had purchased. In addition to keeping an open door to orphans and the impoverished, Toussaint was also instrumental in the building of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. His cause for sainthood was raised by John Cardinal O'Connor, who also had his grave moved from the old cathedral to the new cathedral in 1990. Toussaint was declared venerable in 1996 by Pope John Paul II.
Saint John Neumann was born in the Czech republic and sought ordination to the priesthood where he was continually denied entry due to a surplus of priests. Knowing English, he wrote seeking ordination in America, and traveled there. He was finally ordained at Old Saint Patrick's, where a plaque commerates his ordination. He worked tirelessly with German immigrants in upstate New York, and eventually became Bishop of Philadelphia. Like Archbishop Hughes, Neumann was instrumental in the establishment of a diocesan Catholic school system. He also dealt with tremendous opposition from the Nativists. He is worth mentioning as he had a tremendous impact on America Catholicism as a whole, and because the development of Philapelphia Catholicism was similar to that of New York.
Other notable mentions include Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist fathers, who was originally buried at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, but whose grave was exhumed and moved to the crypt at St. Paul the Apostle Church on 60th St.
One would be remiss to consider the rich history of New York City without including the growth of the New York Catholic Church. At the heart of the history of New York are the many Catholic immigrants from Irish, Italian, and Eastern European backgrounds that helped build the city. Today, the Archdiocese of New York serves about 2.5 million faithful, but in 1785, there were as little as 200 Catholics in New York City. It wasn’t until spring of 1808 that the Diocese of New York was established, and even then it was under the Archdiocese of Baltimore. About a year later, construction commenced on St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street in the heart of Old New York. It was not until 1815 that it was dedicated as the Cathedral for the diocese of New York. The first bishop of New York, Richard Luke Concanen, an Irishman, was appointed in Europe and died there, never reaching American soil, and never seeing his cathedral.
Close to the heart of the Cathedral is the history of New York’s Irish immigrants. Out of thirteen bishops, twelve have been Irish-American. The location of the cathedral places it at the very center of the violence between Nativist gangs and Irish-Catholic immigrant groups in the mid 19th century. The cathedral itself was subject to attacks by Nativist gangs, and a wall was built around it at the direction of Archbishop John Hughes (Fordham’s founder and New York’s first archbishop). Since its inception, Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral has been an icon of New York’s immigrant culture.
It was in 1853 that Archbishop Hughes announced his plans to build a bigger cathedral outside of the heart of New York, and in 1879 that St. Patrick’s Cathedral became the cathedral for the Archdiocese of New York. The New Cathedral is fittingly located in the heart of new New York, symbolically carrying on the importance of the New York Catholic Church in the history of the city. Though it burned down in 1866, the old cathedral was restored two years later, and functions as a lively parish church today.
Built 1809-1815 (Architect: Mangin)
Rebuilt 1866-1868 (Architect: Engelbert)
Designated an NYC landmark, 1966
2. Convent and School
Designated an NYC landmark, 1966
3. Cemetery Wall
Built ca. 1830s
Designated an NYC landmark, 1966
4. Old Chancery
Built 1858-1859 (Architects:
Designated an NYC landmark, 1977
5. Parish House
Constructed at various times from two separate houses during the 19th century
6. Youth Center
Built circa 1950
In 1838 after decades of use, Bishop John Hughes decided to complete many costly additions to the cathedral. The edifice was repainted and completely redecorated and one of the finest organs in New York City was installed. Housed in the back of the church, the organ still has its original cloth covered wires. Built by Henry Erben, the organ in Old St. Patrick’s is one of only a few in all of New York City. This 3-41 organ was given to the cathedral in 1866 and is still in use today.
Henry Erben's Organ
King Louis Philippe of France also gave stained glass windows to St. Patrick’s, but due to a measuring error, they were the wrong size for the cathedral. These windows were later installed in the Fordham University Church in the Bronx at the request of Bishop Hughes.
Two Gifts of King Louis Philippe
On October 20, 1866, a massive fire destroyed the interior of the Old Cathedral. After renovations, it reopened on March 17, 1868.
October 20, 1866
Henry Engelbert designed the interior of the church built after the 1866 fire. Engelbert was famous for his work in the French Second Empire style and was commissioned for several Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches throughout the city. Despite his previous works, Engelbert brought the cathedral back to its Gothic roots. He removed the two towers that stood on top of the cathedral and also removed the main window.
The Original Church Built in 1809
The Renovated Church Without the Two Towers (view from Mott Street)
As these renovations were taking place, Hughes decided to build a new cathedral to serve more Catholics in New York City. He purchased land on 5th Avenue and 51st Street and allowed the building to begin on what would be the modern day St. Patrick’s. Because these cathedrals were built during the same years under similar direction, there are many resemblances between St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and St. Patrick’s Cathedral. For example, the Gothic-style ceiling built by Engelbert during the Old Cathedral’s renovation is extremely similar to the ceiling of the new Cathedral, which was being built at the exact same time. The New York Times estimated the fire of 1866 cost the cathedral close to $150,ooo in damages, of which of $50,000 was covered by their insurance. Prior to the fire, the church was officially debt free in 1884, only to be set back another $35,000 in renovations to fix the damage.
Altar of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral
Also located on the campus is St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church. With only enough room for 11 people each mass, this tiny chapel was the first to serve the Russian Catholic community in New York City.
The Catholic grammar school located at 32 Prince Street between Mott and Mulberry Streets, was constructed in 1837 and was the first Catholic school in New York City. Previously, religious schools used church basements or parish halls to house their students. St. Patrick’s was the first to give their students a designated area to study.
To keep Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral updated for future generations, a lot of work is going to take place over the next five to ten years.
With the Parish House renovation already complete, the next major project taking place is the buttressing of the cemetery wall. Because the cemetery wall is a landmark itself, it can only be preserved. In order to do this, holes must be dug 35 feet below ground in order to buttress the wall and restore it to what it was in the 1830s and 1840s.
Chris Explaining the Renovation of the Wall
The Cemetery Wall
- Plaque Commemorating Remains of First Priests Ordained for the Archdiocese ($5,000)
-Transparent Doors to Crypt ($30,000)
- Front Doors to the Old Cathedral ($50,000)
The Bell Tower ($50,000)
Illumination of the Mulberry Street Façade ($25,000)
St. Patrick’s Garden ($15,000)
Monday, May 10, 2010
John Kelly, known throughout the city as “Honest John,” was a major player in New York politics during the mid-nineteenth century. Although his economic security and prominent occupational positions were sometimes obtained through methods that were anything but honest, he had a hold on the trust of much of early America’s Irish population. He became the boss of Tammany Hall, a political organization that exercised power over New York City politics and allowed Irish immigrants upward social and political mobility. Because the institution was recovering from a corruption scandal that ousted Kelly’s predecessor, his honest reputation was an asset. During Kelly’s time in office, he was credited with reducing the city’s debt, although he also charged exorbitant membership fees to office-holders in the organization (Myers 258). He also used his political influence to cause dissent within the Democratic Party when his personal enemies ran for office (Myers 260). After Grover Cleveland’s election in 1884, he became deeply depressed, and eventually required opiates to be able to sleep; after two years of giving orders to Tammany Hall from his bed, he died in 1886 (Myers 265). With a considerable fortune left to his name, he was buried in the crypt below St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.
Isaac Hecker, 1819-1888
Though he no longer rests at Old St. Paul’s the body of Isaac Hecker was once housed in the crypt along with the rest of the Hecker family, whose tomb still remains in the vaults. Hecker, a convert to Catholicism, is best known for founding the Paulist Fathers, whose home parish was St. Paul the Apostle Church on 59th Street and Ninth Avenue, now adjacent to Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. The group, which began with five Catholic converts in 1858, focused on evangelizing, simple community living, and retreat and meditation. He aimed to convert the world to the Catholic Church because he believed that intelligent people would see its truth if they were only presented with it more adequately. He wrote, “The world is governed too much is no less the truth in the ecclesiastical than the political world. The systems and customs and laws suitable to the infancy of society, are not only unsuitable, but barriers to the advancement of the youth or the manhood of society” (O’Brien 190). His aim was to bring the Catholic Church into its “manhood,” in which the truth would be preached in a way that made it clear to all people. By 1866, he had become the “best-known and most-respected Catholic spokesman before the American public” (O’Brien 209). Hecker died of leukemia in 1888 and was buried in the Hecker family crypt at Old St. Patrick’s, though he was exhumed in the twentieth century and reinterred in an above-ground crypt at St. Paul the Apostle Church. Now officially known as s Servant of God, Hecker is currently being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.
The most recent incarnation of the classic Delmonico's restaurant
is housed near its original location in the Financial District.
For more information on the Delmonico family, as well as the Lynch family, rumored to be the originators of "lynch law," check out this video of our tour of the crypts with Chris Flatz:
Delmonico’s History. Delmonico’s Restaurant New York. 2008.
Myers, Gustavus. The History of Tammany Hall. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1917.
O’Brien, David J. Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1992.
Venerable Pierre Toussaint. Saint Vincent de Paul Management, Inc. 2004.
The original Sisters of Charity, 1817. Courtesy of oldcathedral.org.
St. Patrick's Old Cathedral School was once the first home of the Sisters of Charity in America.
Archbishop John Hughes, 1797-1864
Bayley, J.R. A Brief Sketch of the Early History of the Catholic Church on the Island of New York. New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1869.
Carthy, Mary Peter. Old St. Patrick's: New York's First Cathedral. New York: United States Catholic Historical Society, 1947.
Shaw, Richard. Dagger John: The Unquiet Life and Times of Archbishop John Hughes of New York. New York: Paulist Press, 1977.
So of course, my ears perked up at the suggestion that we research St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which sits above a substantial burial vault that is available for tours—an experience that proved to be academically and personally valuable. As living visitors, we entered the vaults through a passageway from the basement chapel. This is actually the rear entrance; incoming coffins enter through an opening at the front of the cathedral, which is currently sealed with a stone slab, as no bodies have been interred since 1976. Though the commoner’s entrance is not as dramatic as the official one, it provides a tangible sense of place. The doorway requires a lowered head for anyone over five-foot-two, and the dimly-lit narrow passage allows for no natural light. The short tunnel to the crypts forces visitors to confront the fact that not just the bodies, but also the walls that house them have been occupying this underground space for a long, long time.
Because placement in a crypt is a more expensive type of burial than other options, one of the main draws for the living to any burial vault is its inventory of famous inhabitants. Old St. Patrick’s is no exception: its crypt houses a number of noteworthy cadavers, ranging from religious leaders to restaurateurs. (See more about these in the following “Most Valuable Vaults” posts.)
However, as any seasoned church tourist knows, there’s much more to a crypt than its celebrity status. Each has its own unique ambiance, whether it’s the dingy, skull-lined catacombs of Paris or the pristinely ornate vaults of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Of course, Old St. Patrick’s crypts do not fall into either of these extreme categories, but they do possess an atmosphere all their own. Once we emerged from the antiquely musty passageway between the chapel and the vaults, we found ourselves in a remarkably well-lit corridor, considering that no sunlight makes it into the underground chamber. The solid white walls and overhead lamps make the vault appear as a hall like any other, save for the evenly spaced headstones embedded in the walls, simple crosses inscribed above many. At the end of the first corridor is a gigantic, white crucifix blocking access to a mysterious, pitch-black cavity in the east wall, which our tour guide informed us was the sealed-off front entrance to the vaults. Presumably, it will remain dark and looming until the next interment, which is currently reserved for the oldest living monsignor in New York.
Amongst the many of these graves that approach the two-century-old mark, it can be easy to feel distant from the people who now rest inside them. It is tempting to think of these early Catholic Americans as stock characters in “Gangs of New York” or the caricatured Irishmen of antiquated newspaper cartoons, but a closer look at the inscriptions on family vaults make this stereotyped imaging impossible. Many of the tombstones are distinguished by their heartfelt epitaphs, which articulate sincerity and love for the deceased that today’s glossier headstones rarely exhibit. For example, the inscription for a young bride laments that she “loved the ways of religion and trained by its sweet influence, her words were the simplicity of truth, her actions the impulse of innocence.” Even today, there are few things more human than grief over an untimely death of a beloved daughter. This type of detailed epitaph provides considerable context for the faceless names that adorn the walls of the vaults.
are adorned with distinctly Irish surnames.
There is only one vault that is open to the public, which is the tomb of a General Eckert who died in 1905. The brick-lined chamber houses four coffins, with a small altar just inside the entrance displaying a crucifix, candles, and the deceased’s obituary, among other documents. The socio-economic status that accompanied some of these crypts is clearly visible in the simple but elegant ceiling decoration: a zig-zag pattern of blue stone that would have been unaffordable for most early Catholic Americans. As an additional point of note, the overhead lamps use original Edison light bulbs—an extra historical touch to the sense of time travel already inherent in the atmosphere of the crypts.
Some video footage of our tour of the Eckert crypt.
Although they’re not as gimmicky as their infamous European counterparts, the vaults under Old St. Patrick’s are a subtler gateway to the rich history of a major city. The crypt connects the church that sits above it to the vast network of Catholic New York that surrounds it, as well as to the larger national and international Church communities. While the magnificent church above the vaults undergoes extensive renovation and constant rebirth, its past remains grounded below it, a sturdy reminder of its unshakeable, Old New York roots.