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.
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.