St. Patrick’s Cathedral: America’s Parish Church

One of America’s most famous churches recently underwent a massive restoration, just in time for Pope Francis’ visit there in September.

New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral—arguably the most storied church in United States—recently received a $177 million restoration that was completed just in time for Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in September. Today, St. Patrick’s is known as a place of sacred rest and solace in the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world. St. Patrick’s Cathedral: America’s Parish Church, a new book chronicling its history in both narrative and stunning photographs is out just in time for the holidays. Notable figures such as Henry Kissinger, Stephen Colbert, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Robert Barron, and others offer testimony as to why the cathedral is such a special place for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Catholic World Report recently spoke with book’s editor, Kate Monaghan, about why a sacred place such as St. Pat’s still matters in our increasingly secular world.

CWR: St. Patrick’s Cathedral has been dubbed “America’s Parish Church.” Where did this attribution first come from and what is meant by it?

Kate Monaghan: Good question. Its exact origins are unclear, but 5th Avenue is, arguably, the most famous street in America, and St. Patrick’s is easily the most recognizable church in America, so we won’t argue with the attribution!

I will add that time and time again—via email, letters, social media comments, phone calls, and all means of communication—I have heard from people all around the world who say that whenever they come to New York City, they make sure to stop at St. Patrick’s.

Many tell me how they prayed for children, for a spouse (or to meet someone!), or for a very special intention. The men, women, and children who visit cherish the cathedral and feel it is “theirs,” so I think that closeness to the church maybe makes it the world’s parish church…but I don’t want upset anyone at St. Peter’s in Rome or Notre Dame!

CWR: When the cathedral was first built, some criticized its location as being remote. Now, it’s hard to imagine a more central location for it. Can you tell us a bit about the long construction process and what was going on in the country during that time?

Monaghan: The cathedral was the dream of Archbishop John Hughes, the fourth bishop and first archbishop of New York. Archbishop Hughes was an Irish immigrant who had gone through a lot of turmoil in his life, largely from persecution for being an Irish Catholic in his native Ireland.

At that time you weren’t allowed to have a Catholic education in [Northern] Ireland or have a Catholic burial, among other things. Obviously this was a terrible experience—Hughes’ own sister was not allowed a Catholic burial and so after she was laid to rest he threw a handful of blessed dirt over the cemetery wall hoping to reach her grave.

This persecution had long-lasting ramifications for Hughes—his Latin was not very good and you needed that to be a priest. So he was rejected from his first application to the seminary [after his family immigrated to the United States]. Fortunately, a woman named Elizabeth Ann Seton petitioned the rector of the seminary (John Dubois, who later become the only non-Irish bishop of New York and, awkwardly, Hughes’ boss) to reconsider, and Hughes was able to enter the seminary.

This is a long way of saying that St. Patrick’s being built, in all its glory, is not only a testimony to the saint, the people of Ireland, and the Irish immigrants, but also the physical manifestation of triumph over great hardship and religious persecution. I believe that Archbishop Hughes saw it this way and sensed that New York City would grow and that the cathedral would not remain remote for long.

The construction finally began in 1858. The work was halted by the Civil War and so it didn’t open up until 1879, 15 years after Hughes’ death. The famous spires weren’t completed until 1888 and were the tallest in the city for about two years.

So, to sum up, a young boy who suffered greatly for being an Irish Catholic grew up to begin the building of what is now the most famous church in the New World. That is not simply a testimony to political savvy—it’s a testimony to immense fortitude in the face of extreme difficulty.

CWR: Describe the recent restoration project—what all took place and why was it necessary?

Monaghan: The restoration was necessary for two reasons: one, it had to be done as the exterior was experiencing small fissure cracks, causing stones to fall off due to pollution and age; the interior was also degraded by decay and portions of the plaster were turning into mush.

And two, just as important, because it is the most visible symbol of Catholic Christianity in America and we should be good stewards of our blessings.

Every inch was restored. These are some of the big highlights:

The exterior stone was cleaned with a composite of water and tiny glass beads, washed at a low pressure. Kind of like a facial scrub. This removed the pollution in the pores of the stone and the water that was freezing and causing the cracks.

The interior (approximately 76,000 feet) was painted in what I call, unscientifically, goop. (Its real name is Arte Mundit which is a natural latex.) It smelled kind of fishy—the restoration workers painted it on the stone, let it dry for a minimum of 24 hours, and then peeled it off, removing the dirt and pollution. Kind of like a facial mask.

The plaster was re-sculpted where it needed to be and all of it was cleaned and repainted. (The entire ceiling interior is made of plaster and lathe—a cost-saving measure after the end of the Civil War.)

The stained glass was restored by a family firm that has worked with stained glass for centuries. Much of it they cleaned in place, which is the preferred method, and a very small portion was removed, packaged, and sent all the way to Indiana to their workshop. All of the exterior glazing (clear glass panels that protect the stained glass) was removed and replaced. It had turned a terrible dark brown and the light couldn’t shine through.

The overall effect is one of light—it fills the cathedral as it did in 1879. The sunlight pours through the stained glass panels and the colors bounce off the cream walls. This was the architect, Charles Renwick’s, original intent in his design. It is breathtaking.

CWR: What’s remarkable about this massive undertaking is that the cathedral was never closed. Who made this decision and why?

Monaghan: Cardinal Dolan and Msgr. Ritchie, the rector of the cathedral, were dedicated to keeping the cathedral open, if at all possible, and while parishioners, visitors, and staff may have been inconvenienced by the scaffolding (the exterior was something like six miles, if it had been laid end-to-end), the doors were never closed. The cathedral has on average seven Masses a day so we wanted to make sure everyone could attend. The restoration team was very accommodating and helpful during this process.

CWR: The cathedral has a rich history of papal visits, including most recently one by Pope Francis. How many popes have visited the cathedral? And was Pope Francis impressed by the recent restoration?

Monaghan: Pope Francis’ visit was the fifth papal visit to the cathedral—the prior visits were: Blessed Pope Paul VI, October 4, 1965, for a prayer service; Saint Pope John Paul II, October 3, 1979, for a prayer service; Pope John Paul II, October 7, 1995, lead the Rosary; and Pope Benedict XVI, April 19, 2008, offered Mass.

From the look on Pope Francis’ face when he saw the cathedral, I think so! But I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

CWR: Pope Benedict XVI once remarked that the greatest arguments for Christianity come down to its art and its saints. St. Patrick’s Cathedral bears witness to that truth. What are some of the “must-see” features of St. Patrick’s?

Monaghan: There’s too much to choose from! But the Bronze Doors are something you really need to get a close look at during a visit to the cathedral. They were also restored, and each weighs 9,200 pounds and has six saints featured on the facade.

The carving on the marble on the pulpit is really gorgeous and I love looking at it and thinking of the care and craftsmanship that went to it. View-wise—if you can get up into the balcony, that’s ideal. But looking up at the Rose Window and the organ is also an amazing view.

CWR: You’ve spent a lot of time in the cathedral these past few years. What’s your favorite behind-the-scenes cathedral story?

Monaghan: The night before Pope Francis’ visit I went to the cathedral to check on the status of a platform that had to be built inside the cathedral for reporters. It was about 1 am and the cathedral was surrounded by security and barriers. I went in through a back door with my security key, walked up the sacristy steps and—to my surprise—no one was there. At least in the body of the cathedral! It was a huge gift to be there alone with the Lord and I will never forget the peace and immense beauty of that moment. My favorite daily experience is seeing all of the regulars at the cathedral—from all walks of life—who clearly feel at home there.

CWR: In a world that, at times, feels aggressively secularized, why is there a constant draw to sacred spaces, such as St. Patrick’s?

Monaghan: You mentioned Pope Benedict’s quote about beauty earlier. I think the beauty and the—comparative to 5th Avenue outside!—serenity of St. Patrick’s, and other sacred spaces, will always attract people. The searching person finds a true home in a church and the casual observer’s interest is piqued. 

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About Christopher White 0 Articles
Christopher White is director of Catholic Voices USA.