Everything You Didn’t Know About St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City – Forbes

Interior. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
St, Patrick’s Cathedral is one of New York’s most famous landmarks, a neo-Gothic Catholic masterpiece which can seat 2,400 people, and which 5.5 million visit each year. You don’t have to be Catholic to enter: any religion and ethnicity is welcome, as I learned a few years ago. It was mid-December, and I had entered to marvel at the Cathedral. As I looked in the manger, I noticed there was a statue of a yellow Labrador Retriever. Plus, Baby Jesus’ crib was empty. What? I explained the situation to a security guard, who replied, “Baby Jesus doesn’t arrive until December 25.th. And the Labrador Retriever statue is based on the cathedral’s previous Rector Monsignor Robert Ritchie’s beloved pet, Lexington.”
Ext. St. Patrick’s Cathedral
If you’re from New York City, you know St Patrick’s Cathedral is located on Fifth Avenue and 50st St; though sometimes, visitors with vouchers for the St. Patrick’s Catacomb Tour are disappointed to learn that their tour is in The Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral (also known as Old St. Patrick’s) on Mulberry Street, not at St. Patrick’s on Fifth.
I’ve been to St. Pat’s many times since, sometimes to sit quietly, sometimes to light a candle for a sick friend. But when I learned about a VIP experience curated exclusively for guests of Lotte New York Palace. I signed up. Led by a cathedral historian, the tour would showcase many areas that are not accessible to the public: the sacristy below the main altar, the bishop’s crypt, the main alter, and up to the choir loft for jaw-dropping views of the entire cathedral. While the donation price is hefty ($500), 100% of the tour fee is donated to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Stairs leading to crypts
My St. Patrick’s tour guide, Robert Meyer, explained that St. Patrick’s was built to replace the Old Saint Patrick Church on Mulberry Street (the one where the catacombs tours take place). In the mid-1800s, the Irish immigrating to New York City were scared, nervous, and had no idea what their new lives would be like. Most turned to God for assistance and guidance.
In need of a bigger house of worship and the Catholic Church already owning the land where Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is located (on Fifth Avenue) it was decided in 1853 that a new Cathedral should be built. Construction started in 1858 and progressed rapidly until 1860 when it was stopped because of a lack of funds and the advent of the American Civil War. In 1864 with the death of Archbishop Hughes, Bishop John McCloskey was installed as the Archbishop of New York and the end of the civil war construction restarted. Under the strong direction of Archbishop McCloskey (who would become Cardinal McCloskey) the cathedral was completed on May 25, 1879.
Historical shot of St, Patrick’s
St Patrick’s Cathedral was a creation of Archbishop John Hughes who chose its remote location, a still rural part of Manhattan, so the new cathedral was initially dubbed “Hughes’ Folly.” Hughes was known as “Dagger John” because he was aggressive and wanted to build a cathedral of suitable magnificence. The other two creators were architect James Renwick who also designed the Smithsonian, NYC’s Grace Church, and parts of the Croton Aqueduct; and Cardinal John McCloskey, the first president of St. Johns College, now Fordham University.
The new cathedral was home for a growing poor population who paid penny donations as well as $1,000 each from 100 donors. In 1878, the Cathedral held what would be known as the Great Cathedral Fair to help pay for items needed to finish the cathedral.
Raising money for St. Patrick’s via a fair
The architecture of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral pays tribute to the hard work of its immigrant adherents, both past and present. In 2015, it completed a $300 million restoration. Every year, the fire department does an inspection of the spires. When five of those firemen passed away during 9/11, it decided to never erase the scribblings.
Scrawlings in the spire by the firemen inspectors
When St.Patrick’s opened two days before Christmas, most visitors walked through the main doors, blessed by then Cardinal Spellman. The Cardinal commissioned bronze doors weighing nine tons with statues of its Catholic immigrant forbearers: St. Issac Jogues, the first priest of New York; St. Frances X Cabrini, Mother of the Immigrant; and Mother Elizabeth Seton, daughter of New York.
Main bronze doors
Today, guests on the private tour meet at the Cathedral Parish House and make their way down to the deacon’s sacristy and then the main sacristy which contains Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s zucchetto (a small silk skullcap worn only by a bishop or pope since the 13th century), his crozier (a staff which symbolizes the clergy’s governing office) and his liturgical vestments.
The Cardinal’s sacristy
A visit to the formerly Kelly Family’s private chapel added in 1900 follows; but the Kelly family never paid, so the beautiful little chapel is now called the Sacristy Chapel. Nearby is a sculpture of “The Holy Child of Earth and Heaven.” Meyer explained that in the 1940’s, the Rockefellers were not big fans of the church and built a huge statue of Atlas carrying the world directly opposite the Cathedral. “The Rockefeller statue,” says Meyer, “is a reminder of their struggle to hold the world on his shoulder. Our God holds the world in the palm of His hand.”
Holy Child of Earth and Heaven
A metal door leading down to the crypt where all the Archbishops of New York City are buried has the names of each archbishop, but only their birth dates (Downstairs their dates of death are embossed on each crypt). There is also a “kneeler” from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who was buried here for 40 years and then moved to his birthplace in Peoria, Illinois. “We lost his body but kept his kneeler,” said Meyer.
Kneeler in Crypt
Back upstairs, Meyer pointed out that each corner of the church contains inlaid plaques of the four Gospel writers. There is also an inlaid pelican, the only bird who can feed her young with her own blood.
inlaid Pelican
He pointed to a small red upholstered chair, “This is the Archbishop’s chair,” he said. “Wherever the Archbishop’s chair is, that’s the Cathedral.” This has been the practice since 1879).
The Archbishop’s chair
The Lady Chapel, where many couples are married, has a statue of Mary and is now known as Our Lady of New York. Glass doors were added in 2015 to keep the chapel more private.
The Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross, on loan to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, are in the transverse, the area of the church from the doors on 50th Street to 51st Street.
Stained Glass Window
Meyer pointed out the stained-glass windows which were added later because when the building was finished, there was no electricity and they needed sun. One of the stained-glass windows, known as The Founder’s Window, depicts Archbishop John Hughes, James Renwick, and Cardinal John McCloskye, each with their architectural drawings of the cathedral.
The Founders’ Window: the three founders on the bottom panel
St, Patrick’s has its own La Pieta —- not a copy of Michelangelo’s version housed in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — but one sculpted in 1906 by William Ordway Partridge, and donated to the cathedral in 1915. The sculpture is about three times the size of Michelangelo’s version and is one of the church’s many treasures. It’s also more vertical and less horizontal than Michelangelo’s because the stone was heavy and they didn’t want cracks. It’s my favorite piece in the Cathedral.
The Pieta of St, Patrick’s Cathedral
Meyer took me up the winding circular staircase to the Choir Room with the Kilgen organ, dedicated on February 11th, 1930. It took three years to build at a cost of $250,000, and is the biggest organ in NYC with 7,855 pipes.
The famous organ
I looked down at the block-long building, gazed in awe at the 94 stained glass windows and the Main Altar, and knew that even though I am not a Catholic, this mighty Cathedral is equally Holy to me.
The Main Altar


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