Monday, May 10, 2010

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.

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