Tuesday, July 16, 2024

    A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral


    The Cathedral of St. Patrick (commonly called St. Patrick’s Cathedral) is a decorated Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral church in the United States and a prominent landmark of New York City. It is the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York as well as parish church, located on the east side of Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets in Midtown Manhattan, directly across the street from Rockefeller Center, facing the Atlas statue. It is considered one of the most visible symbols of Roman Catholicism in New York City and the United States.

    Plans for New Burial Ground

    In 1785, New York City had only about 200 Catholics and one priest. Definitely a minority among a largely Protestant country, and one which had a fair number of opponents to Catholicism. The site of the new Cathedral was purchased in March, 1810, by Rev. Father Kohlmann. A mansion on the property was occupied by the Jesuit Fathers as their school, known as the New York Literary Institution, which had been transferred, as already explained, from its original location opposite old St. Patrick’s. In the summer of 1813, the New York Literary Institution was closed. The title to the property remained with the Jesuits. The price they paid for it above the mortgage was $1,300. They sold it to the Diocese for $3,000.

    St. Patrick’s trustees, at a meeting held November 13, 1827, invited the trustees of St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s to a joint meeting, “to consider the propriety of purchasing a new burying-ground.” Accordingly, on May 14, 1828, a committee of the members from each of these boards was appointed to examine Mr. Dennis Doyle’s place on the Middle Road, which place is now occupied by St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue, Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets. A cursory examination would have revealed the nature of the soil, which rendered it entirely unfit for burial purposes. Fortunately, however, the trustees did not make any examination, and thus secured for St. Patrick’s Cathedral one of the most beautiful and valuable sites in the United States.

    Until the year 1835, when St. Paul’s Church in One Hundred and Seventeenth Street was established, the old Jesuit school at Fiftieth Street and Fifth Avenue was the only place where Mass was celebrated in the central and upper part of Manhattan Island. When the church of St. John the Evangelist was founded in 1841, the old college buildings were used as a rectory. The trustees of St.Peter’s Church got into debt and made an assignment for the benefit of their creditors on September 13, 1844, and in 1851, by order of the Supreme Court, the share of St. Peter’s was conveyed to Dr. James Roosevelt Bayley and Jas. B. Nicholson. In 1852 a partition suit was instituted between the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the trustees of St. Peter’s.

    Hughes’ Folly

    About the same time Archbishop Hughes, who held the record title to the plot of St. John’s Church, conveyed it to the Cathedral trustees. In this manner the title to the entire block was vested in the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As early at 1850, Archbishop Hughes determined on the construction of a monumental Cathedral for the growing New York. A few years later, in 1853, he instructed Mr. Renwick to draw plans, which were changed several times until 1858, when they were definitely agreed upon.

    The Brief History of St. Patrick's Cathedral: James Renwick Jr
    A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral: James Renwick Jr

    The first meeting of the Bureau of Contracts was held at the house of the Most Rev. Archbishop in Mulberry Street, on December 16, 1858. There were present His Grace and Mr. Davis. The next meeting was held on December 21, 1858, at 263 Mulberry Street. There were present the Most Rev. Archbishop, Messrs. Smith and Carrigan, as well as the architects, Messrs. Rodrigue and Renwick. Mr. Renwick read the several proposals which had been presented for furnishing stone, and a report of the architects, giving the results of their experimental decisions in regard to the various kinds of marble and free stone which had been submitted to them. They recommended white marble from Hall’s or from the Pleasantville quarry, and, furthermore, that the entire contract for the building of the new Cathedral be given to Messrs. Hall and Joyce.

    On October 19, 1858, the architects drew up a statement setting forth the probable cost of the Cathedral in four varieties of stone — glazed or brown free stone, olive free stone, granite, and white marble. These materials were examined as to the price, quality, and appearance. The architects recommended very strongly that the Cathedral be constructed in white marble.

    This section of Mr. Renwick’s report reads as follows:

    Our opinion is therefore decided that there is no material which combines the three essentials of durability, beauty, and economy as well as white marble. As regards the comparative expense of the whole building in the three materials, contractors estimate that the Cathedral will cost:

    In white marble $850,000
    In Albert Stone $800,000
    In Belleville Stone $805,000
    In Dorchester Stone $830,000

    From the above it will be seen that the building will cost $50,000 more than in the free stone. Our opinion is that the beauty and durability of the former material would more than justify this additional expense, and our belief is that if constructed of this beautiful material, it will be as worthy of the noble purpose to which it will be dedicated as the work of man’s hands can be.

    Mr. James Hall, President of the East Chester Quarry, in company with Mr. William Joyce, offered to build the whole Cathedral of this white marble for the sum of $850,000. The cost was fixed at $850,000. Meanwhile, Archbishop Hughes addressed the following circular letter to a number of the leading Catholic gentlemen of New York on the subject of funds for inaugurating and carrying on the work of the building:

    Gentlemen :

    We propose, for the glory of Almighty God, for the honor of the Blessed and Immaculate Virgin, for the exaltation of holy Mother Church, for the dignity of our ancient and glorious Catholic name, 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.

    Archbishop of New York.


    Hughes’ plans were so grandiose that most people took to calling the project “Hughes’ Folly”. Work began in 1858 but was halted during the Civil War and resumed in 1865. The cathedral was completed in 1878 and dedicated on May 25, 1879, its huge proportions dominating the midtown of that time. The archbishop’s house and rectory were added in 1880, both by James Renwick Jr., and an adjacent school (no longer in existence) opened in 1882. The spires were added in 1888, and at 329 feet and 6 inches (100.4 meters) were the tallest structures in New York City and the second highest in the United States. An addition on the east, including a Lady chapel, designed by Charles T. Mathews, was constructed from 1901 to 1906.

    The Lady Chapel’s stained-glass windows were made between 1912 and 1930 by English stained glass artist and designer Paul Vincent Woodroffe. In 1927 and 1931, the cathedral was renovated, which included enlarging the sanctuary and installing the great organ. The cathedral and associated buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

    The Brief History of St. Patrick's Cathedral: St. Patrick's Cathderal under construction, circa 1875
    A Brief History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral: St. Patric’s Cathderal under construction, circa 1875

    Restoration Of St. Patrick’s Cathedral

    An extensive restoration of the cathedral was begun in 2012 and lasted 3 years at a cost of $177 million. Overseen by MBB Architects (Murphy Burnham & Buttrick) and Construction Manager Structure Tone, the award-winning restoration reversed decades of decay and soot. The restoration was completed by September 17, 2015, before Pope Francis visited the cathedral on September 24 and 25, 2015. The restoration cleaned the exterior marble, repaired stained-glass windows, and painted the ceiling, repaired the flooring and steps, among many restorations. The cathedral and the renovations were featured on WNET’s television program Treasures of New York.

    In 2017, MBB Architects and Structure Tone, along with Landmark Facilities Group and P.W. Grosser, completed the design and installation of a new geothermal system believed to be the largest in New York City.The geothermal system replaced the steam radiators and 1960s-era air conditioning in the cathedral.

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