Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The New York Catholic Church Part III: The Old Cathedral Today

Today, St. Patrick's Old Cathedral is a lively parish church at the center of downtown New York's SOHO, Little Italy, and Chinatown neighborhoods. True to its history, it serves a large immigrant community which, today, largely consists of Italian-Americans, Dominican-Americans, and Chinese-Americans. It has a full schedule of Masses throughout the week, and boasts Masses in three different languages on Sundays.

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.

On Saint Patrick's day of this year, Pope Benedict XVI honored Archbishop Dolan's request to declare the old cathedral a minor basilica, which makes it the first and only basilica in New York.

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.

The New York Catholic Church Part II: Important Figures of the Cathedral

Archbishop John Hughes, or Dagger John, as he was affectionately known, was beloved by Catholic New York and is remembered for his strong and uncompromising leadership. Not only did he take a stand against Nativist violence against Catholic immigrants, but he also challenged what he perceived as anti-Catholicism in the public schools. As Dagger John saw it, Catholics were paying tax dollars which went to public schools, but those public schools were founded on Protestant principles and formally taught using the King James Bible. If Catholic parents wanted to protect their children from anti-Catholicism, they would have to spend even more money for a Catholic education, and yet most Catholics were poor immigrants. Hughes, the political face of the Catholics, fought against this injustice both by seeking state funding for religious schools, but lost. In response, he established a Catholic party (named Carroll Hall after the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence) and backed several candidates for the sole purpose of splitting the Democratic Vote. When the Legislature forbade sectarian religious instruction in the public schools, the Whigs and Nativists responded by declaring the King James Bible a non-sectarian book. Archbishop Hughes set about starting a network of privately funded Catholic schools, as well as helping to found a number of Catholic Colleges, including Fordham University. If it wasn't for Dagger John's zero tolerance policy when it came to anti-Catholicism, the archdiocese certainly wouldn't have grown to the size it is today, there wouldn't be a strong network of Catholic parochial schools, and New York's Catholic immigrants wouldn't have triumphed in the face of 19th century Nativism. The Catholic Church has a notable presence in New York because of Hughes' efforts. Hughes was originally buried in the crypts of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, though his grave was exhumed and moved to the new cathedral once it was finished being built.

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.

The New York Catholic Church Part I: Birth of an Archdiocese

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.

St. Patrick's Old Cathedral School is the first Catholic school in the city. It was originally the site of the orphanage of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born Saint. The orphanage converted to a school in 1822, and is still run by Elizabeth Ann Seton's Sisters of Charity today.

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.

Architecture, Campus, and Renovation

Taking up the majority of a city block in SoHo is New York City's first cathedral, St. Patrick's. The cornerstone of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral was laid on June 8, 1809 and dedicated on May 14, 1815.

Campus Map of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral
1. St. Patrick's Old Cathedral

Built 1809-1815 (Architect: Mangin)

Rebuilt 1866-1868 (Architect: Engelbert)

Designated an NYC landmark, 1966

2. Convent and School

Built 1825-1826

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

The original design for the cathedral was created by French born military engineer, Joseph Francois Mangin in 1809. Mangin worked with simple dimensions in order to achieve the classic look for the Cathedral. Because of the War of 1812, construction was slow and funds were limited. According to the cathedral's website, her sidewalls rise to a height of 75 feet, and the inner vault is 85 feet high. The church is over 120 feet long and 80 feet wide. At the time of dedication, the cathedral was the largest Catholic Church in the United States.

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

Upcoming Renovations:

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

Most Valuable Vaults Part 2: Everyone Else

Of course, the vaults aren’t just a few bishops’ graves. Rather, the crypt has sheltered the remains of a number of other noteworthy characters in New York and American history, with a far-reaching range of influence. Here are a few:

John Kelly, 1822-1866

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.

The John Kelly family vault at Old St. Patrick's

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 Hecker family vault still rests at Old St. Patrick's.

The Delmonico Family

The most recent incarnation of the classic Delmonico's restaurant
is housed near its original location in the Financial District.

The Delmonico family is known for its historical presence as the namesake of one of America’s first fine dining establishment. Opened as a pastry shop in 1827, Delmonico’s went through several location changes and expansions before the final Delmonico family-owned incarnation closed in 1923. In the 1860s, Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhofer was credited with inventing eggs benedict, baked Alaska and lobster Newburg. It was also one of the first American restaurants to offer an à la carte menu, as most of its predecessors served set meals at a uniform price. Thus “bill of fare,” also known as a menu, would become the standard mode of operation for American restaurants. Since its closing, numerous imitators have opened in New York and across the U.S.

Pierre Toussaint, 1766-1853

Pierre Toussaint was a powerful Catholic abolitionist and philanthropist in New York City during the nineteenth century. Born in Haiti in 1766, he was a plantation slave who learned to read after his master opened his personal library to him. He moved with his owners to New York and was freed at the age of 41 after their early deaths. However, during his time as a slave he had amassed a considerable amount of money due to his entrance into the lucrative business of hairdressing—enough to buy his sister out of slavery even though he opted to remain a slave himself. Even as a slave, he donated the majority of his funds to charity, then after he gained his freedom, he married and opened a home for orphaned black children, an employment agency and a home for priests and the impoverished. Toussaint also provided funding for the construction of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. After his death in 1853, he was buried in the crypt at Old St. Patrick’s, later to be exhumed and reinterred at the new St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue. Now known as the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, he is currently in the canonization process.

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.

Most Valuable Vaults Part 1: The Bishops

As the first cathedral in New York, Old St. Patrick’s was chosen to be the resting place for some of the earliest bishops and archbishops of the Diocese/Archdiocese of New York. Although the more recently deceased archbishops are buried in the crypt at the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s by default, Old St. Patrick remains the home of the original Catholic leaders.

Bishop John Connolly, 1750-1825

Because Bishop R. Luke Concanen died before he ever made it out of Naples, his successor, John Connolly, was the first bishop of New York to actually live in the city. Upon his arrival in America, Connolly was met with an overwhelming task: he was one of only four priests serving the approximately 20,000 Catholics in the diocese, which at that point included all of New York state and parts of New Jersey. As a result, “he was obliged to assume the office of a missionary priest, rather than a bishop . . . he discharged the laborious duties of the confessional and traversed the city on foot to attend the poor and sick” (Bailey 85). Amid his ceaseless ministering to the largely struggling Catholics in the area, Connolly requested that the Sisters of Charity be sent to New York to care for the city’s orphans. They were first housed in a small building on Prince Street near St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral formerly used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Revolutionary War (Carthy 35). It is now the home to the city’s oldest Catholic grammar school. After he died at his home at 512 Broadway in 1825, he was interred near the altar of his cathedral, where his body remains today (Carthy 46). Old St. Patrick’s burial vault also houses the tomb of the Very Rev. John Power, who presided over the New York Diocese for the nearly two years during which the bishop seat was vacant after Connolly’s death (Bailey 102).

Bishop Connolly's tomb in the vaults of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral

Bishop John Dubois, 1764-1842

Bishop Conolly’s successor, John Dubois, is also buried at Old St. Patrick’s, although his remains are not a part of the vault in a traditional sense, due to his own request that he be laid to rest near the front door of the cathedral. As bishop, Dubois achieved relative success despite a substantial amount of opposition and turmoil. Like Connolly, he was faced with a devastatingly low number of priests to tend to a growing Catholic community; by the time he took over, there were about 35,000 Catholics in the city and 150,000 in the entire diocese, most of whom were unaccounted for and without ministry. In one particularly telling instance, he traveled to Buffalo, expecting to find about seventy congregants; instead, he encountered 700-800 Catholics who sought his service. By means of an interpreter, he was able to hear the confessions of about 200 of them (Baily 115). In 1808, though he was busy carrying on Connolly’s work as a partial missionary priest, he laid the foundation of Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, which remains a prominent Catholic university to this day. Dubois’s achievements were marred, however, by corruption and irresponsibility within Church trustees, who ignored bishops’ monetary advising and heaped massive loans on the already indebted Diocese. Although Dubois was unable to put an end to the trustees’ disobedience, he infamously resisted their assertion of authority: “On one occasion, when he had appointed a clergyman to the pastorship of the Cathedral, instead of another priest more acceptable to the trustees, they refused to give any support to the priest thus appointed . . .. The answer of the Bishop was one worthy of being recorded. He listened to their representations with great patience, and then quietly answered, ‘Well, gentlemen, you may vote the salary or not, just as seems good to you. I do not need much; I can live in the basement or in the garret; but whether I come up from the basement, or down from the garret, I will still be your Bishop” (Bailey 112). Despite his eloquence, Dubois fought a losing battle with trustees until his death, when he requested that his body be interred in a location where people would step on it, since he was “walked over during life.” Thus, Bishop Dubois currently rests above the front entrance to the crypt, in the ground before the cathedral doors, so that congregants may literally walk over him.

The grave of Bishop Dubois, outside the main entrance of the cathedral.

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

Although he is now at rest in the vaults of the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s Cathedral, John Hughes, Dubois’s successor and the first archbishop of New York, spent some posthumous time in the crypts of Old St. Patrick’s. Colloquially known as “Dagger John” for his cross/dagger-shaped signature, Hughes’s term as archbishop was marked by tensions between nativist groups and Catholics. In particular, he campaigned heavily against the Protestant-leaning public school curriculum, which stereotyped Catholics negatively and allowed only for the practice of Protestant prayers and traditions in schools. He is also known for having purchased the property at Rose Hill and founding Fordham University (Bailey 133). When he died in January 1864, he was buried in a vault beneath the altar of Old St. Patrick’s (Carthy 91). However, because the new St. Patrick’s on Fifth Avenue had begun construction under Hughes’s governance, his remains were moved to its crypt upon its completion.


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.

The Vaults Themselves

In my various travels across the U.S. and Europe, most of which have included at least one (usually many more than one) excursion to some legendarily mammoth and darkly gorgeous Catholic cathedral, I have always been morbidly excited by the prospect that I might get to see a crypt. While in essence a crypt is not much more than a tunnel-shaped cemetery, it is truly a strange and even beautiful symbol that a congregation’s dead are always resting directly below the place where its living members worship. Very “ashes to ashes,” if you ask me.

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.

The McCarthy family vault: Note the sentimental epitaph below Jane Maria's name.

Another family vault by the name of McCosker. Many of the tombs
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.

The Nativists and St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral

Nativist violence against St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and the counteractions of Archbishop John Hughes

The Catholic Cathedral of St. Patrick (now St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral), located on Mott Street between Prince and Houston, was dedicated in May 1815. This was a momentous occasion for New York Catholics, who had not seen an expansion of the Church in New York since the first parish of St, Peter’s was built in 1785 (Dolan, 11).

There were about 15,000 Catholics in New York by the time St. Patrick’s opened in 1815 (Dolan, 11). Many of these people were Irish and German immigrants. Jay P. Dolan states:

Historians generally recognize the importance of the church in the immigrant community, but the church the immigrant knew was not an abstract entity; it was localized and . . . occupied space in the neighborhood; people could see it, touch it, and enter inside it to pray or simply to get out of the cold. The church building was the religious center of the neighborhood. (Dolan, 4)

Thus the Cathedral was special to Irish immigrants from the very beginning. According to Shelley Mendelsohn, it was the first place of worship in the United States that was dedicated to Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland who organized the Irish church in the fifth century. Furthermore, funds used to help build the Cathedral were donated in part by many Irish immigrants who wanted to help despite their poverty. These immigrants “lived in squalor, crowded into rotting structures and wretched tenements, eking out a miserable living and suffering from disease and extreme poverty” (Mendelsohn, 10). St. Patrick’s provided a sense of community and comfort for a group of pious people who were forced to flee from their homeland.

In the decades leading to the Civil War, there were frequent fights and riots on the streets of New York City between Protestants and Catholics. In 1836, amidst this growing prejudice and mob violence against Catholics, the Ancient Order of the Hibernians was founded by Irish Catholic men in New York and Philadelphia in order to protect the Church (aoh.com).

The walls of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, which protected the church from violent nativists

In 1842, John Hughes was appointed Bishop of St. Patrick’s. As the new bishop, he had to worry about how to preside over a steadily growing diocese and how to protect his parishioners and other Catholics from the hostility of the nativists (Mendelsohn, 11). In May 1844, three days of rioting, sparked by a conflict between Catholics and Protestants, in Philadelphia led to thirteen deaths, the destruction of two Catholic churches, and significant damage to Catholic property. To help the city’s authorities restore order, Bishop Kenrick left Philadelphia for three days and temporarily halted the celebration of Mass in Catholic churches throughout the city. Bishop Hughes disagreed with Kenrick’s reaction to the violence, stating, “They should have defended their churches since the authorities could not or would not do it for them” (Shelley, 126).

Following the incident in Philadelphia, there were plans by New York nativist leaders to organize a large demonstration in City Hall Park. Bishop Hughes responded quickly and decisively. First, he urged Catholics not to attend the rally, scheduled for May 9, so that no accusation could later be made against them for provoking or participating in riots. Second, he went asked Mayor Robert H. Morris to ban the ban the demonstration. Shelley writes:

“Are you afraid,” asked the mayor, “that some of your churches may be burned?” “No, sir,” replied Hughes, “but I am afraid that some of yours will be burned” (Shelley, 126).

The nativist demonstration was canceled. Though the exact reason behind the cancellation is unknown, Bishop Hughes publicly took credit for preventing potential violence (Shelley, 127).

Another incident in 1844 exhibits Bishop Hughes’ proactive role in protecting the Catholic community in New York, and this time in particular, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. That year, the Native American party successfully elected James Harper, one of the publishers of Awful Disclosures, as mayor. A group of these nativists, ready to incite mayhem, marched through Irish-Catholic sections of the city carrying “No Popery” banners and shouting insults. Remembering Hughes’ requests to remain calm, the Irish left the paraders alone. When the public learned that the group planned to attack and burn down St. Patrick’s, the cathedral’s graveyard filled quickly with armed men ready to defend their church. Their foe changed their plans and did not attack. These brave men are memorialized in a plaque on the outside of the church, which reads:

Erected to the memory of the members of the ancient Order of the Hibernians of the City of New York . . . who in April, 1844, at the call of the Most Reverend John Hughes . . . rallied to the defense of the Cathedral when it was threatened with destruction by the forces of bigotry and intolerance. (Carthy, 86)

Bishop Hughes powerful message and forceful decisions against the natives show his ability to unite New York’s Catholics as well as his fierce defense of its community and cathedral.

Works Cited

Carthy, Mother Mary Peter. Old St. Patrick’s New York’s First Cathedral. New York: The United States Catholic Historical Society, 1947.

Dolan, Jay P. The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics 1815-1865. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Meehan, Jack. “Legacy in Stained Glass: The Hibernian Windows.” Ancient Order of Hibernians. May 2008. Web. 9 May 2009. http://www.aoh.com/pages/archives/hibernian_windows.html

Mendelsohn, Joyce. New York’s First Cathedral: St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. New York: St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. [pamphlet]

Shelley, Thomas J. The Archdiocese of New York: The Bicentennial History 1808-2008. France: Editions du Signe, 2007.