The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

luminous aether

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Maritime Sunday is suspended this week in honor of St. Patrick’s day. Last week, I had an opportunity to wave my camera around at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan, and was allowed to photograph the Irish Language Mass they were conducting. Here’s what I saw…


Designed by architect Joseph Francois Mangin, St. Patrick’s has great dignity and character in its restrained simplicity. Her sidewalls rise to a height of 75 feet, and the inner vault is 85 feet high. The church is over 120 feet long and 80 feet wide. Near the west wall stands the huge marble altar surrounded by an ornately carved, gold leaf reredos.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To begin with, these shots are a combination of tripod and handheld. It’s not that bright in the cathedral, but it is lit like a movie set by the interaction of sunlight and stained glass which is augmented by well placed electrical fixtures. Sculptural elements and motifs are plentiful, and it is easy to get lost in photographing small details.

from wikipedia

In 1836, the cathedral was the subject of an attempted sack after tensions between Irish Catholics and anti-Catholic Know-Nothing nativists led to a number of riots and other physical confrontations. The situation worsened when a brain-injured young woman wrote a book telling her “true” story – a Protestant girl who converted to Catholicism, and was then forced by nuns to have sex with priests, with the resulting children being baptized then killed horribly. Despite the book being debunked by a mildly anti-Catholic magazine editor, nativist anger at the story resulted in a decision to attack the cathedral. Loopholes were cut in the church’s outer walls, which had just recently been built, and the building was defended from the rioters with muskets

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Long has one enjoyed the pursuit of photographing ritual spaces of all kinds around the City of New York, but fascination with the era surrounding this cathedral lent a certain nervous excitement to my task. This was the “House of Dagger John“, after all, and its connections with Calvary Cemetery along the Newtown Creek have given it a special status in my eyes.

from wikipedia

John Joseph Hughes (June 24, 1797 – January 3, 1864), was an Irish-born clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church. He was the fourth Bishop and first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, serving between 1842 and his death in 1864.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The plan for the service (and one must remember that a humble narrator was raised in the Hebrew faith as I stumble through this part- I’m not being vague, sarcastic, or anti anything- rather I’m Jewish and have no real idea what the meshuggenah goyem do) was for the Mass to be vocalized in the Irish Language. There was an Organist and a Cantor performing music, and the adherents stood up and sat back down a couple of times while the Priests said things (in Irish).

from wikipedia

Irish was the predominant language of the Irish people for most of their recorded history, and they brought their Gaelic speech with them to other countries, notably Scotland and the Isle of Man, where it gave rise to Scottish Gaelic and Manx. It has the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. In the Elizabethan era the Gaelic language was viewed as something barbarian and as a threat to all things English in Ireland. Consequently, it began to decline under English and British rule after the seventeenth century. The nineteenth century saw a dramatic decrease in the number of speakers especially after the Great Famine of 1845–1852 (where Ireland lost 20–25% of its population either to emigration or death). Irish-speaking areas were especially hit hard. By the end of British rule, the language was spoken by less than 15% of the national population. Since then, Irish speakers have been in the minority except in areas collectively known as the Gaeltacht.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I met the fellow on the left earlier in the day, one Msgr. Donald Sakano, who was a very nice fellow. He and the other Priests performed several actions while saying things which I’m sure would be familiar to adherents of the Roman Catholic Church, or at least Irish speakers, but not to this Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

The gaps in my knowledge just astound sometimes, actually, how can I not know every single detail of this altar ceremony?


Monsignor Donald Sakano is one of those urbanists who certainly possesses a singular perspective, forged from his work at the intersection of ministry, social work and affordable housing development and policy.

For the past four years, as Pastor of the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, he has presided over the restoration and transformation of Old Saint Patrick’s buildings — which include The Old Cathedral, the school, the Parish House, St. Michael’s Chapel, the Youth Center and the iconic wall — into a series of community facilities available for outreach, assembly and cultural events, such as our benefit event, which will begin at the St. Patrick’s Youth Center at 268 Mulberry Street.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It’s funny, as I can bore you to death about Arius, Origen, or Loyola. Want to talk about the Renaissance, Reformation, or Second Great Awakening- I’m all in. Recognizing the common tools and long practiced performance of catholic mass?


I can describe the effects of nearly all the known forms of kryptonite, however.

from wikipedia

The Roman Missal contains the prayers, antiphons and rubrics of the Mass. Earlier editions also contained the Scripture readings, which were then fewer in number. The latest edition of the Roman Missal gives the normal (“ordinary”) form of Mass in the Roman Rite. But, in accordance with the conditions laid down in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum of 7 July 2007, the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal, the latest of the editions that give what is known as the Tridentine Mass, may be used as an extraordinary form of celebrating the Roman Rite Mass.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The ceremony continued, and I decided that maybe it wouldn’t be that terrible to get lost in some of that architectural detail for a frame or two, and opened up the shutter for a long exposure. The big difficulty encountered, of course, were the dichotomous ambient conditions whose luminous contrast stretched into narrow bands of shadow and light.

from wikipedia

The Eucharistic Prayer, “the centre and high point of the entire celebration”, then begins with a dialogue between priest and people. This dialogue opens with the normal liturgical greeting, “The Lord be with you”, but in view of the special solemnity of the rite now beginning, the priest then exhorts the people: “Lift up your hearts.” The people respond with: “We lift them up to the Lord.” The priest then introduces the great theme of the Eucharist, a word originating in the Greek word for giving thanks: “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” he says. The congregation joins in this sentiment, saying: “It is right and just.”

The priest then continues with one of many Eucharistic Prayer prefaces, which lead to the Sanctus acclamation: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Following the moment depicted above, the three priests dispersed to the heads of the aisles, whereupon celebrants of the faith formed lines whose reward seemed to be a small cookie or cracker. One presumes that this is “the host” which figures so prominently in the Catholic Mass.

How am I supposed to know, I’m Jewish- by me it’s a cookie.

Happy St. Patrick’s day- and thanks to Jim Garrity and Msgr. Sakano for allowing so poor a specimen as myself to spend the day with them.

from wikipedia

The absence of snakes in Ireland gave rise to the legend that they had all been banished by St. Patrick. chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. This hagiographic theme draws on the mythography of the staff of the prophet Moses. In Exodus 7:8–7:13, Moses and Aaron use their staffs in their struggle with Pharaoh’s sorcerers, the staffs of each side morphing into snakes. Aaron’s snake-staff prevails by consuming the other snakes.

5 Responses

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  1. Beautiful! Top O’ The Mornin’ to Ya!

    Cate Franklyn

    March 17, 2013 at 11:59 am

  2. “”It’s a cookie”… “meshuggenah goyem”… Oy vay iz mir!!!

    georgetheatheist . . sanguinolent matzoh

    March 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  3. […] Language Mass at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry street in Manhattan, as described in this post from march of […]

  4. […] time I’ve shot this event – check out “wildest speculations” and “luminous aether” for my earlier […]

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