Nah, just kidding. Just kidding. Hi. Hello. How are you?
Last week I wrote a bit about Rockefeller Center and Christmas, and that got me thinking about Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which sits just across the street on Fifth Avenue and 51st Street. And that got me thinking about Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral, down on Prince Street and Mulberry. And then I thought, I’d rather stay downtown this week anyway, and I remembered how a scene in Mean Streets takes place in the Old Saint Patrick’s cemetery – between Charlie and Johnny Boy – and how Roger Ebert described Robert Deniro’s portrayal of Johnny Boy as, “almost as a holy fool: a smiling jokester with no sense of time or money.” And I wondered, well who wouldn’t want to be considered at least a little bit like that? I mean, I can’t be the only one right? If you want to be holy, or if you want to be a fool, you need to try to work the other thing in there as well, to balance it out a bit, or else you’re probably just an idiot. A holy idiot? A foolish idiot? There’s a wealth of tiny distinctions here.
Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral’s distinction is that it’s the oldest extant Roman Catholic church in New York City. Its cornerstone was laid in 1809, with construction on the Gothic Revival building ending six years later, in 1815. It was the first Catholic Church in the United States to be named after Ireland’s patron saint, in recognition of the already growing Irish-Catholic population of the city and the church’s changing demographics which reflected that. By 1835 around 30,000 Irish were arriving in New York City each year, and Old Saint Patrick’s served as one of their central institutions. As such it also served as a target for Nativist anger towards the Irish (haven’t you seen that Leonardo DiCaprio documentary Gangs of New York?) In 1836 a Nativist mob marched on Saint Patricks, intent on destroying it. The congregation, forewarned, armed themselves in a ring around the church, even cutting musket-holes in the newly erected walls around the cemetery. They were intimidating enough that the mob backed down.
In 1850 the Diocese of New York was made into an Archdiocese, with Bishop John Hughes becoming the Archbishop. Three years later he announced his intention to build a new Saint Patrick’s Cathedral further uptown. Catholicism was now the largest religious denomination in the city, with about two hundred thousand congregants, and it needed a new seat to match its growing power. The cornerstone was laid in 1858 although work soon stopped with the coming of the Civil War, to be resumed again in 1865. One year later Old Saint Patrick’s was completely gutted by a massive fire. Although the new St. Pat’s was already being built, the decision was made to restore the old one, which was probably a good choice – the restoration only took a couple of years, while Saint Patrick’s uptown wasn’t finished until 1878.
But now I’m left a little bit confused. In an earlier post I talked about the West Village church, Saint Luke’s in the Field, which was built in 1821. I wrote at the time that Saint Luke’s was the third oldest extant church in New York City (after Saint Paul’s and Saint Mark’s). And now I’m writing that Old Saint Patrick’s was completed in 1815, six years before that. I’m sorry guys. This really annoys me. I don’t know if it has something to do with the fire Old Saint Patrick’s suffered, as if it could be considered a brand new church after that point – but the exterior survived and the church was restored afterwards, not rebuilt entirely. And Saint Luke’s itself suffered a fire in 1981, and was restored, so it looks like that kind of thing can’t disqualify a church from a streak of continuous existence. I don’t know; I can’t seem to find any definitive authority on that type of distinction. All I can think of is that my sources on Saint Luke’s were wrong, which has some troubling implications for all of us. I mean, I paid that old bum five bucks for all the Saint Luke’s trivia he could give me. That huckster! I’m trying to run a legitimate business here! And if this could happen to me, then who couldn’t it happen to? Am I right? Anybody? Anybody?
(Originally posted Dec. 11th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)