Tuesday, May 11, 2010

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.

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