Church Hopping LIVE: St. Patrick’s CathedralArts, Church Hopping, Columns, Visual Arts — By Stephanie Nikolopoulos on August 3, 2011 at 6:00 am
I imagine that all New Yorkers have at least one story involving St. Patrick’s Cathedral, regardless of whether or not they’re Catholic. I grew up just over the George Washington Bridge, in New Jersey, and the cathedral looms large in my relationship with, and understanding of, New York.
I remember standing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral just a few short months after 9/11. It was December 2001 and a friend of mine from college was visiting from Arizona, so we were doing all the typical Midtown touristy things. We’d been walking in the cathedral for a while when some firefighters came in. I have no idea why there were there, but in those first few raw months after the terrorist attacks, New York’s brave firefighters were our heroes. I remember seeing their reflective, neon uniforms against the backdrop of the refined cathedral and having a rush of sadness sweep over me. I imagined they were still grieving the loss of many friends.
A few years ago, another guest was visiting New York and he’d brought along a friend. The group of us tumbled into St. Patrick’s, and at some point this girl I’d just met wandered off. I found her later coming out of the cathedral gift shop. Her demeanor had shifted, and it was clear something was stirring inside of her. Later, we all made our way downtown to the Village and nestled into a hookah bar. I watched in awe as the girl, taking long drags off the pipe, blew out perfect rings of smoke, as if she were the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. When I remarked on her talent, she explained she had to learn how to do it for her job. Curious what sort of job would require such a talent, I asked. She said, don’t ask, and the conversation was dropped. I later found out she was a stripper. My mind lurched back to the afternoon in St. Patrick’s, and it struck me that the profound beauty of church architecture is a testimony.
It is with stories like these resting in my memory that I led the first-ever live Church Hopping event to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. And wouldn’t you know it, we got our own story. There was a wedding going on in the church when we arrived!
The event was a collaboration between Redeemer Presbyterian Church and City Grace Church, and of course Burnside Writers Collective, and artist and educator Brian Fee graciously agreed to be our expert guest speaker. You can read more about the event and our first stop on the tour, St. Bart’s, here.
Church: St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Location: Midtown Manhattan (On Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets)
Architect: James Renwick, Jr.
Style: Neo-Gothic/Gothic Revival
History: As glorious and famous as St. Patrick’s is today, it had a rocky history.
The land was purchased as far back as 1810 for religious purposes. It was originally a Jesuit-run school for Roman Catholics, and they built a chapel of St. Ignatius on the site.
When the school closed, it was sold to the diocese, who then sold it to a Trappist abbot named Augustin LeStrange. As it turns out, the Trappists in the community were in New York after having fled persecution in France. When Napoleon’s reign ended in 1815, they simply packed up and returned to France. The Trappists had been caring for thirty-three orphans and the diocese continued their work, but the space itself was set to become a cemetery. (Read about another Trappist in Church Hopping: Don Justo’s “Trash” Cathedral.)
Instead of becoming a cemetery, the chapel reopened in 1840 thanks to Bishop DuBois. He opened it for the Catholics in the Midtown area of New York City, knowing that many worked at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum.
The following year a humble frame church was built. Reverend John Hughes (no, not that John Hughes) dedicated the church for the community of St. John the Evangelist. Within three years, the church’s pastor, Reverend Felix Larkin, died. Stress was rumored to be the cause. The church had to be auctioned off that year because of debt, which was blamed on the Board of Trustees, and the Board was then eradicated. Talk about church politics!
Next, Reverend Michael A. Curan turned a college hall into a makeshift church. Appealing to his Irish countrymen at a time when the Great Famine raged, Curan somehow managed to raise enough funds to buy back the deed to the New York church.
In 1853, with the debt finally paid off, Archbishop Hughes announced plans to build a cathedral to replace the Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which was further downtown. He said he wanted “to erect a Cathedral in the City of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence and wealth as a religious community, and at all events, worthy, as a public architectural monument, of the present and prospective crowns of this metropolis of the American continent.” The cornerstone to the Midtown cathedral was laid on August 15, 1858. The cathedral’s architect was James Renwick, Jr., whom you may remember from Church Hopping: Calvary Church.
Construction efforts didn’t last too long. The Civil War broke out in 1861, impeding the process. It wasn’t until 1865 that the efforts continued. At last the cathedral was finalized, twenty years after construction began. On May 25, 1879, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was dedicated.
St. Patrick’s gentrified the area. That part of New York used to be where the slaughterhouses were, and St. Patrick’s ushered in a new era.
Exterior design: Flanked by such buildings as the Onassis Center and an H&M, St. Patrick’s is an architectural gem. The Gothic Revival cathedral commands attention in one of Manhattan’s busiest neighborhoods. While it appears to be made entirely out of white-grey marble, it is only the outer surface that is covered in marble from quarries in New York and also Massachusetts. Because of its massive structure, its foundations had to be constructed from brick, which is stronger. The roof, however, is made from slate that comes from Maine.
The spires are 330 feet above the street.
Even though the main foundation of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was finalized in 1878, improvements and additions continued to be made. Among the most notable of these changes are the towers on the west façade, which were added in 1888.
Interior design: The interior of the cathedral has been enlarged over the years and can now accommodate 2,200 people. It features some stunning works of craftsmanship.
As Brian taught us, Gothic cathedrals are all about height and light. The rib (pointed) vaults and flying buttresses are not only for support but work to draw your eyes upward.
The many stained-glass windows break up the walls with colored light–Lux Nova (“new light”). Many consider the rose window (the circular window) to be one of the major works of Charles Connick. The New York Times reported that the American artist was “considered the world’s greatest artisan on stained windows.”
There are many altars for the various saints, and the ones I want to point out are the St. Louis and the St. Michael altars, which were designed by Tiffany & Co., which has a store just a few blocks north on Fifth Avenue.
There’s also a Pieta, a statue of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. Here in America we like things bigger and better: Italian immigrant Araldo Perugi’s sculpture is three times bigger than Michelangelo’s more famous Pieta.
Awards: St. Patrick’s Stations of the Cross was awarded a prize for artistry at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
Famous requiem and memorial masses: Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi, Celia Cruz, Robert F. Kennedy (check out the video), Andy Warhol, Joe DiMaggio, William F. Buckley, Jr., and victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Pop culture: St. Patrick’s has many pop culture ties. From 1956’s Miracle in the Rain to 2002’s Spider-Man, the cathedral has been a beautiful backdrop to films.
Creepy: John Hughes, the archbishop who announced that this St. Patrick’s would replace Old St. Patrick’s, was originally buried at Old St. Patrick’s when he died in 1864. Nineteen years later, his body was exhumed, and he was interred in 1883 in a crypt underneath the high altar at the Midtown St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Thanks for joining me for Church Hopping’s very first live event to St. Bart’s and St. Patrick’s! If you’re interested in joining us for our August event to two churches in the Bronx, you can find out more information here.
Stephanie Nikolopoulos is a writer and an editor in New York. For more information, check out her website: www.StephanieNikolopoulos.com.