In 1858, they called it “Hughes’ folly” — even as New York Archbishop John Hughes laid the cornerstone on Aug. 15 of that year. Who would dream, New Yorkers said, of building a huge Gothic cathedral amid farmland and the shantytowns of midtown Manhattan? But today, that so-called folly is the most visited church in the United States: St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Each day some 20,000 people visit the cathedral. Popes have led prayer there, including Pope John Paul II, who led a recitation of the rosary on Oct. 7, 1995. On Sundays, more than 3,000 people attend the Mass celebrated by Cardinal John O'Connor. An estimated 7 million people each year visit and marvel at the 11th largest Catholic cathedral in the world.

St. Patrick's on Fifth Avenue is an example of what a place of worship should be, both in its grand design and in its details. For instance, it boasts a great 19th-century Jardine organ (7,855 pipes). Hearing it played with orchestral accompaniment and choirs, one is tempted to believe the gates of heaven have opened.

It was Archbishop Hughes who contracted with the pre-eminent New York architect James Renwick to design an ideal Gothic Revival cathedral. Renwick already had Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution to his credit. With the new project, he went even further as an architect, especially with the cathedral's faÇade and its twin spiraling towers, which stand at 330 feet tall.

The vaulted interior is vast, light, and airy, making it an inviting place for visitors. Both inside and outside, this masterpiece is an undisputed model of dramatic Gothic ornamentation.

Renwick's bold design included the extensive use of white marble rather than the brownstone that was fashionable at the time. He once wrote that the spires during sunset reflecting the “colors of heaven, will produce the effect of carrying the mind of the beholder to the true object of the building — the worship of the maker of the universe.”

Work on the building ceased for more than two years, due to a lack of funds and the Civil War. In 1869, Cardinal John McCloskey, who succeeded Archbishop Hughes, resumed work on the building. He noted that the chief source of funding was coming from Irish immigrants. The cathedral was completed and dedicated in 1879. As Edison introduced his incandescent lamp, the brightest light on the horizon for American Catholics was St. Patrick's Cathedral.

The cathedral is built in geometric Gothic style and Latin cross form. Its faÇade faces Fifth Avenue, It is both imposing and impressive, particularly in the architecture's spiritual atmosphere. The facade is massive, yet delicate like a rare gem, while the graceful arches and lines of the interior harmonize to create a sense of peace.

Once inside the massive bronze front doors that were added in 1949 (the central ones weigh 20,000 pounds each) the eye can't help focus on the sanctuary's high altar and 57-foot baldachin. Its bronze looks like polished gold and features figures, statues, symbols and shields telling the story of redemption, beginning with the Old Testament.

The high altar and baldachin were added this century, while the liturgical white marble altar in front of it was designed by Renwick to honor the Holy Family. This architect also designed several of the chapels along the side aisles, including those dedicated to St. John the Evangelist and the Holy Face.

He also designed the intricately ornamented Gothic altar of the Holy Family in the northern transept. Beside the altar is a 58-foot window portraying the life of the Blessed Mother.

In the southern transept, there is a titular window with 18 scenes which tell the story of the cathedral and its patron. Nearby, a separate window depicts Patrick as bishop and apostle of Ireland. Donated by Renwick in 1879, the window's signature scene includes the architect, Archbishop Hughes and Cardinal McCloskey.

In this same transept is the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. For years the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on this altar. It has been relocated to the Lady Chapel by the present archbishop, Cardinal O'Connor.

Though part of the original plans, the sublime Lady Chapel at the top of the ambulatory behind the sanctuary was added in the first decade of this century. Here, people pray quietly before the Blessed Sacrament.

A later architect, Charles Matthews, used 13th-century French Gothic architecture to make the Lady Chapel a delicate and ornate treasure. The marble altar in particular catches the eye with its mosaic of the Annunciation in soothing, soft blues and browns. The stained glass windows of the chapel highlight the glorious mysteries of the rosary (the joyful and sorrowful are in the side chapels). The highly detailed windows in blues and reds were constructed in England between 1912 and 1934, and are reminiscent of those in Sainte Chapelle in Paris.

All the original windows on the cathedral's first level were completed either near Chartres or Nantes, France. The clerestory stained glass windows in the main body of the cathedral came from midcentury America, as did the faÇade's 26-foot rose window.

Opposite the Lady chapel is the crypt which contains the remains of those closely connected with the cathedral — among them Archbishop Hughes, Cardinal McCloskey, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen and Venerable Pierre Toussaint who was originally buried at old St. Patrick's.

The chapel of St. Joseph beside the Lady chapel depicts the simplicity of life of Jesus’ foster father. The shrine is less elaborate and ornate with its Renaissance-style altar.

St. Patrick's continues to evolve slowly. It is a living cathedral honoring the saint who went to pagan Ireland to convert tens of thousands. Like that of its namesake, this great work of love is not a “folly” at all — St. Patrick's Cathedral is the heart in the heart of Manhattan.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut