The Church celebrates liturgical commemorations of the dedications of the four papal basilicas in Rome on her universal calendar: St. John Lateran (mater et caput omnium ecclesiarum/head and mother of all churches); St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls; St. Peter’s; and St. Mary Major. The Church has always had a great reverence for houses of worship, first of all, because, as an incarnational religion, she takes the physical world very seriously; secondly, because a church building is the meeting place for the Church (with a capital C), which is the mystical Body of Christ; even more so, it is the meeting place between Heaven and earth. If you have ever participated in the ceremony to dedicate a church, you will recall that, yes, it is very long, but more importantly, it parallels the baptismal liturgy with its symbolic washings and anointings.
On this date in 1910, the Archdiocese of New York conducted the final dedication of the “new” St. Patrick’s Cathedral and, as such, the day holds a privileged place in her liturgical life. The spirit and drive behind the construction of St. Patrick’s was none other than the gutsy and indomitable Archbishop John J. Hughes, dubbed by his enemies as “Dagger John.” As you know, bishops generally begin the signing of their names with a cross; when the cross came out in printed form, it appeared as a dagger, which got appended to the Archbishop’s name. I suspect he probably bore that moniker with an element of pride!
Hughes’ selection of the site in 1853 for the building raised eyebrows because it was a full three miles from the center of the City at that time and hence was derisively referred to as “Hughes’ Folly.” He also had to contend with the burgeoning threats from the Know-Nothings or Nativists. In 1844, anti-Catholic riots spawned by Nativist agitators threatened to spread to New York from Philadelphia, where two churches had been burned and twelve people had died. Hughes positioned armed guards at Catholic churches of the City. Upon hearing that a Nativist rally was scheduled to take place in New York, he famously told the pro-Nativist Mayor of the City: “If a single Catholic Church were burned in New York, the city will become a second Moscow,” referring to the Fire of Moscow, whereby the inhabitants and/or municipal officials burnt Moscow to the ground in advance of the invasion of Napoleon. When Dagger John spoke, the City’s top brass stood at attention – and the bigoted Nativist bullies slunk away.
I should also note that the Archbishop tackled the education issue as well. He was deeply concerned that Catholic children were being fed massive doses of anti-Catholicism in the so-called public schools. When his protests were ignored, he launched New York and, by extension, the Church in America, on the adventure of our own school system. As devoted as he was to the construction of beautiful churches, his pastoral insight caused him to declare: “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward. In our age, the question of education is the question of the Church.”
Exactly what did Hughes think of his cathedral project? We have his own musings:
Thoughts and reflections in regard to the New St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the square of ground between 5th Ave and Madison Ave and 51st and 50th St.…
The time for the erection and completion of the Cathedral supposed to be five years — the means for carrying on the work to be expected from the Catholics of the city — and hopefully from other sources. The work to be paid for as in subscription and contracts to be made in such a way that without violating the terms the work can be arrested whenever the funds are exhausted.
It is supposed that there are above 200,000 Catholics in the city. That many of them may be able and willing to contribute generously and that we may say there is not one adult Catholic among them who will not be able and willing to contribute an average of from one to five dollars annually.
If these views be correct there is not the slightest reason to be alarmed at the magnitude nor the costs of this great temple to be raised for the honor and glory of God and for the honor also of our religion and the Catholic name. Reliance must be placed upon the Catholic body themselves and there is very little doubt that many wealthy public spirited Protestants will contribute from time to time as the work goes on nor with a wish to promote our faith, but from a natural pride growing out of the achievement of having at least one great Cathedral which as a public building, will be an ornament and a boast of the city of New York.
What are some lessons we can take from the endeavor of Archbishop Hughes, the completion of which he never lived to see?
First, what people of lesser minds (and hearts) scornfully tagged “Hughes’ Folly” became, in short order, “the parish church of the United States.”
Second, where “the honor and glory of God” are concerned, we should spare no expense. Truth be told, God doesn’t need a “great temple”; He dwells in that Temple not made by human hands (see 2 Cor 5:1). We, however, need to erect glorious houses of worship as evidence of our love for our Creator and because it enables us to worship more readily “in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:24). St. Patrick’s fits the bill – although I hope I can be forgiven for saying that I think a far more beautiful church is that of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue.
Third, Hughes was not afraid to challenge his nearly penniless immigrant flock to generosity. What would he say today as the most affluent Catholic population in the history of the Church (exceeding even Jews in annual income) cannot maintain the institutions which those penniless immigrants built? As you have heard me say many times, our problem in the Church today is not lack of money, but lack of faith.
Fourth, in an era of virulent and even violent anti-Catholicism, the Archbishop always sought to invite those outside the visible bonds of the Church to join us in our many initiatives which help build up the soul of the City. Do we do that often enough in our time?
Fifth, timidity in the face of bigotry could not be found in the lexicon of Dagger John. The Church’s leaders and the lay faithful alike need massive doses of the gift of fortitude first conferred on us in Confirmation. Our faintheartedness (really, our cowardice) in the face of assaults from the enemies of Christ and His Church embolden those enemies (and they are many) and cause them, with no small amount of justification, to question our own personal convictions.
Last but not least, Archbishop Hughes considered it his solemn obligation to warn parents that handing over their children to the public schools was endangering the souls of those children. He backed up those warnings with the threat of excommunication for negligent parents. Again, what would he say today – the government schools with critical race theory, gender theory, promotion of abortion and fornication, and a thoroughly godless environment (and even overtly hostile to religion)? How many bishops and priests today have the courage to echo his sounding of the alarm? Nowhere near enough.
As I hope you can see, commemorating the dedication of a church is much more than merely recalling brick and mortar (although that is certainly important); it is about what results in the lives of believers who worship in that sacred space and how they are (or ought to be) transformed. Would today’s New York clergy, Religious, and laity make old Dagger John swell with pride or retreat in embarrassment?
Our Lady of New York, pray for us.
St. Patrick, pray for us.
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on the anniversary of the dedication of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, October 5, 2021, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City.)
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