Where Popes Come to Pray

What Pope Benedict XVI feasted his eyes on when he celebrated Mass for priests and religious at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on April 19. By Joseph Pronechen.

In 1858, they called it “Hughes’s folly” — even as New York Archbishop John Hughes laid the cornerstone on Aug. 15 of that year. What sense did it make, New Yorkers asked, to build a gigantic Gothic cathedral amid the farmland and shantytowns of midtown Manhattan?

Thinking of that bit of history gave Mary and me a smile on our most recent pilgrimage to what has become the most-visited church in the United States. In our lifetime, three popes have prayed here in St. Patrick’s — Paul VI in 1965, John Paul II in 1995 and, now, Pope Benedict XVI.

It’s impossible to count the number of visitors coming through the big bronze doors daily, but annually an average 7 million marvel at or worship in this, the largest Gothic-style cathedral in the United States and the 12th largest Catholic cathedral in the world.

When both recently restored 1929 Kilgen organs play for Masses, accompanying the grand cathedral choir with a combined 9,000 pipes, we think heaven’s gates have opened to let us hear the rhythm of the saints.

St. Patrick’s is every bit as majestic in design and details throughout, a living example of what a house of God should be. Just take the glorious oak facades spanning the gallery organ and the oak apron that fronts the choir gallery. We marveled at myriads of handcarved angels and Latin inscriptions over them.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

Gothic Godliness

Archbishop Hughes chose James Renwick, New York’s top architect, to design an ideal Gothic Revival cathedral. With St. Patrick’s, the architect pushed the limits, beginning with the massive yet delicate façade and the twin spires as original celestial skyscrapers spiraling 330 feet above Fifth Ave.

Renwick wrote that the spires, 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.” He wasn’t exaggerating.

On stepping through the massive bronze front doors, visitors see that, for all its cavernous vastness, the vaulted interior is light, airy and inviting. Its cool open spaces are warmed by a multitude of graceful arches and harmonious lines. Not even tourists snapping photos can disturb the peace of those who stop in to spend quiet moments in prayer and contemplation.

Cardinal John McCloskey, who succeeded Archbishop Hughes and was the first U.S. cardinal, must have spent plenty of time praying here in thanks for the Irish immigrants who worked so hard to fund the building project. On May 25, 1879, he dedicated the cathedral.

Inside and out, this sprawling masterpiece — whose Latin-cross form can be seen by airplane and helicopter passengers — is an ideal of dramatic Gothic adornment and geometric Gothic style. From the back of the nave, the sanctuary’s altar and 57-foot baldachin of solid bronze looks a quarter-mile away. Closer up, the polished baldachin, added in the 20th century, features figures, statues and symbols telling the story of salvation history, beginning with the Old Testament.

Everything in the great sanctuary gleams with the splendor of recent renovations, from both altars to the vast carved-wood screen around the sanctuary. Right by it, the south transept has the stunning white marble altar and Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Within is a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, honored nearly perpetually by Latino parishioners and visitors.

The window in this transept tells the story of the cathedral and its patron in 18 scenes. A separate window there pictures Patrick as bishop and Apostle of Ireland. He’s joined in the scene by Renwick, who donated it in 1879, and by Archbishop Hughes and Cardinal McCloskey.

Renwick designed some of the many elaborate side shrines lining the nave and circling the sanctuary like small chapels. Tiffany designed the altars of St. Michael the Archangel and St. Louis.

Two shrine chapels that draw many folks honor St. Anthony and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Mary and I have a special devotion to her, so, after settling into our pew for Mass, we were delighted to spot her in the form of a white marble statue.

Holy Hall of Fame

Some new shrines have replaced older ones. The Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa, dedicated in 2005, has an icon of the Blessed Mother painted in Poland. In 2004, at a private audience, John Paul II personally blessed it.

The Lady Chapel directly behind the main sanctuary is a sort of throne room that now reserves the Blessed Sacrament. People always stop for quiet prayer. The 13th-century French Gothic architecture makes this Lady Chapel, which was added in 1906 and renovated in 2003, a delicate treasure. The marble altar is a breathtaking throne for the tabernacle.

We found the Chapel of St. Joseph perfectly placed right next to the Lady Chapel. This shrine is less ornate. A simple statue of St. Joseph, carved from a single piece of white Carrara marble, was given to Cardinal John O’Connor on the 51st anniversary of his priesthood.

Cardinal O’Connor, who founded the Sisters for Life, is interred in the crypt opposite the Lady Chapel. Also there are Archbishop Hughes, Cardinal McCloskey, Cardinal Terence Cooke and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, all of whose causes for canonization are open. Also here is Venerable Pierre Toussaint.

Every time we stop here, we always rediscover a living, breathing prayer made manifest in wood, stone and light. Far from being anybody’s folly, St. Patrick’s Cathedral is surely the heart and soul of Manhattan.

But don’t take it from Mary and me. Just ask Pope Benedict.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

460 Madison Ave.

New York, NY 10022

(212) 753-2261


Planning Your Visit

St. Patrick’s has eight Sunday Masses on Sunday and seven daily Masses. Confessors are available every day except Sunday. Call the church or visit the website for details.