New York's Basilica ... and Its Saints
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral illustrates the history of U.S. Catholicism.
Fittingly, on March 17, 2010, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan was officially named the first basilica in the Archdiocese of New York.
This is not the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Midtown that receives about 20,000 visitors and worshippers every day — but the 200-year-old church that was the city’s original cathedral. Its cornerstone was laid in 1809, and it was officially dedicated on the feast of the Ascension in 1815.
But until it was named a basilica, most visitors were unaware of this church in Lower Manhattan.
This St. Patrick’s, America’s second cathedral, was a beacon of Catholicism in the early 19th century. It became a parish church on May 25, 1879, the day its renowned replacement was dedicated.
In the heart of “old” Manhattan, where the neighborhoods of Little Italy, Chinatown and Soho meld, St. Patrick’s has existed at the corner of Mott and Prince Streets for more than 200 years, as things have changed all around it.
Many streets in this part of the city are 19th-century narrow. Those lanes once teeming with immigrants are now full of older buildings filled with boutiques, small shops, eateries and apartments. The area is quite trendy and a focal point for the arts.
Msgr. Donald Sakano, the pastor, describes it as “a melting pot of ideas” that’s “in an environment that endorses the value of change.”
“Part of our mission here is to understand that culture and interact with it” while upholding Catholic teaching, he told us. “We see ourselves with this unique opportunity for the Church to evangelize fearlessly to the world around us.”
Except for its readiness to meet these modern challenges, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s maintains a venerable 19th-century presence, both inside and out. In fact, the tall, stately brick wall surrounding the basilica grounds goes back to before the mid-19th century when there was organized anti-Catholic sentiment here as elsewhere. One group marching on the cathedral turned away when they got wind that Archbishop John Hughes had organized men parishioners to protect it.
By 1817, our first native-born American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, had started the first Catholic orphanage across the street. Then, in 1822, her Sisters of Charity turned their building into the cathedral school of St. Patrick’s, the first and oldest parochial school in New York. That building was replaced by today’s Federal-style brick building that remained the cathedral school until it closed last year.
St. Elizabeth isn’t the only saintly connection here. St. John Neumann, America’s first male saint, was ordained here on June 28, 1836, later becoming a bishop. Before Venerable Pierre Toussaint was reinterred in St. Patrick’s Uptown, the former black slave whose cause for canonization is open was buried in 1853 in the churchyard right outside Old St. Patrick’s.
From the outside, Old St. Patrick’s, with its simple facade of smooth brown stucco, doesn’t look like a cathedral. But it’s hardy. In 1866 a fire ripped through the neighborhood, reached the cathedral, and destroyed everything but the outer walls.
The ceiling might look a little familiar to some. That’s because it was done by James Renwick, using the design he was working on for the new Fifth Avenue St. Patrick’s.
By 1868, on the patron saint’s feast day, Archbishop John McCloskey rededicated the rebuilt cathedral. Then, in March 1875, four years before the seat was moved uptown to the new St. Patrick’s, thousands jammed the nave and the surrounding streets to witness Archbishop McCloskey, in this same cathedral where he was ordained a priest in 1830, become the first American elevated to the honor of cardinal.
Countless worshippers have admired the original ornately carved wood reredos, highlighted with gold leaf, behind the large marble altar. Ten large carved statues in niches line both sides. At the head of the lines are Sts. Peter and Paul.
In the center of the reredos, visitors are drawn to the splendid painting of the “Resurrection of Christ” as Jesus triumphantly leaves the tomb. This painting has a Renaissance quality but actually dates to 1970, when the church commissioned one of its parishioners to paint it.
Directly above it, we were in awe of the huge crucifix topping the center of the reredos. Behind it, the large stained-glass window presents liturgical symbols, including the victorious Lamb of God and the Holy Spirit.
Beautifully detailed stained-glass windows in Gothic framework line the nave to focus minds and hearts on the Sacred Heart, the Good Shepherd, Jesus teaching the children, a fatherly St. Joseph holding his foster son, and Mary glorious as Our Lady of Grace and resplendent in her assumption that’s reminiscent of a Renaissance work.
Beneath them, life-sized statues line nave aisles, their votive candles ready for petitioners. While they just might be of plaster, they all appear like monochromatic carved wood. They call us to a mini-pilgrimage around the basilica, praying by the Sacred Heart, the Infant of Prague, St. Joseph with the Child Jesus, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Anne with her daughter Mary, St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Anthony and others.
On weekends, the Erben organ, built in 1852, a rare and magnificent instrument, is used for Masses.
The basilica has planned renovations in the near future, which will restore the Blessed Sacrament to the center and place a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a traditional side shrine.
“We treasure our heritage,” Msgr. Sakano said.
The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is surely continuing that vibrant presence of the Catholic faith in New York City.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral
263 Mulberry St.
New York, NY 10012
Planning Your Visit
The basilica is open daily from 8am to 6pm; sometimes closed Wednesdays. Sunday Masses are in English, Spanish and Chinese.
Take the M103 bus from Midtown to Bowery and East Houston; walk two blocks west to Mott. St. Patrick’s is one block south on Mott. If you venture there on the subway, from Midtown take No. 6 train downtown to the Spring Street Station, one block from the church. Parking is rarely possible.