Places that Matter

St. Patrick's Old Cathedral brick walls

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
St. Patrick's Old Cathedral walls, photo by Molly Garfinkel
St. Patrick's Old Cathedral walls, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Historic brick walls where people congregate
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“Gravity” and “magic” are perhaps not words that one should associate with a church, but the walls around Little Italy’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral seem to be animated by a force of their own. The massive brick stockade bulges and undulates as if it were breathing -- a striking juxtaposition to the utter stillness of the cemetery it encloses. Although the walls could not prevent death from reaching forebears buried in the graveyard, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is now over two hundred years old and still thriving, proof positive that the walls have more than served their protective purpose.

Between 1728 and 1845, Ireland experienced twenty-four potato famines, each of which precipitated a mass exodus of rural, largely Catholic, refugees to the United States. Unfortunately, the centuries-old tension between Protestants and Catholics traversed the Atlantic Ocean, and even the earliest Irish Roman Catholics to wash ashore in New York City were met with overwhelming resentment and distrust from the city's Protestant communities. However unpopular the Irish Catholics may have been, they quickly became a significant presence in the city. In 1786, the first Roman Catholic Mass was held at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, and by 1808, the Roman Catholic community was approximately fifteen thousand strong, large enough to support a second church. Thus, the cornerstone for St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street was laid the following year in what was then considered an outside-of-town neighborhood. Although the War of 1812 delayed the church’s completion until 1815, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the largest Catholic church in the United States when it was finished.

Joseph F. Mangin, a New York City surveyor and architect who is also associated with the original plans for New York City Hall (1803-1811), designed the cathedral with walls and vaults soaring seventy-five feet and eighty-five feet, respectively. The imposing structure and indefatigable clergy provided solace for countless newcomers seeking help in the New World. Many settled close to the church, and by the 1830s, the area now called the Lower East Side was host to a significant population of Irish Catholics. But the Catholic community continued to be the object of nativist hostility and aggression. In 1831, St. Mary’s Church on Grand Street, founded as New York City’s third Catholic church in 1826, was burned in an anti-immigrant demonstration.

Noting the rising tide of violence, the trustees of St. Patrick’s decided to build brick walls around its property sometime in the early 1830s. Although the exact date of construction is unknown, stories suggest that in 1835, Bishop John Hughes was compelled to station parishioners on already-extant walls so as to protect the cathedral from a fire-wielding anti-Catholic mob. Hughes was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in 1816. Ordained in 1826, he was first assigned to worked at St. Augustine's Church in Philadelphia, but by the time he moved to New York, Irish across the nation considered him their representative. In 1844, Hughes again armed local community members, this time from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish fraternal order and voluntary militia headquartered across Prince Street, and posted them around the ramparts. Vigilantes stoned the church’s stained glass window and damaged the Bishop’s residence, but the cathedral survived.

In 1845, Ireland experienced a particularly devastating potato famine, and another wave of Catholic immigrants fled to the United States, elevating the already palpable anti-immigrant sentiment in New York City. In the late 1840s and 1850s, the specifically anti-Catholic fervor spawned the Know-Nothing movement, a semi-secret organization whose name came from followers' rehearsed answer to questions about the group's activities: “I know nothing about it.” By 1854, new Know-Nothings were granted membership upon recitation of a promise to exclude, and effectively deny rights to, “Foreigners, and all Roman Catholics, whether they be of native or Foreign Birth, regardless of all party predilections whatever.”

In 1866 the interior of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was destroyed by fire. The church was rebuilt and reopened on St. Patrick’s Day 1868. However, in 1879 the seat of the Archdiocese of New York was transferred to architect James Renwick’s “new” Cathedral of St. Patrick, located at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Despite difficult beginnings, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott Street continues to thrive, and it now serves a diverse religous community by offering Mass in English, Spanish and Chinese. In 1977,  the complex of five historic buildings was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, the church began a six-year bicentennial celebration, and the following year the Old Cathedral was designated a basilica by the Holy See. According to Jim Garrity, historian at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, all basilicas outside of Rome are classified as "minor" basilicas. Elevation to the status of a basilica means that this particular church is the church of the Pope. "In other words, if the Pope came to New York for a state visit, he would worship at, and be resident in, the facilities of the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral for the duration of his stay."

Further, elevation to a basilica means that inside the church, within the sanctuary up on the altar, there is an "Ombrellinum" (umbrella) that would be carried by an attendant to cover the Pope's head when he walked outside in the street, and "Tintinnabulum" (bells), which would be rung by another attendant to announce the fact that the Pope was amongst the people. All minor basilicas have these accoutrements within their facilities, the practice dating back to the medieval period.

While St. Patrick’s was thrilled to celebrate its new status, the administration was equally intent on securing the Cathedral's past. As of 2011, the church is undergoing a bicentennial renovation that includes restoring the aging perimeter walls. During rehabilitation, the brick barricade is being buttressed from the cemetery side by supports extending twenty-five feet underground.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral's Monsignor Sakano says that the church appreciates the fact that's surroundings have given way from bucolic farmland to bustling arts district. Over the years, the brick walls have become icons for local artists and tourists alike, and are frequently used as a backdrop for commercial and fine art photography, and for movie sets. Monsignor Sakano also notes that neighbors and visitors both seem to be drawn to the contrast between the walls ancient appearance and the neighborhood’s increasingly contemporary aesthetic - he suggests that people consider the walls something between artifact and public art. Either way, they continue to demand respect, which means they continue to fulfill their original function. Indeed, a noticeable lack of graffiti suggests that they repel offenders as well as they ever did.