Pilgrimage: Inside New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral
NEW YORK — When talking about the world’s greatest Cathedrals, several come to mind: St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
Known as “America’s Parish Church,” St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed in 1878 and over the decades the Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral has welcomed millions of visitors from around the world. Located on busy Fifth Avenue, between East 50th and 51st streets, directly across the street from Rockefeller Center facing the hulking Atlas statue.
The cathedral, the largest in the country, is considered one of the most visible symbols of Roman Catholicism in New York City and the United States. It takes up an entire city block in the center of Manhattan and remains at the the heart of New York’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The cathedral also represents the center of Catholic spirituality in this country. St. Patrick, it’s worth noting, is not only the patron saint of Ireland, but also that of the Archdiocese of New York in honor of the many immigrants from the Emerald Isle who settled in this region.
“This beautiful Cathedral of Saint Patrick, built up over many years through the sacrifices of many men and women, can serve as a symbol of the work of generations of American priests and religious, and lay faithful who helped build up the church in the United States,” Pope Francis said during his 2015 U.S. tour, which included a stop at the famed house of worship. “In the field of education alone, how many priests and religious in this country played a central role, assisting parents in handing on to their children the food that nourishes them for life! Many did so at the cost of extraordinary sacrifice and with heroic charity. I think for example of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded the first free Catholic school for girls in America, or St. John Neumann, the founder of the first system of Catholic education in the United States.”
The sacred space, with its bronze doors, Italian marble and stone interior and many ornate treasures, was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., — at a cost of $850,000 at the time, the modern-day equivalent of $20 million — with the archbishop’s house and rectory at the other end of the towering structure added in 1880. The spires were constructed in 1888. Standing at nearly 330 feet, it was the tallest structure in New York City at the time. Within decades, it would be surpassed by the Big Apple’s many tall buildings, including ones like the Empire State Building, that make up the iconic New York skyline.
The Diocese of New York, founded in 1808, was made an archdiocese in July 1850 by Pope Pius IX. Three years later, Archbishop Joseph Hughes announced his ambitious plan to build a new cathedral to replace the one located in Little Italy. That church, now known as the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s, still stands.
Work began on the new cathedral in 1858, but was halted for a brief period during the Civil War after workers were called to fight. The cathedral was eventually completed in 1878 and officially dedicated on May 25, 1879. Originally, the cathedral was surrounded by open land. As residents moved north, many of the city’s wealthy citizens built mansions and townhouses. Those homes were later sold off to developers and replaced with the large office buildings we see today.
Between 1927 and 1931, the cathedral underwent a series of renovations, which included enlarging the sanctuary and installing the great organ — which features 7,855 pipes — that’s there to this day.
In 1976, the same year of the country’s bicentennial celebration, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was declared a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. More recently, a three-year restoration project completed in 2015 cost $177 million, removing decades of dirt and grime that had darkened the exterior and its windows.
Many have found great joy once they have gotten past the cathedral’s massive bronze doors — on Easter Sunday and Midnight Mass at Christmas — as well as experienced sorrow, like on Sept. 16, 2001, a somber day marking the first Sunday following the 9/11 attacks.
The main sanctuary, which has undergone a series of changes over the years, sparkles at first sight and draws visitors to its gilded grandiosity. In 1942, the current high altar was installed beneath the 57-foot bronze ceremonial canopy known as a baldachino. From the ceiling hang the red hats of past cardinals from the rib-vaulted ceiling.
The massive cathedral can seat 2,000 people — and 3,000 if you account for standing room — and fills up regularly on Sundays when Cardinal Timothy Dolan does Mass and during the day’s seven other services.
One of those services, at 4 p.m., is conducted in Spanish for the region’s large Hispanic population. At the same time, Our Lady of Guadalupe, venerated by Mexicans, also has a special place inside the cathedral with an altar dedicated to this revered image. In 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II declared the Virgin of Guadalupe “Queen of the Americas.”
Seven masses are held each day during the week and three on Saturdays. An estimated 50,000 people, for example, recently streamed through the building on Ash Wednesday alone to celebrate the start of Lent.
Some of America’s noted celebrities have been a part of the cathedral’s glorious history. On April 3, 1920, author F. Scott Fitzgerald married his bride Zelda Sayre. He was 23 and she was 19. They didn't actually tie the knot in the cathedral, but instead did so in an adjoining rectory.
Not all occasions were happy ones. Thousands poured into the cathedral on August 19, 1948 when a requiem Mass was held there to remember baseball legend Babe Ruth.
While the Bambino filled Yankee Stadium in life, he filled St. Pat’s in death. Three days after he died of throat cancer, mourners jammed the place to capacity for the Yankee slugger’s funeral, while thousands more stood outside that rainy day.
Other notables that were remembered at the cathedral are baseball greats Roger Maris, Joe DiMaggio and Billy Martin, famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and conservative writer and thinker William F. Buckley, Jr., former U.S. Attorney General and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, artist Andy Warhol, TV host Ed Sullivan and singer Celia Cruz.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral also appeared in the 1990 movie Gremlins 2: The New Batch. It is also referenced in pop culture, most notably in Nelson DeMille’s 1981 novel Cathedral about a fictional threat of destruction by members of the Irish Republican Army on St. Patrick’s Day.
The stained-glass windows were made by various artists hailing from the United States, England and France. There are a total of 94 stained-glass windows in the cathedral and their completion took place in the 1940s. Those artists include: Charles Connick of Boston; Paul Woodroffe of Chipping Camden, Great Britain; Henri Ely of Nantes, France; Nicholas Lorin of Chartres, France; and Charles Morgan of New York.
The five million people who enter the cathedral each year and are drawn to the light above find themselves gazing at their splendor. The great detail with which they depict stories from the Bible allow those who worship their the opportunity to learn about their faith as they walk along its quiet pews.
The cathedral also features many statues of saints made of either marble, wood or bronze. Among the most-notable is the marble Pieta’, sculpted by William Ordway Partridge, three times larger than the one Michelangelo made that is located in St. Peter’s. The statue of Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus is located behind the main altar and one of the finest pieces ever created by an American artist.
In commemoration of his visit to New York in 1979, bronze bust of Pope Paul VI and Saint John Paul II are located near the cathedral’s entrance, which also features its two main front doors, also made of bronze and weighing 9,000 pounds. The busts of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis were also added to commemorate their trips to the cathedral. The busts, each weighing about 250 pounds, were made by New York-based sculptor Carolyn Palmer.
During his homily at the cathedral in 2008, Benedict highlighted the role of art and architecture in expressing faith and beauty. Speaking of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he said: “Like all Gothic cathedrals, it is a highly complex structure, whose exact and harmonious proportions symbolize the unity of God’s creation.”
In addition, the city’s nine former archbishops are all buried in the crypt located under the main altar. The last one to be placed there was Cardinal Edward Egan, died on March 5, 2015. Also there is Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian Catholic slave who was born in 1766. After gaining his freedom, Toussaint became a popular hairdresser for New York’s wealthy class and used his money to help the poor. In 1996, Saint Pope John Paul II declared him venerable, one of the steps towards sainthood.
St. Patrick’s continues to be the spiritual center of New York and the United States. It has become the place where people come to pray, mourn and celebrate God in a setting that honors Him in a way few others do. It allows New Yorkers and tourists alike an escape from the bustle and chaos located just outside the cathedral along the city’s streets. It’s a quiet refuge where many come to speak to God, light a candle or ask Jesus for guidance during some of the biggest festivities on the Christian calendar.
Whether on a tour, attending Mass or wandering its spacious corridors to catch a glimpse of this majestic wonder, St. Patrick’s Cathedral continues to draw pilgrims through its doors each year as a testament to its beauty at a time when people need it most.