Often referred to as “America’s Parish Church,” St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City has been the home of the local Catholic culture since its doors opened in 1879. Beyond its local influence, the Cathedral is also a national landmark representing faith and freedom with over six million visitors a year. Located in the heart of New York City, it stands as a reminder of God’s love and mercy amidst the bustle, chaos, and noise of the city. Here’s a look at the history and evolution of St. Patrick’s Cathedral from its construction to today.
The current St. Patrick’s Cathedral was commissioned by Archbishop John Hughes of New York in 1850 to reflect the rising influence of Catholicism in New York. He became Bishop of New York in 1842, before New York was an archdiocese and a tumultuous time for Catholics in New York. When New York became an archdiocese in 1850, Archbishop Hughes declared the creation of a new cathedral.
He stated that it would be a construction “worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence and wealth as a religious community, and at all events, worthy, as a public architectural monument, of the present and prospective crowns of this metropolis of the American continent.” The architect James Renwick designed the Cathedral in the Gothic style.
Since the proposed location, between Fifth and Madison Avenues and Fiftieth and Fifty-First Streets, was not central to downtown New York, many were skeptical of the plan and mocked it as “Hughes’ Folly.” Despite this criticism, Archbishop Hughes moved forward with the construction since he believed that it would become “the heart of the city.”
The Cathedral’s construction was paused for five years during the Civil War due to financial strains and lack of workers — finally opening in 1879. The funding of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a community effort, with pledges from the wealthy and various fundraising efforts including the Great Cathedral Fair of 1878. A year before the final opening, the fair raised the additional $172,625 needed to complete the interior furnishing.
Over the years, each generation has contributed to the glory and restoration of the Cathedral. Some of the most prominent features of the exterior and interior are the mighty spires originally finished in 1888, The Lady Chapel completed in 1908 (restored in 2003), and the Kilgen Organs set up between 1928 and 1930 (restored in the 1990s). Additional restorations in recent years include the main altar, the sacristy, and the chapels for Saints Anthony, Elizabeth, Jean Baptiste de la Salle, Louis, and Michael among others.
Since its opening in 1879, the High Altar has remained a permanent fixture. The original High Altar was replaced in 1942 when the design of the previous High Altar was deemed problematic and inconsistent with the Gothic style. The structure erected in 1942 still stands today along with the bronze Baldachino, or stone canopy, that appears above the altar. In 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan began a Cathedral-wide restoration effort to renew the building to preserve it for the future.
To commemorate its patron saint, the Cathedral hosts several tributes to St. Patrick. There are two primary statues, one in front of the sanctuary and another set into the front doors. The most arresting artwork in his honor is the panel of windows above one of the transept doors that portrays the significant moments of St. Patrick’s life — from what is known about the saint.
The scenes begin with his baptism, capture, his vocation announced to him by an angel, proclaiming the Gospel while on a ship, getting sold into slavery in Ireland then set free. It continues into the development of his vocation as he was made a cleric, studied at Lerins, and was ordained as a priest.
Then the windows present his journey to Rome where he received a blessing from Pope Saint Celestine I, his consecration as a bishop, visit to Saint Germain d’ Auxerre, the start of his conversions in Ireland, and offering Communion to the daughters of King Laoghaire. Lastly, the panel finishes with his miraculous raising from the dead, his death, and angels singing at his funeral.
Countless New Yorkers have turned to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in times of grief and suffering, including the anniversary of September 11, 2001. The south spire is an unexpected memorial, the dusty windows inscribed with graffiti-like signatures of workers and firefighters responsible for inspecting the structure since the 1920s. It includes the signatures of four firefighters who died on September 11, 2001. While the rest of the Cathedral is kept polished and pristine, this remains untouched. The rectors and building managers have upheld a policy to preserve all the signatures.
Many other celebrations and memorials have taken place at the Cathedral such as memorials for Babe Ruth and Robert F. Kennedy. It has hosted the most papal visits of any church in the United States, the most recent being Pope Francis in 2015. Resting in eternal peace, all deceased archbishops are buried in the crypt beneath the High Altar including Archbishop John Hughes. There is also one lay Catholic buried there, Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave born in 1766 who was declared “venerable” by Pope John Paul II in 1996. Pierre was a popular hairdresser among the wealthy of New York, but generously used his money to help the poor.
Steeped in the story of St. Patrick and the growth of Catholicism in New York, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a beautiful home of worship and the Mother Church of the Archdiocese. Whether you plan to attend the 2019 Principled Entrepreneurship Conference in October or travel to New York City on another occasion, you won’t want to miss touring and praying in the Cathedral. After all, it is the heart of the city.
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