A GUIDE TO CATHOLIC BASILICAS IN THE UNITED STATES
A GUIDE TO CATHOLIC BASILICAS IN THE UNITED STATES
The Basilica of Saint Patrick's Old Cathedral was the first cathedral church for the Diocese of New York, the second Catholic church in Manhattan, and the third Catholic church in New York State.
Construction of the basilica began in 1809, the year following the creation of the Diocese. The original building, designed by Joseph F. Mangin, was dedicated in 1815, enlarged in 1838-1842, and almost totally destroyed by fire in 1866. The rebuilt structure was rededicated two years later. John McCloskey was installed as the first American cardinal in the church in 1875. In 1879, when the new cathedral on Fifth avenue was opened, Old St. Patrick's lost its cathedral designation.
On March 17, 2010, the church was designated as a Basilica by Pope Benedict XVL. The designation was given primarily to acknowledge the church's history, including its ministering to generations of Irish, Italian, Hispanic, and Asian immigrants, of sheltering orphans and nurturing soldiers, and of defending parishioners from 19th-century anti-Catholic mobs.
Address: 263 Mulberry Street, New York, New York
Must see: The cemetery surrounding the basilica has served as a final resting place for hundreds of New York Catholics, some dating back to the late 1700s. A list of the most prominent people buried on the grounds can be found here. In August 2016, it was announced that a burial plot in the cemetery could be bought for $7 million. The proceeds will be put towards renovations in the basilica.
Little known fact: The basilica was built at a time when Roman Catholics were under literal attack in NYC, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. A brick and stone fence was built to surround the church, and its accompanying churchyard, because attempts were made to burn it down during the mid-1800s. Scorsese served as an altar boy in his youth here.
Construction of the Church
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.) 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 (another immigrant from Ireland), a business partner of John Jacob Astor.
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 Early Years
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. Father Kohlmann maintained the responsibilities of the church 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’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 their native homeland due to harsh British colonial rule. 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.
The Anti-Catholicism Years
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.
A New Cathedral
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 in 1883. The Cathedral uptown holds the remains of all of the archbishops and cardinals that have served the Archdiocese since the death of Archbishop Hughes.
The McCloskey Years
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 200th anniversary and recognition as a Basilica
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. Beginning in the 1880s, Italian immigrants poured into the area centered on Mulberry Street that came to be known as Little Italy. 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.
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.
Note: The majority of the historical information in this post was obtained from the website of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral. Additional sources of information include pamphlets obtained directly from within the basilica, as well as from news articles made available to the public.