The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

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Oy gut to visits mit das Goyem again!

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My friends at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral allowed me to photograph their 2016 Irish Language Mass, over in Lower Manhattan’s Bloody Sixth Ward on the corner of Mott and Prince, which occurred on Saturday the 12th of March. This isn’t the first time I’ve shot this event – check out “wildest speculations” and “luminous aether” for my earlier efforts.

One thing you’ll pick up on is that this year is that the House of Dagger John – St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral – looks a bit different. There is an enormous amount of construction going on within the building, as there’s a restoration project underway meant to prepare the Church for an upcoming historical anniversary and return her to the splendor of an earlier era.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As is my habit, I got there early, way before any of the parishioners showed up. During the ceremony itself, my preferred spot to shoot from is alongside the organist, which is on a catwalk that sits what must be thirty or feet over the floor. The image above is from ground level, at the center of the aisle between the pews, looking straight at the altar.

I presume they’re called “pews,” and that the ceremonial center is called the “altar,” incidentally. I’m Jewish, so what do I know? If you’re Roman Catholic, and I’m calling out “something” as something it’s not, please offer corrections in the comments section below rather than getting offended.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Speaking of the pipe organ, there is one, and it’s a magnificent thing.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The altar area at the front of the basilica has also enjoyed a bit of restoration. The carved wooden statues of the Saints (presumptively) or Apostles on the ornate screen have received quite a bit of artistic attention since my last visit here. The big oil painting that used to act as a centerpiece has been replaced by a model of the Cathedral which encloses the host.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Cruciform has also been cleaned and its paint restored, and has been relocated from its former position behind the carved altarpiece. It’s now suspended from the roof by thin wires.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

This shot looks back towards the organ from the front of the Basilica, up on the altar itself. The stained glass which normally adorns the windows has been removed, and been sent off to an artisan glass shop for restoration. There’s a fabricated construction material that looked like Tyvek covering the windows, and you’ll notice there’s a scaffold set up in the lower left hand corner of the shot. Just about everywhere I looked, there was something going on, repairs wise.

I was informed that this Mass is the first time in many, many months that the Cathedral has been open to the public due to these construction and restoration efforts.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Irish language mass got going, and it was in celebration of St. Patrick’s day. Naturally, it started with bagpipes, and most of the attendants whom I spoke with were indeed of Hibernian descent. There were a couple of important people who spoke, in Irish… can’t really tell you what they were saying as I’m not fluent in Gaelic. The ceremony itself went on, and the priests performed their devotions. Actually, the guy on the left is Pastor of this church and is a Monsignor.

As a note, I LOVE photographing this event, and am honored that I’m asked to attend and record it.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Part of my awe, of course, is that this was the church of Archbishop John Hughes – who is my nominee for the most important but largely forgotten New Yorker of the 19th century.

Dagger John, as he was known in his time, is the founder of Calvary Cemetery along my beloved Newtown Creek in Queens, and he actually officiated the very first funeral that was held there. It was also because of Dagger John, and his creation of an entirely free Parochial School system for the children of the poor (including Protestants) that the Protestant elite of NYC created a Public School system which must NEVER mention a god or offer religious instruction.

If you don’t think about the Protestant/Catholic conflict when discussing 19th century NYC, you probably don’t know anything about the Bowery B’Hoys or the Bloody Sixth Ward. McGurk’s Suicide Parlor was a couple of blocks away from here, not far from McSorley’s and Cooper Union. A few blocks east, German and Ukrainian  Socialists conspired to oppose the bosses over on first, and just a few blocks further east was an area referred to as “The Jew Ghetto.” Lame Duck was the king of Doyers Street and its opium parlors to the south, and to the north west at Union Square – a political organization which called itself “Tamanend” was just beginning to flex its electoral muscles.

Back in the 1830’s and 40’s the Catholic Church was considered to be a threat by the old line Protestant “powers that be” and the Pope was referred to as (and was the de facto) King of Italy. NYC was boiling with racial tension in that era, with ethnic militias making war upon each other on the streets. A Nativist Mob once marched on this very church intending to burn it down, and were greeting by Irish gunmen manning the fences along Mott, Mulberry, and Prince Streets.

It’s hard to imagine, I know. Back then, the concept of race wasn’t just black and white, it included National origin. Back then, the Irish were considered a degenerate and primitive race, separate and lesser than the other pale skinned Europeans. Reading the NY Times archives from back then on the subject of Irish emigration, and the growing population of Catholics in the United States, can be a startling experience for modern eyes.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Mass played out, and the two priests brought the host down for the congregants.

On a technical front, I was constantly swapping lenses throughout the ceremony, and rotated through my entire kit several times. The camera was set up on a tripod, with a remote shutter release cable installed. The “architectural” shots were narrow aperture and low ISO (to gather all the ornate details available within the hyperfocal distance available between f8 – f22 and “infinity”) and a shutter speed which floated around in the neighborhood of 2-6 seconds.

The shot above, if I recall correctly, was a high ISO (2,000, maybe) with the aperture set at f7.1 and the shutter open for 1/60th of a second. There were several exposure triangles which were quickly gleaned for usage on various types of shots, suffice to say, and that all of the “technical” sort of night shooting I’ve been doing is growing increasingly useful.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I wanted to get a bit “arty” in the shot above and blur the moving people a bit while leaving the Church and its ornamentation tack sharp. The aperture went down to f22 and then I lowered the ISO to 100 so as to cut down on as much light as possible from hitting the sensor, and then opened the shutter up for 30 seconds. Anything moving in the shot became ghostly and was blurred into a motion trail.

The arty part was to try and suggest the impermanent condition of the living in the context of a sacred space which has seen the fortunes of New York City rise and fall several times over, or something.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

If you click through to the flickr set these photos are a part of, (just click the image) there’s lots more of Old St. Patrick’s and the ceremony to check out in there. I hope that when the restoration is done I can get my camera back into the House of Dagger John.

Eyn loshn iz keynmol nisht genug!

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

4 Responses

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  1. You seem inspired in this post.
    The second to last shot is excellent, IMHO probably the best of the lot, artsy or not. Overall, all the shots were quite good. It’s good to break out of a routine once in a while.

    Don Cavaioli


    March 21, 2016 at 12:48 pm

  2. Awesome photos, and very cool to hear some of the history of the Irish/Catholics.


    March 21, 2016 at 1:22 pm

  3. […] For some interior views of Old St. Patrick’s, see the Newtown Pentacle. […]

  4. […] “Holy Spirit Byzantine Catholic Church.” Everybody knows that I’m a fan of photographing the ritual life of the Catholic Church in particular, and that I’m absolutely floored by Orthodox or Greek Churches. There’s a […]

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