Monday, May 10, 2010

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

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.

1 comment:

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