NEW YORK—The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral stands proudly on its block between Mott Street and Mulberry Street in the Nolita neighborhood of Manhattan. The Cathedral, which served as the seat of the Archbishop of New York from 1815 until the opening of the new St. Patrick’s in midtown in 1879, is a renowned city landmark. It remains an active parish and has drawn tabloid-esque coverage due to its youthful and photogenic congregation at the 7 p.m. mass on Sundays and famous Eucharistic ministers. Director Francis Coppola also shot a scene at the baptismal font for his little-known film, The Godfather. But beneath the pop culture frills lies a complex and tumultuous past that represents a microcosm of the social history enveloping the city itself.
Tommy Wilkinson, a blacksmith-turned-tour guide, signed an exclusive deal with the Cathedral to lead tours in February. Wilkinson takes groups through the grounds, including areas like the catacombs and cemetery, that had long been off limits to the public on a daily basis.
The tour is an engaging example of public history—Wilkinson utilizes a keen sense of humor and his deep New York roots to present the church’s story in a language easily translated for the general populace—and sheds light on the church’s connection to New York’s 19th century Catholic and immigrant history in a concise manner.
I have walked past the Cathedral several times since moving to New York in August, though I must admit I paid more attention to the artist vending stalls (simple but endearing pen sketches of pigeons situated in the New York urban landscape stand out in my memory) lining the Cathedral’s walls on Prince Street than I did to the structure itself.
But my previous neglect of the centuries-old Cathedral does not stem from any lapsed-Catholicism. The truth is, those walls serve their purpose well, obstructing a natural line of sight into the grounds. Despite the Cathedral’s architectural significance and size—it is not gargantuan, but still impressive—it can be easy to miss.
The walls were built for a reason. Today, Nolita is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in New York. Rents in the neighborhood can go as high as 10,000 per month and a townhouse across the street from the Cathedral is on the market for 25 million, said Wilkinson. But back in the 19th century it used to be part of Five Points, a notorious, crime-ridden neighborhood.
Many Irish immigrants lived in Five Points, which is considered one of the first cultural “melting pots” in the United States, and they made up the majority of the congregation at Old St. Pat’s when it was first constructed in 1809. At the time, many Americans did not look too kindly upon the Irish—or Catholics in general.
Wilkinson said that nativist groups went around the city setting fires to Catholic Churches. They longed to burn St. Pat’s down, but the arsonists met their match in archbishop John Hughes.
Hughes, born an Irishman, was the fourth bishop (and first archbishop) of New York and is credited with forging a strong Catholic Church on the East Coast in the 19th century. In doing so, he earned the nickname “Dagger John.” As Wilkinson noted on the tour, he earned the nickname through both his forceful and uncompromising personality and for signing documents with a tiny dagger next to his name.
“He was a real tough guy,” Wilkinson said. “And had to be in order to protect this church from the gangs.”
After the nativist groups attacked Irish-Catholic homes and burned down two churches in Philadelphia, Hughes drew a line. He wouldn’t let the same fate befall the Catholics in New York. He ordered the construction of the walls and had members of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians—an Irish-Catholic fraternity—form a militia to man them. Hughes’s willingness to fight back helped change the power dynamics in the city and gave immigrants and Catholics one of their first real senses of agency in New York.
Of course, Hughes’ measures did not lead to social harmony and different immigrant groups continued to clash with each other. For example, after Italians began settling in Five Points in the mid-19th century, they were relegated to observing mass in the cathedral’s basement. According to Wilkinson, this stemmed from the fact that Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general, was fighting against the papacy in Rome to reunify the Italian peninsula. The Irish constituency, showing its strict loyalty to the Catholic Church, shunned the Italians.
But the catacombs and cemetery at Old St. Patrick’s also highlight the less-contentious impact of cultural diversity in the parish. In the cemetery, Wilkinson made note of members of the 69th infantry regiment. The 69th was a Civil War unit consisting of Irish immigrants and Irish- Americans and the namesake of Notre Dame’s “Fighting Irish.” Several of the unit’s veterans are buried in the cemetery. He also highlighted the gravestone of Pierre Toussaint, a former Haitian slave, who was brought to New York in 1787 and earned his freedom 20 years later. Toussaint eventually made a good living as a hairdresser in New York and used the money that he saved for philanthropic efforts, including building orphanages and schools for the poor children of Five Points and the construction of Old St. Patrick’s itself.
The catacombs, which, as Wilkinson admits, don’t quite display the eeriness as their counterparts as in, say, Paris, are the only of their kind in New York and serve as the burial sites for numerous important immigrant families who helped forge the society around them. They include the famous Delmonico family, founders of the eponymous restaurants, the prominent Lynch family from Ireland and Annie Leary, the only Catholic member on Mrs. Astor’s 400, the list of New York’s 19th century social elite. The catacombs are a striking example of the progress European immigrants made over the century, both economically and culturally.
Today, the Cathedral retains much of that diversity. Mass at St. Patrick’s is celebrated in English, Spanish and Chinese and the Russian Catholic St. Michael’s Chapel, sits on the property. As Wilkinson said, St. Patrick’s “is a piece of the very fabric that New York City has always been.”