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St. Patrick’s Cathedral

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

A trappist abbot named de LeStrange, hiding in New York from the oppressions of the Corsican antichrist- Bonaparte- in 1813, purchased this land on 5th avenue between 50th and 51st streets from the Jesuits for $10,000.


While her cornerstone was laid in 1858 and her doors swept open in 1879, it was over 150 years ago, when Archbishop John Hughes announced his inspired ambition to build the “new” Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

In a ceremony at Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Archbishop Hughes proposed “for the glory of Almighty God, for the honor of the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin, for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, for the dignity of our ancient and glorious Catholic name, to erect a Cathedral in the City of New York that may be 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.”

Ridiculed as “Hughes’ Folly,” as the proposed, near-wilderness site was considered too far outside the city, Archbishop Hughes, nonetheless, persisted in his daring vision of building the most beautiful, Gothic Cathedral in the New World in what he believed would one day be “the heart of the city.” Neither the bloodshed of the Civil War, nor the resultant lack of manpower or funds, would derail the ultimate fulfillment of Hughes’ dream and Architect, James Renwick’s bold plan.

Through the generosity of 103 citizens who pledged $1,000 each and the collective “pennies” of thousands of largely Irish, immigrant poor, Hughes’ vision became a shining reality.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

After the Trappists returned to France, following the downfall of Napoleon, the land lay feral and abandoned- and was set aside for future usage as a cemetery. The Archbishop of New York, an Irishman named John Joseph Hughes (who also created the Parochial School System, I would add) decided in 1853 to replace the “old” St. Patrick’s on Mulberry Street with something a little finer.

from wikipedia

He was consecrated bishop on January 7, 1838 with the titular see of Basileopolis. He succeeded to the bishopric of the diocese of New York on December 20, 1842 and became an archbishop on July 19, 1850, when the diocese was elevated to the status of archdiocese. He campaigned actively on behalf of Irish immigrants, and attempted to secure state support for religious schools. He protested against the United States Government for using the King James Bible in public schools, claiming that it was an attack on Catholic constitutional rights of double taxation, because Catholics would need to pay taxes for public school and also pay for the private school to send their children, to avoid the Protestant translation of the Bible. When he failed to secure state support, he founded an independent Catholic school system which was taken into the Catholic Church’s core at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1884, which mandated that all Parishes have a parochial school and that all Catholic children be sent to those schools.

He founded Manhattan College, St. John’s College (now Fordham University), the Academy of Mount St. Vincent {now (College of Mount Saint Vincent)and Marymount College. and began construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He served until his death. He was originally buried in old St. Patrick’s Cathedral and was exhumed and reinterred in the crypt under the altar of the new cathedral.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Prominent and favored by the powers that were, an engineer and architect named James Renwick Jr. designed the Cathedral. It is virtually impossible for the New Yorkers of this 21st century to understand the prestige of building a cathedral (primarily) for the Irish in the 19th century. A brogue was the price of admission to city government back then, and the stereotypical Irish cop, fireman, and politician were manifest archetypes.

from wikipedia

Renwick was born into a wealthy and well-educated family. His mother, Margaret Brevoort, was from a wealthy and socially prominent New York family. His father, James Renwick, was an engineer, architect, and professor of natural philosophy at Columbia College, now Columbia University. His two brothers were also engineers. Renwick is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and father.

Renwick was not formally trained as an architect. His ability and interest in building design were nurtured through his cultivated background, which granted him early exposure to travel, and through a broad cultural education that included architectural history. He learned the skills from his father. He studied engineering at Columbia, entering at age twelve and graduating in 1836. He received an M.A. three years later. On graduating, he took a position as structural engineer with the Erie Railroad and subsequently served as supervisor on the Croton Reservoir, acting as an assistant engineer on the Croton Aqueduct in New York

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Many additions have been made to Renwick’s original design, including a dwelling for the Archbishop and Rectory. Every generation has found some reason to alter and magnify the structure, which is the seat of the Archdiocese of New York. The Archdiocese of New York is a larger Catholic organization than exists in many countries.

from wikipedia

Work was begun in 1858 but was halted during the Civil War and resumed in 1865. The cathedral was completed in 1878 and dedicated on May 25, 1879, its huge proportions dominating the midtown of that time. The archbishop’s house and rectory were added from 1882 to 1884, and an adjacent school (no longer in existence) opened in 1882. The towers on the west façade were added in 1888, and an addition on the east, including a Lady chapel, designed by Charles T. Mathews, was begun in 1901. The stained-glass windows in the Lady Chapel were designed and made in Chipping Campden, England by Paul Vincent Woodroffe between 1912 and 1930. The cathedral was renovated between 1927 and 1931 when the great organ was installed and the sanctuary enlarged.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, Archidioecesis Neo-Eboracensis, covers some 480 parishes and ministers to the roughly 2.5 million believers in its territory. St. Patrick’s is the ceremonial center of the organization.

from wikipedia

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York covers New York, Bronx, and Richmond counties in New York City (coterminous with the boroughs of Manhattan, The Bronx, and Staten Island, respectively), as well as Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster, and Westchester counties in New York state. There are 480 parishes. The Archdiocese of New York is the metropolitan see of the ecclesiastical province of New York which includes the suffragan dioceses of Brooklyn, Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Ogdensburg, and Rockville Centre.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Major renovations to the structure, particularly the altars happened during the tenure of Cardinal Francis Spellman. Spellman was a firebrand priest and political operator cast in the Medici mold, with a long list of foes and allies, and an anti-communist. He also figures into the history of Calvary Cemetery, prominently.

from wikipedia

Vehemently anti-Communist, Spellman once said that “a true American can neither be a Communist nor a Communist condoner” and that “the first loyalty of every American is vigilantly to weed out and counteract Communism and convert American Communists to Americanism”. He was firm supporter of Joseph McCarthy. In 1949, when gravediggers at Calvary Cemetery in Queens went on strike for a pay raise, the Cardinal accused them of being Communists and recruited seminarians from St. Joseph’s Seminary as strikebreakers. He described the actions of the gravediggers, who belonged to the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers Union of America, as “an unjustified and immoral strike against the innocent dead and their bereaved families, against their religion and human decency”. The strike was supported by such figures as Dorothy Day and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote a scathing letter to Spellman. Spellman defended Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1953 investigations of Communist subversives in the federal government, stating at an April 1954 breakfast attended by the Senator that McCarthy had “told us about the Communists and about Communist methods” and that he was “not only against communism—but … against the methods of the Communists”.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It was actually the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral people from the Five Points who founded Calvary Cemetery in Queens, but it’s the New Cathedral’s offices that have dominion over the marble heart of the Newtown Pentacle today.


The Trustees also displayed a keen foresight in acquiring property for cemetery use and also great diligence and prudence in caring for and managing the cemeteries. In 1829, a tract of land was purchased, on what is not 50th Street, for use as a cemetery.

The purchased gave rise to much criticism because the property was so far beyond the city limits. This property was later used as the site of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Property closer to the city limits was acquired in 1832. Located between 11th and 12th Streets, from Avenue A to 1st Avenue, this parcel of land known as the 11th Street Cemetery, was opened for interments in 1833 and was used for the burial of Catholics until the year 1848.

Before that date, the Trustees came to the conclusion that the rapidly growing Catholic population of New York made necessary the acquisition of more cemetery property. It was decided that a large parcel of land would be necessary to satisfy the cemeteryrequirements of a growing population and so in 1845, the Trustees purchased the ALSOP Farm, consisting of 115 acres in Newtown Township, Long Island.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The center of Manhattan’s urban life lay far south of 50th street when the Cathedral was built. What Times and Herald Square are to modernity, Union Station was. The great press and tumult of tenement New York, where the “old” St. Patrick’s Cathedral still stands, did not appeal to the Irish who had “made it” into the bourgeois class via the seeming experiment in social Darwinism which was called the Five Points.

from wikipedia

The neighborhood took form by about 1820 next to the site of the former Collect Pond, which had been drained due to a severe pollution problem. The landfill job on the Collect was a poor one, and surface seepage to the southeast created swampy, insect-ridden conditions resulting in a precipitous drop in land value. Most middle and upper class inhabitants fled, leaving the neighborhood completely open to the influx of poor immigrants that started in the early 1820s and reached a torrent in the 1840s due to the Irish Potato Famine. It was situated close enough for a walking commute to the large mercantile employers of the day in and around the dockyards at the island’s southern tip, but it was far enough away from the built-up Wall Street area to allow a total remake of character.

At Five Points’ “height,” only certain areas of London’s East End vied with it in the western world for sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, prostitution, violent crime, and other classic ills of the urban destitute. However, it was the original American melting pot, at first consisting primarily of newly emancipated African Americans (gradual emancipation led to the end of slavery in New York on July 4, 1827), and newly arrived Irish.

The rough and tumble local politics of “the ould Sixth ward” (The Points’ primary municipal voting district), while not free of corruption, set important precedents for the election of non-Anglo-Saxons to key offices. Although the tensions between the African Americans and the Irish were legendary, their cohabitation in Five Points was the first large-scale instance of volitional racial integration in American history. In the end, the Five Points African American community moved to Manhattan’s West Side and to the then-undeveloped north of the island.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

When first built, St. Patrick’s towered over the surrounding area’s building stock. The 20th century put an end to that, especially when the Rockefellers built their 22 acre “center” around it. Rockefeller center represents a composite eight million square feet of commercial real estate, spread out amongst 19 skyscrapers.

from wikipedia

Rockefeller Center is a complex of 19 commercial buildings covering 22 acres (89,000 m2) between 48th and 51st streets in New York City. Built by the Rockefeller family, it is located in the center of Midtown Manhattan, spanning the area between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Eight Archbishops of the Roman Catholic church are entombed in St. Patrick’s, 6 of whom held the office of Cardinal. 4 other officers of the See are entombed here as well- including the Haitian “venerable” Pierre Toussaint who is on the road to being declared a Saint.

from wikipedia

Venerable Pierre Toussaint (1766 – June 30, 1853) was born in Haïti. He learned to read and write and he came to New York from Haiti in 1787. In New York, he became an apprentice to one of the city’s leading hairdressers.

Pierre Toussaint quickly became a popular abolitionist. He was freed from slavery when his owner died in 1807 and later became quite wealthy. He fell in love with another slave, Juliette Noel, and purchased her freedom when she was only fifteen years old. Noel married Toussaint and together they set out to help those in need in New York City. They opened their home as a shelter for orphans, a credit bureau, an employment agency and refuge for priests and poverty stricken travelers. Toussaint also funded money to build a new Roman Catholic church in New York, which became Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I was in the area, having met with a new advertising client- a rare thing in the last few years due to the “Great Recession”- and was thunderstruck by the quality of the light hitting St. Patrick’s. The mirror surfaces of the hideous internationalist style office buildings- expressions of anti republic quasi fascism to my opinion- act as enormous “gelled’ light sources illuminating the Neo-Gothic structure they surround.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

An observation and opinion:

I rail against “LeCorbusier” and the “International Style” a lot. My opinion is that of a consumer, not an architect or engineer. Life as a freelance commercial artist in New York City has taken me to a lot of places and office buildings over the years, and the worst ones are those where only the bosses get to look out a window every now and then. I’ve worked for ad agencies or corporate graphics operations in:

  • World Trade Center (which swayed uncomfortably, was huge and drafty, and difficult to get lunch)
  • Empire State (cramped and dark, with lousy bathrooms)
  • Chrysler Building (same complaints as Empire)
  • Worldwide Plaza (not too bad, although environmental ventilation sucks)
  • Rockefeller Center itself (in one of the original 19 and one of the Internationals on sixth avenue… there’s an enormous underground complex down there, by the way- guys ride around in little carts with flashing lights- looks just like you’d think Area 51 would)
  • Saatchi Building (aces! and I used to watch Fireboats training on the Hudson from my desk)

The best buildings to work in are generally below 23rd street, however, the ones whose former lighting system- gas pipes- are still visible. Today, many of those gas pipes carry high speed fiber optic cables. Windows are openable, you are close to the street, and lunch options are abundant. There’s a real mix of people on the sidewalks, and such intercourse between strangers is critical to democracy and identification of one’s self as being part of a community.

Written by Mitch Waxman

April 9, 2010 at 1:00 am

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