NEW YORK — New York City’s fabled St. Patrick’s Cathedral has been a silent, noble observer of the St. Patrick’s Day parade for over a century. But, according to New York’s new cardinal, the old cathedral is in danger of disintegrating.
Just prior to the Fifth Avenue parade celebrations on March 17, on the steps of the cathedral — on the feast day of St. Patrick himself — Cardinal Timothy Dolan announced that the Archdiocese of New York is launching a $177-million renovation of the cathedral. Hailed by Cardinal Dolan as “America’s Parish Church,” the cathedral will undergo its largest and most expensive restoration since it first opened its doors 133 years ago.
Construction of the church began in 1858, when then-Archbishop John Hughes decided that the Catholic community of New York, primarily comprised of Irish immigrants, had outgrown the former St. Patrick’s Cathedral (now the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral) located on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan. A new location, where the cathedral now stands, was chosen on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in Midtown Manhattan.
The construction had hardly begun when it was halted due to the Civil War. Twenty years later, in 1879, the first Mass was celebrated inside the cathedral. Now, 14 decades after John Hughes first dreamed of a new cathedral for the city of New York, Cardinal Dolan is calling on New Yorkers — Catholics and others of good will — to once again support the cathedral, which, according to the cardinal, is in great need of both repair and reinforcement to safely welcome the more than 5.5 million visitors it receives each year.
During the morning press conference, Cardinal Dolan was joined by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other state and city officials as he summarized the history of the cathedral and bluntly described the physical needs that have brought about the restoration campaign.
“Now we’re not talking about a nice idea, folks, or some cosmetic facelift,” noted Cardinal Dolan. “We’re talking about the very survival of our beloved cathedral. This cathedral, simply put, is cracking. The bricks are crumbling and falling; the renowned windows are rattling and splitting; the heat, the air and the plumbing is old; the outside, as you see, is crusted with grit; and the roof is leaking. We don’t really have a choice but to repair.”
Over the next three years, the archdiocese will attempt to raise the necessary funds to complete the full restoration. The total price tag of the project is estimated at $177,300,000 — of which $55 million for the initial stage has already been secured through the cathedral trustees and a grant from the archdiocese.
The New York City-based architecture firm Murphy, Burnham, & Buttrick has been contracted to oversee the restoration project. According to firm partner Jeffrey Murphy, full scaffolding will be put up on the exterior of the cathedral beginning today, with the exterior restoration beginning sometime in April.
The second and third phases of the project will entail a cleaning and restoration of the interior of the cathedral, including the prized stained-glass windows, as well as the cathedral’s residential spaces and a new garden. The project, if all goes according to plan, is slated to take five years for completion.
Since its erection, the cathedral has long been recognized as an icon of not only New York’s Fifth Avenue, but also in the words of Cardinal Dolan, a “marvelous monument to our faith.” The cathedral has been visited by three of the last four Popes —Paul VI in 1965, John Paul II in 1979 and 1995, and, most recently, Benedict XVI in 2008. In addition, it is widely cherished by the 2.6 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of New York and by visitors of many faiths — all, according to Cardinal Dolan, hoping to get a sense of the divine.
While the physical need for restoration is evident, it is also clear that the large financial undertaking of the project is on the minds of all involved. Msgr. Robert Ritchie, who has served as the rector of the cathedral for the past six years, and who is responsible for overseeing the restoration, commented, “It has been my greatest honor to be here, but now it is going to become my greatest burden to restore this cathedral and make it as beautiful as it was.”
In a homily during the 8:30am Mass in celebration of St. Patrick, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, a native New Yorker who also worked in the archdiocese for 30 years, called on all present to pray for the restoration and to participate in every way possible. “We will all be challenged to sacrifice for this cathedral,” he concluded.
Despite such intimidation and worries, Cardinal Dolan is confident that New York’s Catholics and the rest of the world care enough about the cathedral to make the restoration a reality. “The dare of this campaign could chill us, except for the fact that we know the passion for and the pride in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
To complete the restoration, Cardinal Dolan and others are invoking the spirit and intercession of Archbishop Hughes, who was responsible for the construction of the cathedral. When the cathedral was erected, New Yorkers referred to the project as “Hughes’s folly,” due to the tough economic conditions of the day. Still, the late archbishop remained persistent and successfully raised the necessary funds, primarily through the support of lower- and middle- class Irish immigrants.
Today, Cardinal Dolan and Msgr. Ritchie are optimistic that both present-day New York Catholics and the rest of the world alike will feel similarly compelled. “We’re going to look forward,” surmised Msgr. Ritchie, “to John and Mary Doe on the street looking at this and saying, ‘It’s ours. Let’s do what we can for it.’”
Register correspondent Christopher White writes from New York.