Below are a few of the many important historical points regarding the Old Cathedral and its connection to Catholic life, the City of New York and the nation. Immediately below that is a piece titled, ”New York’s First Cathedral - St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral” Written by Joyce Mendelsohn.
- First cathedral church for the Diocese of New York (created 1808 by Pope Pius VII), second Catholic church in Manhattan, and third Catholic church in all of New York State
- Designed by the same architect who designed New York City Hall, Joseph Francois Mangin
- Largest Catholic church in the United States when completed in 1815
- Sufficiently in rural location in New York City then that a fox was caught in the churchyard not long after completion
- Campus complex was the site of the first classical school for boys in New York, the New York Literary Institution, founded by Anthony Kohlmann, S.J., in 1808
- 32 Prince Street, the former St. Patrick’s School, was the site (1817) of the first mission in New York of the Sisters of Charity, founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first United States-born saint; site of NYC’s oldest existing Catholic grammar school (circa 1826)
- Dominick Lynch, a member of The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick in the City of New York, is buried in the crypt beneath the Old Cathedral. Lynch was a founding Trustee of St. Peter’s Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as was Andrew Morris, the first Roman Catholic to be elected to public office in the City and State of New York. Morris is buried in the Cathedral’s Cemetery
- Rev. Richard Bulger in 1820 became the first priest ordained in New York City
- Graveyard underwent its final expansion to its present size in August 1824. Prayers were offered in the Irish Gaelic language by Rev. Michael O’Gorman at a public Vespers ceremony in the graveyard
- Revs. Bulger and O’Gorman die in November 1824 within a week of each other of illnesses contracted while performing their parochial duties to the ill and infirmed of the Parish. John Connolly, the first resident Bishop of the Diocese, dies the following January, after contracting an illness while ministering to Bulger and O’Gorman, his former roommates and indispensible assistants.
- The Garcia Italian Opera Company, brought to New York by Dominick Lynch Jr., performed a benefit concert for the Orphan Asylum in 1826, one of the earliest opera performances in the United States
- Second co-ed free school in New York (after St. Peter’s), laying the roots for the public school and, later, the parochial school systems
- The Board of Trustees in 1834 “RESOLVED that a wall shall be built around the Cathedral and churchyard [to protect both the graveyard and the church from rioters bent on destruction].”
- St. John Neumann, the first United States Bishop to be canonized, was ordained at the Old Cathedral by Bishop Dubois in 1836
- A school building constructed in the campus in 1837 was the first building designed and built as a Catholic school in the city (previous schools having used church basements or repurposed buildings), on site later occupied by the school run by the Christian Brothers
- Requiem mass for Lorenzo Da Ponte, librettist of Mozart and the first Professor of Italian Literature and Language at Columbia University, took place in 1838 at the Cathedral
- John Hughes was created Bishop of Basileopolis in 1838, the first episcopal ordination in New York
- Hughes was a pioneer, during the waves of Catholic immigration in the 1840s, in establishing Roman Catholic social outreach organizations, helping to establish the tradition of charitable organizations in the U.S.
- Anti-Catholic rioting in 1844 poses a grave physical threat to the church, which Bishop John Hughes meets with the assistance of armed Irish organizations like the Ancient Order of Hibernians (whose headquarters were adjacent to the campus at 42 Prince Street)
- Pope Pius IX created the Archdiocese of New York in 1850, elevating John Hughes to the status of Archbishop
- The Archdiocese of New York became the spiritual hub for maintaining total allegiance to the Holy See that came to characterize the U.S. episcopacy, largely due to the leadership of Bishop Hughes
- Venerable Pierre Toussaint, Haitian slave-born Catholic philanthropist, dies in 1853 and was buried in the churchyard at SPOC (his remains are transferred in 1990 to the “new” Cathedral of St. Patrick)
- Isaac Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers in 1858; he was an adult convert to Roman Catholicism, and had been baptized by then Bishop John McCloskey in 1844 at the Old Cathedral
- Blessing of the colors of the “Fighting” 69th Regiment by Archbishop Hughes before the regiment set off for active duty in the Civil War, April 23, 1861; this “Irish Brigade” unit, lead by Colonel Michael Corcoran, Thomas Francis Meagher and former Congressman, U.S. Attorney and Abolitionist, Captain John McKeon – and whose ranks were filled with many Old Cathedral parishioners, distinguished itself during the Civil War for its unsurpassed valor and heroism at the Battle of Bull Run, among many other battles
- Funeral and burial at the Old Cathedral of Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes in January, 1864 attracted thousands, including many prominent New York City and New York State figures (his remains are transferred later to the “new” Cathedral of St. Patrick)
- Fire destroyed the interior of the Old Cathedral on October 6, 1866; the Old Cathedral is rebuilt and re-opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1868
- John Cardinal McCloskey was installed as the first American cardinal, April, 1875; he received his cardinal’s hat in the parlor of the rectory, 263 Mulberry St. (and, then again, in second ceremony in the Old Cathedral across the street)
- St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was supplanted as the seat of the Archdiocese of New York by the “new” Cathedral of St. Patrick, May 25, 1879
- The debt of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was finally paid off, and the church was consecrated, March 17, 1885
- Brig. Gen. Thomas Eckert, personal friend and confidant of President Lincoln, was buried in an elaborate vault in the crypt beneath the Old Cathedral in 1910
- Funeral of “Big Tim” Sullivan, famed Tammany Hall politician, attracted 25,000 to the streets surrounding the Old Cathedral, 1913
- Philanthropist Annie Leary, the first Papal Countess, died in 1919 and is buried at the Old Cathedral
- St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church is established in 1936 in the Old Chancery building; this is the first chapel to serve the Russian Catholic expatriate community in New York which fled the Russian Revolution
- The Old Cathedral and associated buildings are among the first sites to be designated as New York City landmarks (1966)
- Campus complex listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 1977
- The Old Cathedral was designated a Basilica by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on March 17, 2010
New York’s First Cathedral - St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral
Written by Joyce Mendelsohn, 2001
Edited and updated by James E. Garrity, 2013
The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, located on the corner of Mott and Prince streets, is the original Cathedral of the Archdiocese of New York. Since its construction 200 years ago, it has stood in the heart of old New York as a beacon for the Catholic faithful and a symbol of religious freedom in America. At first the center of a largely impoverished Irish community, over the years, St. Patrick’s has served an increasingly multiethnic flock, welcoming Catholics of Italian, Hispanic, Asian, and other origins. Today, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral remains a vital force in the community, bringing together Catholics of all backgrounds for worship and spiritual guidance.
The history of Catholicism in New York begins in the 17th century with French-born Fr. Isaac Jogues, the first Catholic priest to set foot in New York State. Jogues was one of a small group of Jesuits—known as the North American Martyrs—who were sent as missionaries to the Hurons in Quebec in the early 1640s. Captured and tortured by a war party of Iroquois, Jogues managed to escape in 1643 with the help of Dutch Calvinists from Fort Orange (Albany) who smuggled him in a boat to New Amsterdam (later New York). The Jesuit was warmly welcomed as “a martyr of Jesus Christ” by Willem Kieft, the director-general of the tiny Dutch town. Father Jogues, after learning that 18 different languages were spoken among the population of New Amsterdam, numbering some 500, described the settlement as a place with “the arrogance of Babel.” Father Jogues sailed back to Europe but later returned as a missionary to the Iroquois. In 1649, he was seized and murdered by a member of the Mohawk tribe. Father Jogues was canonized in 1930 by Pope Pius XI.
Peter Stuyvesant, Kieft’s replacement as director-general of New Amsterdam, upheld the absolute authority of the Dutch Reformed Church and was openly hostile to the public worship of all other religions. But even after the British took control of the city in 1664, things were not appreciably better for the small Catholic population in New York until 1674, when King James II of Great Britain (who had adopted the Roman Catholic faith himself) granted religious liberty to the province. There still was no Catholic Church within the territory, however. In 1683, King James II appointed colonial Governor Thomas Dongan, himself an Irish Catholic, to govern New York. Dongan’s “Charter of Liberties and Privileges” was adopted by the provincial assembly—formally granting religious freedom to all Christians. But the fall of the Catholic Stuarts in England after the Protestant “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 drove Governor Dongan from his post, and religious liberty in the province was ended. In 1700, the provincial assembly in New York enacted a law which prohibited Catholic priests from entering the city. In spite of these restrictions, Ferdinand Steenmayer, a Jesuit, managed to sneak into the city on several occasions to celebrate Mass in secret.
After the anti-Catholic law was repealed in 1784 (New York was, by this time, a sovereign state in the newly-independent United States of America), Charles Whelan, an Irish Capuchin friar, came to the city to help organize what would become the first Catholic parish. At that time, New York’s Catholic community numbered less than 1,000 (a fraction of the total population of about 230,000) and were mainly of French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Irish descent. Led by the French consul, the Roman Catholic Church in the City of New York was incorporated in 1785. That same year, largely financed by a donation from King Charles III of Spain, construction commenced on St. Peter’s Church—the first Catholic house of worship in the city.
Opening Mass was celebrated on November 1, 1786, in the small, Georgian-style building located on the corner of Barclay and Church streets in lower Manhattan. Severely damaged in the Great Fire of 1835 (a conflagration that raged for three days and destroyed 674 buildings), the original wood frame building was replaced in 1840 by the present monumental granite structure, designed in the classical tradition.
Two extraordinary parishioners are connected with St. Peter’s Church: Pierre Toussaint, who is being considered for canonization, and Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American saint. Toussaint, born in Haiti in 1766, was brought as a slave to New York in 1787. When his owners fell upon hard times, he became a successful hairdresser, at the same time quietly waiting on and supporting the household. After the death of his owners, the former slave purchased his wife’s freedom and became a leader of the free black community in New York.
Pierre Toussaint devoted his life to aiding the poor and the sick—opening his home to black orphans, raising funds to support a Catholic orphanage and school, and entering quarantined zones to nurse victims of epidemics that ravaged the city. Toussaint worshiped at St. Peter’s Church for sixty-six years and was buried in the cemetery of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in 1853. In 1989, his remains were removed and brought to St. Patrick’s Cathedral uptown as the first step in the cause for his beatification.
Within St. Peter’s Church is a life-size marble statue of Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was born in New York in 1774 into a devout Episcopalian family. At age nineteen, Elizabeth Ann Bayley married wealthy businessman William Seton. They raised a family of five children in a gracious home at 7 State Street facing Battery Park, which is now the Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. As a young wife and mother who became deeply involved in assisting the poor, Mrs. Seton was widely known as the “Protestant Sister of Charity.” After her husband’s death, the widow—always deeply spiritual—was drawn to Catholicism and in 1805 was received into the Catholic faith at St. Peter’s Church.
Elizabeth Ann Seton turned for guidance to Bishop John Carroll. He had been appointed as the first Bishop in the United States in 1789 and in Baltimore presided over America’s first diocese—encompassing all of the thirteen original colonies. At Bishop Carroll’s urging, she moved her family to Baltimore in 1808 to open a Catholic girls’ school—marking the beginning of the Catholic system of parochial schools in the United States. Mother Seton founded the Sisters of Charity—the first Catholic religious order in America. Her order was successful in establishing orphanages and hospitals and developing the parochial school system. Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton died at age fifty-two in 1821 and was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
In response to the needs of a growing number of Catholic immigrants, Pope Pius VII established the Diocese of New York in 1808, which included all of New York State and a portion of northern New Jersey. Archbishop Carroll chose Alsatian-born Father Antony Kohlmann, along with several of his fellow Jesuits, to organize the new diocese. When Father Kohlmann arrived in the new diocese, he described the Catholic population as consisting “of Irish, some hundreds of French and as many Germans; in all according to the common estimation of 14,000 souls.” A parcel of land on Mott Street on the comer of Prince Street was chosen for the construction of New York’s first Cathedral. It was to rise on land that had been purchased in 1801 and 1803 by St. Peter’s Church for a burial ground. (The graves were removed to another site.) At the time, Canal Street was the northern boundary of the built-up portion of Manhattan. The Cathedral, erected in the midst of meadows, hills, and woodlands, was referred to as the “new church out of town.” (It was still a rural area in 1820 when a fox was caught in the churchyard!) Funds for construction came from large numbers of poor Irish immigrants—at considerable personal sacrifice—and from several wealthy Catholic laymen, including Andrew Morris (an Irish immigrant) —the first Catholic ever to be elected to public office in New York State to serve on the Common Council—and Cornelius Heeney (also an immigrant from Ireland), a business partner of John Jacob Astor. On June 8, 1809, Father Kohlmann officiated before an assembled crowd of 3,000 at the laying of the cornerstone for St. Patrick’s Cathedral—the second Roman Catholic Cathedral in America (Baltimore’s Cathedral was the first) and the second Catholic church in New York (after St. Peter’s).
The new Cathedral was the first house of worship in the United States to be dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint, Saint Patrick, who organized the Irish Church in the fifth century. Known as the Apostle of Ireland, Patrick was consecrated as Bishop circa 432. He traveled tirelessly throughout Ireland, preaching, writing, and teaching, converting chiefs and bards, gathering followers, establishing churches and schools, building monasteries, and performing miracles. Since specific rules for canonization were not set down until the tenth century, local veneration of St. Patrick evolved into his sainthood.
The new Cathedral was designed by Joseph Mangin, a French-born architect and engineer, who arrived in New York in 1745 and soon established a reputation as a skilled architect and builder. In 1802, Mangin, along with native-born architect John McComb Jr., won the competition for the design of New York’s present City Hall (completed in 1812) with their plans for an exquisite French Renaissance exterior and a splendid Federal-style interior.
Mangin designed a grand and magnificent structure for St. Patrick’s Cathedral—proclaiming the strength and presence of the Catholic community as a force within the city. At the time of construction, it was the largest church building in the city—over 120 feet long and 80 feet wide and rising to a height of 75 feet with an 85-foot inner vault. The Cathedral—with its massive rough-cut stone facade punctuated by niches for statuary, pointed-arch doorways, and a large tracery-ornamented gable window—was one of the first Gothic Revival churches in America. The interior space was marked by tall, clustered iron columns that divided the body of the church into three naves surmounted by Gothic arches. Painted wall surfaces and natural light streaming through tall windows added to the spiritual quality of the interior. The Cathedral formally opened on Ascension Day, May 4, 1815, with a crowd of 4,000 worshippers and dignitaries, including Mayor DeWitt Clinton, and a greater number overflowing into the streets.
The first Bishop appointed to the diocese was Irish-born Richard Luke Concanen. The Napoleonic Wars prevented him from reaching New York and he died in Italy in 1810. The work of governing as administrator of the diocese continued to be carried out by Father Kohlmann, who devoted himself to fund raising and overseeing construction of the Cathedral. He maintained those responsibilities until the arrival in November 1815 of the second Bishop, sixty-five-year-old John Connolly, an Irish Dominican theologian who was held in high repute by both Pius VI and Pius VII. Bishop Connolly directed the construction of several new churches in the diocese and founded an orphanage in a wood-frame building at 32 Prince Street, across from the Cathedral, that was staffed in 1817 by three Sisters of Charity sent to New York by Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. Pierre Toussaint, a leading financial supporter, generously contributed funds to the orphanage for close to forty years.
The Sisters established St. Patrick’s School in 1822. The original orphanage and school building was replaced in 1826 by the present red-brick convent and school designed in the Federal style and distinguished by an exquisite doorway of the period. For more than 180 years, the Sisters of Charity continued their tradition of service—first in the orphanage and then in St. Patrick’s School. The school had educated generations of Irish, Italian, French, Hispanic, Chinese, and German children. St. Patrick’s School boasted a distinguished roster of graduates—leaders in business, film, theater, arts, teaching, and the full spectrum of vocations and professions. The school (which had been New York’s oldest surviving parochial school) was forced to close in 2010 due to insufficient enrollment.
In 1823, Bishop Connolly invited Cuban-born Fr. Felix Varela to New York to start a pastoral ministry among poor Irish immigrants, who made up the majority of the 35,000 Catholics living in the city. Father Varela—a social activist and advocate of Cuban independence—served as pastor in several diocese churches and is best remembered for his staunch support for the Irish in the face of growing anti-Catholic sentiment.
Bishop Connolly’s entire episcopacy was plagued by a severe shortage of priests. He brought Fr. Michael O’Gorman (who he ordained in Ireland before leaving for New York) with him from Ireland, and in 1820, he ordained Fr. Richard Bulger (another Irishman) to the priesthood. Father Bulger thus was the first priest to be ordained in New York City. Fathers Bulger and O’Gorman regularly traveled to New Jersey, to upstate New York, and to Brooklyn on Long Island to celebrate Masses for the Catholics there, since there were no resident priests in those locations at that time. Both Father Bulger and Father O’Gorman became ill in November of 1824 as a result of tending to the sick and dying of the diocese, and they both passed away within a week of each other at their residence on Broadway. They had been living in the same residence as Bishop Connolly, and when they died, the Bishop, who officiated at both of their burials, caught a bad cold and he died a few months later in February of 1825. Fathers O’Gorman and Bulger (and other early priests of the diocese) were buried in the courtyard in front of the church. A commemorative bronze plaque was placed upon the gravesite in 2010.
At the time of Bishop Connolly’s death, the diocese was composed mainly of working class Irish parishioners. The appointment of his successor, Fr. John Dubois—a French educator and missionary—was viewed with disappointment by the Irish community. Forced out of France in 1791 by the French Revolution, Father Dubois arrived in America with letters of introduction from the Marquis de Lafayette to James Monroe and Patrick Henry. Father Dubois settled in Virginia, where he built a church and opened a school in Emmitsburg, Maryland, that became Mount St. Mary’s College. In 1826, when he was consecrated the third Bishop of New York, there were twelve churches in the diocese for a Catholic population of about 150,000, served by only eighteen priests. By 1837, the numbers had grown to thirty-eight churches and forty priests. Plagued by ill health, Bishop Dubois requested a coadjutor. In 1838, the Rev. John Joseph Hughes was elevated to the episcopy as Bishop of Basileopolis at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and was then appointed coadjutor bishop to Dubois. In the following year, he was made administrator-Apostolic of New York. Bishop Dubois died in 1842 at the age of seventy-eight and is buried in front of the Cathedral, as he had personally requested.
Six years before his death, Bishop Dubois had welcomed a twenty-five-year-old theological student named John Neumann to the diocese. Neumann—who was canonized by Pope Paul IV in 1977 as America’s first male saint—was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and attended seminary in Prague. Since his ordination had been delayed by the government, Neumann came to New York as a missionary. The young man was ordained to priesthood at St. Patrick’s on June 28, 1836, and sent to upstate New York to work among German-speaking Catholics. Renowned for his outstanding mission and pastoral work and for his holiness and charity, Neumann was appointed the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, where he died in 1860.
The multitudes of Irish Catholics who arrived in New York in the 19th century were mainly uneducated peasants leaving behind an impoverished existence in the “ould sod.” And, after 1845, they were also fleeing from the Great Hunger—the potato famines that killed more than one million Irish and drove some two million more to America. The new immigrants lived in squalor, crowded into rotting structures and wretched tenements, eking out a miserable living, and suffering from disease and extreme poverty. These Famine Irish turned in large numbers to the church for solace.
The fourth Bishop of St. Patrick’s, who succeeded Bishop Dubois in 1842, was himself the son of poor Irish farmers and weavers. In 1817, at age twenty, John Joseph Hughes (born in Annaloughan, County Tyrone) emigrated to the United States and briefly settled in Pennsylvania before entering Mount St. Mary’s College, where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1826. Father Hughes spent the next twelve years in Philadelphia serving as pastor of several churches and was widely admired for his skillful management, strong leadership qualities, and outspoken defense of the church. Arriving in New York in 1838, Father Hughes served first as coadjutor and later administrator-Apostolic of New York. He was appointed a bishop in 1842—the first prelate to be consecrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Bishop Hughes faced two daunting challenges—presiding over a diocese that was experiencing unprecedented growth and protecting Catholics and their churches from the growing hostility of native-born Protestants.
Beginning in the 1830s, the city had experienced several outbreaks of violence led by nativists against Catholics. In 1831, the tiny, wood-frame structure of St. Mary’s Church (the third Catholic church in New York, organized in 1826) on Sheriff Street was burnt to the ground by arsonists. (A substantial stone church, still standing, was built to replace it in 1833 on Grand Street.) The burning of St. Mary’s Church compelled the Trustees of the Cathedral to approve the construction of the brick wall—which surrounds the church—in 1834. Frequent brawls and street riots between Protestants and Catholics led to the founding in 1836 of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Latin for “Irish”) as a mutual benefit society and self-defense group. In the following years, nativist mobs had advanced on St. Patrick’s several times but were turned back after receiving reports that armed Irish defenders—posted by Bishop Hughes—were stationed along Prince Street and behind those brick walls which had been specifically constructed to protect the Cathedral.
In 1844, James Harper (of the famed Harper publishing family) was elected Mayor of New York as the candidate of the anti-immigrant American Republican Party. At the same time, Protestants and Irish Catholics in Philadelphia clashed in rioting that claimed the lives of some thirty Irishmen and resulted in the burning of Catholic churches and convents. Bishop Hughes vigorously defended the rights of Irish Catholics against this rising movement of bigotry and bloodshed. He organized thousands of Irish men to defend the Cathedral. As a massive anti-Catholic torchlight parade gathered in City Hall Park, ready to march up the Bowery to the Cathedral, he stationed sharpshooters on the protective walls surrounding the building. Bishop Hughes sent a letter to Mayor Harper warning that if any harm came to a single Catholic person or Catholic church, the city would be turned into “a second Moscow” (referring to the burning of Moscow during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812). The Bishop’s powerful message and forceful actions are credited with averting the anticipated violent anti-Catholic outbreak in New York.
In 1851, young men from the neighborhood around the Cathedral organized a militia regiment, known locally as the Second Regiment of Irish Volunteers. It was officially accepted as part of the New York State Militia and designated as the Sixty-Ninth Regiment. Commonly called the “Fighting Irish,” its green insignia was composed of a decorative shield flanked by two Irish wolfhounds standing on a ribbon inscribed with the Regimental motto, “Gentle When Stroked, Fierce When Provoked.” The Sixty-Ninth Regiment served in every campaign from Bull Run to Appomattox during the Civil War and fought in the Spanish-American War and the Mexican Border Campaign. Legendary hero Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, chaplain Father Francis P. Duffy, and poet Joyce Kilmer were with the Regiment in bitter fighting in France during World War I. The “Fighting Sixty- Ninth” has been a fixture in the United States Army ever since and last saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 1907, the Regiment has been a unit of the New York Army National Guard.
Bishop Hughes was consecrated as Archbishop of New York in 1850 and continued a vigorous mission of building churches, schools, and hospitals. In 1842, when appointed bishop, he presided over a diocese of fifty churches, forty priests, and 200,000 Catholics. At his death in 1864, the numbers had increased to eighty-five churches, 150 priests, and a population of over 400,000 Catholics.
In a far-seeing move that many ridiculed at the time as “Hughes’ Folly,” the Archbishop proposed the construction of a new Cathedral in an undeveloped area far uptown on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st streets. Andrew Morris and Cornelius Heeney had purchased the rural property in 1810 on behalf of Father Kohlmann for the sum of $11,000 for the use of the Jesuit boys’ school that he had started downtown. In 1812, he established a school for girls near the boys’ school, run by the Ursuline nuns. The schools were no longer in existence when Archbishop Hughes laid the cornerstone for the new Cathedral on August 15, 1858.
During the Civil War, Archbishop Hughes served as the envoy of President Lincoln on a successful overseas mission to dissuade European countries from supporting the Confederacy. In gratitude, Lincoln petitioned Pope Pius IX to name Archbishop Hughes as America’s first Cardinal. But the death of this indomitable leader in January 1864 came before that honor could come to pass. His memory was honored by tributes from President Lincoln and other statesmen and his body viewed by over 200,000 common people who solemnly came to worship in the Cathedral. He was entombed in the crypts below the Cathedral and remained there until the “New” Cathedral was completed uptown—his remains were then removed to a crypt there. The Cathedral uptown holds the remains of all of the archbishops and cardinals that have served the Archdiocese since the death of Archbishop Hughes.
Archbishop Hughes’ successor in 1864 as the second Archbishop of the diocese was Bishop John McCloskey. He was born in Brooklyn in 1810 to Irish immigrant parents (his parents are both interred in the cemetery surrounding the Old Cathedral) and, at age eleven, entered Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, distinguishing himself as an outstanding student. After graduation, the fifteen-year-old returned to New York with the intention of pursuing a career in law. But after a near-fatal accident in 1827, the young man decided instead to study for the priesthood. Young McCloskey was under the guardianship of Cornelius Heeney (who dedicated his fortune to the care of poor children at the end of his life), and the young man was taught Latin by Thomas S. Brady (buried in the crypts below the Cathedral). He was taught proper English elocution by Charlotte Melmoth, the first Shakespearean actress to come to America, who opened a school in Brooklyn when her acting career ended. (She was buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard cemetery surrounding the Cathedral.) McCloskey returned to Emmitsburg as a seminarian and later taught Latin at the college. In 1830, he was ordained to the priesthood at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and remained until 1834 before taking a leave to study in Rome. Upon his return, Father McCloskey was instrumental in starting a seminary in Nyack under Bishop Dubois. (The seminary was destroyed by fire just prior to its opening in the 1830s. Arson was suspected, but the case was never investigated fully.) Father McCloskey became the first president of St. John’s College (later renamed Fordham University), founded by Archbishop Hughes in 1841.
Reverend McCloskey served as coadjutor bishop of New York from 1844–1847 and first Bishop of Albany from 1847 to 1864 before his appointment as Bishop to the New York diocese. Later raised to archbishop, he was highly respected as a pioneer in Catholic education and a clergyman of great spiritual strength and humility. During the tenure of Archbishop McCloskey, a disaster of tragic proportions struck on the night of October 6, 1866, when a catastrophic fire destroyed all but the outer walls of the Old Cathedral.
The five-alarm fire began in the packing room (filled with straw and wood shavings) of a porcelain dealer at 44 Crosby Street and quickly spread to nearby buildings. Showers of sparks fell on the lath and plaster roof of St. Patrick’s, which was soon a blazing inferno. As huge fragments of the burning roof crashed down into the sanctuary, filling the building with flames and smoke, a crowd of parishioners, led by Fathers McGeehan and Mullen, rushed inside to remove precious religious articles. They were successful in rescuing the Blessed Sacrament, vestments, several vessels, a number of oil paintings, and silver candlesticks just moments before the entire structure was engulfed by fire.
Archbishop McCloskey resolved to rebuild the Cathedral and commissioned architect Henry Engelbert (known for his designs of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in Riverdale) to reconstruct St. Patrick’s. Engelbert designed a severely plain facade of smooth brown stucco, facing Mott Street, lacking the detail and grace of the original exterior. The splendid interior, however, was rebuilt with a ceiling of ribbed vaults and arches carried on clustered piers. An altar screen of carved figures, representing the Apostles, is surmounted by a pointed arch stained-glass window above a painting of the figure of Christ. Completed in less than two years, the Cathedral was rededicated by Archbishop McCloskey on the Feast of St. Patrick—March 17, 1868.
The foremost ecclesiastical event in the history of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral took place in the restored structure on April 27, 1875, with the investiture of Archbishop McCloskey as the first American to be named Cardinal. Several Papal emissaries, seven archbishops, twenty bishops, hundreds of priests, and thousands of laymen attended the ceremony of solemnity and celebration. After its construction was completed, His Eminence John Cardinal McCloskey moved his seat uptown to the magnificent new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, which was formally dedicated on May 25, 1879. The historic St. Patrick’s downtown then became a simple parish church.
Since that time, the church has remained the heart of an active parish with an ever-changing population. (Parish boundaries run from Wooster Street to the Bowery, between Hester Street and East Fourth Street.) Beginning in the 1880s, Italian immigrants poured into the area centered on Mulberry Street that came to be known as Little Italy. (Earlier in the 1800s, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who had written librettos for several of Mozart’s operas, lived on Spring Street, and his opulent Funeral Mass took place in the Cathedral in August of 1838.) Large numbers of Hispanic and Chinese newcomers to America make up a significant portion of the present population. Recent years have seen the transformation of previously commercial areas, such as SoHo and NoHo, into residential communities largely populated by people in the arts and media. Currently, many young people are making the entire area their home. Their youthful energy has breathed much life into St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral parish.
As the 200th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the Old Cathedral approached, Msgr. Donald Sakano, who had been appointed pastor of the venerable church in 2007, began to plan for what would be a six-year Bicentennial Celebration (since it took six years for the church to be completed in the early 1800s). Monsignor Sakano marshaled the assistance of historians familiar with church and city history as well as people in the parish community for the purpose of putting together a celebration that would highlight the great history of the church.
A slogan for the Bicentennial Celebration (which we are currently in the midst of) was selected: “Embracing the future as we celebrate our past.”
The Bicentennial Celebration of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral began with a Mass celebrated by His Excellency, Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, held in the Old Cathedral on June 7, 2009, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the laying of the church’s cornerstone. Various church and civic leaders attended Mass and the related events. A parade was held in which, among other events, (a) the Ancient Order of Hibernians, or “AOH,” marched to the church and stood shoulder-to-shoulder around its perimeter wall in commemoration of the AOH’s defense of the church against physical attack by the nativist, anti-Catholic “Know-Nothings” at the request of then-Bishop (later Archbishop) “Dagger John” Hughes and (b) the April 1861 parade of the famed “Fighting 69th” regiment—a unit of the Irish Brigade—as it marched off to the Civil War was re-enacted.
At that same June 7, 2009, Mass celebrating the laying of the cornerstone of the church, Archbishop Dolan announced from the pulpit that an application would be made to the Holy See requesting that St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral be awarded basilica status. This honor is bestowed upon churches that have historical or other kinds of significance for the Catholic Church and which affords certain ceremonial privileges for a church so honored.
It did not take a long time for the application to be honored; His Excellency Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan announced from the altar of the “new” Cathedral at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass on March 17, 2010, that His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI had awarded Basilica status to the Old Cathedral, effective (fittingly) on March 17, 2010.
All of the people who have had connections over the years with the Old Cathedral are rightfully proud to learn that this wonderful old church has been so honored by His Holiness Pope Benedict. Old St. Patrick’s is the only church within The Archdiocese of New York to have ever attained Basilica status—a fitting honor for such a historically and ecclesiastically significant edifice within the great City of New York.
Deeply rooted in the community, The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral continues its tradition of providing for the spiritual needs of Catholics of all ages. In 2013, the Basilica once again became a place where Roman Catholics could be buried on the island of Manhattan. A columbarium was erected early in the year for the purpose of accepting the cremated remains of parishioners and friends of the Basilica. , and more columbaria are in the building stages as of this writing.
Once again, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral is an honored burial place for the faithful departed of New York City—the exact purpose that the pioneer Catholic community of New York City had intended for the land when it was purchased back in 1801 and 1803.