St. Patrick's Cathedral – 15 Top Secrets of a Landmark
More than 5 million visitors each year step foot inside St. Patrick's Cathedral. They come to pray and light candles, attend mass or simply tour the impressive Gothic-style cathedral, which opened in 1879. But few may know some of the history and mysteries surrounding "America's Parish Church," or the secrets hiding behind the walls, in the attic or some just in plain view.
The main part of the Cathedral was completed in 1878 and designed by architect James Renwick. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which served as the sear of the Archdiocese of New York, has recently undergone a thorough renovation and appears to be sparkling like new.
The next time you find yourself in Midtown, stop by St. Patrick’s and be impressed by these 15 facts about one of the City’s most famous Cathedral.
15 Top Secrets of St. Patrick's Cathedral
By Lucas Compan, a guest storyteller
Top Secret #15
St. Patrick's Stained Glass Windows Come From France and All Over The World
According to A Week in New York, a guidebook of New York City from 1891, “the windows of St. Patrick’s Cathedral have been called the finest collection of examples of painted glass in the world.” Many of the Cathedral’s stained glass windows were designed and created in Chartres, France, whose studios have been renowned for their stained glass since the Middle Ages. Other windows in the cathedral were made in Birmingham, England and Boston. A few of the windows were donated by New York congregations including from the diocese of Albany, the diocese of Buffalo, the diocese of Brooklyn, and Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Another, the Window of St. Charles Borromeo, depicting a procession in Milan of plague-stricken citizens was a gift of the restauranteur L. Delmonico.
Top Secret #14
A Civil War Stoppage
St. Patrick's Cathedral might have opened sooner had it not been for the Civil War. Construction started in 1858, but was stalled for five years because of the war. The workers needed to go fight and the war also put a financial strain on the entire country, which directly impacted the project. In fact, money was so tight that Monaghan said the archdiocese had to settle for a plaster ceiling for the cathedral rather than continuing to use marble. So although most of the cathedral is marble, despite popular belief, the ceiling is not.
Top Secret #13
Part of St. Patrick’s Cathedral Was Recycled
In 1906, St Patrick’s Cathedral completed its Lady Chapel. When the chapel was added to the eastern end of the church, the church discarded part of its original eastern facade and stained glass windows. At the same time, Joseph McMahon had been tasked by the diocese with setting up a parish in Hamilton Heights. In order to make the best use of his budget, McMahon used discarded remnants and relics to construct his new church, Our Lady of Lourdes. The front of the church came from the National Academy Building, the stairs from A. T. Stewart’s mansion, the iron beams and windows from the Catholic Orphan Asylum, and the rear of the church (and some of the stained glass windows) were taken from the eastern end of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which were discarded when the Lady Chapel was constructed.
Top Secret #12
St. Patrick's Cathedral Was Almost Destroyed Once
By 1841, nearly 100,000 Irish Catholic immigrants had flooded into New York City. Fearing for their jobs, some native-born workers started to fuel waves of bitter resentment. In the spring of 1842, an angry mob of Protestant workingmen – enraged at the attempts of the city's bishop, John Hughes, to get public funs for Catholic schools – marched down to Mulberry Street and threatened to destroy St. Patrick's Cathedral. The military were ordered out about nine o'clock of April 13th, 1842, and their presence alone saved the Cathedral and other churches of the Catholics from being destroyed by the mob. Of course, this is in the past.
New York today is a melting pot where all nationalities have learned how to live in peace and collaboration.
Top Secret #11
The Cathedral recently drilled and installed a new geothermal heating and cooling system (January 2016)
New York City has nearly 1 million buildings and nearly all of them (roughly 900,000) could be heated and cooled by the earth without burning any fossil fuels.
Solar, wind and hydropower are all necessary if we’re going to provide electricity without accelerating climate change, but none of these are great for heating and cooling buildings.
The leading technology for this is called geothermal heat pump or ground source heat pump (GSHP) , which use energy from the sun’s heat trapped just below the earth’s surface. As air temperature fluctuates wildly throughout the year, the ground 20 feet below the surface stays steady, between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 and 16 degrees Celsius).
St. Patrick’s Cathedral recently drilled and installed a new geothermal heating and cooling system.
New York City is an island city. It is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to climate change. The city we love will drown if we don’t lead the world in clean energy. It is time to dig deep.
That's what St. Patrick’s Cathedral New York has done, and it can lead the fossil furnaces out of New York.
Top Secret #10
"Look and Find" a "Mini-Zoo" in the Cathedral
There are so many animals hiding all around St. Patrick's – on the statues, in the ceiling architecture and stain glass windows, and in the decorative accents on the altar.
The next time you visit, see if you can spot the dolphin, the pelican, the dragon, the cats and a mouse. The animals are meaningful, of course. The image of a mother pelican with blood trickling from her beak as she feeds her young is based on a legend that in a time of famine, a mother pelican would draw blood from her own chest to feed her babies. The church uses it as a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the nourishment of the Eucharist.
Top Secret #9
The Bells Have Names
There’s Agnes, Helena, Godfrey and Alphonsus. Each of the 19 bells located in the cathedral's north tower has a name and a unique Latin inscription. They’re named after saints and no two bells are the same. They vary in size, with the smallest weighing 173 pounds and the biggest 6,608 pounds, and each plays a different note.
Today, a keyboard is used to control the bells, but before they were electrified in 1952 it was the job of the bell ringer to climb up the tower and manually create melodies. New Jersey resident Montell Toulmi was the most dedicated bell ringer, controling the chimes for 44 years until he died on May 5, 1946.
Top Secret #8
The Holy Hairdresser
The cathedral's crypt, located underneath the high altar, is the final resting place for all of the archbishops who have served New York, including Rev. John Hughes, the visionary behind St. Patrick's. But there one non-clergyman buried here, too.
Pierre Toussaint was a Haitian Catholic slave born in 1766. He gained his freedom and became a very popular hairdresser for New York's elite, but used his money to help the poor. He's considered one of the first Catholic philanthropists in New York, and is being considered for canonization. In 1996, Pope John Paul II declared him "venerable," one of the steps to becoming a saint.
Top Secret #7
There are nearly 9,000 organ pipes
The majority of the organ system's pipes, which total 8,600 and are located throughout the cathedral, are above the entrance. The pipes range in size from a few inches to 32 feet (9.7 meters) and can be controlled from two locations: above the entrance and behind the altar.
Top Secret #6
New York City has two St. Patrick's cathedrals
The Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral is located in downtown Manhattan at the corner of Prince and Mott streets.
When it was established in 1809, Old St. Patrick's became Manhattan's second Catholic church and the first cathedral church for the diocese of New York. Archbishop John Hughes announced his vision for the bigger cathedral during a ceremony at Old St. Patrick's, but many ridiculed his proposal, calling it "Hughes" Folly."
Many considered St. Patrick's location too far and predicted no one would travel that far uptown. But, as we know, St. Patrick's Cathedral opened in 1879 and became the new seat of the Archdiocese of New York.
Within a few decades, the City’s Catholic population had outgrown St. Patrick’s Cathedral and a new site was chosen a few miles north for a new cathedral. Except for two years (1866-1868) when a fire gutted the old Cathedral and the new one had not been completed, New York City has not been without a St. Patrick’s Cathedral in over two hundred years. Today, there is still some confusion between the two churches. Since 2010, the Mulberry Street location is officially known as the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral.
Top Secret #5
St. Patrick’s Doors Honor New York Saints
St. Patrick’s main doors are made of bronze and each weigh 9,200 pounds. They were officially dedicated and blessed by Cardinal Spellman on December 23, 1949. The doors, containing standard images of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St. Patrick and St. John the Baptist, were designed so perfectly that one person can open them with a single hand. The remaining figures depicted on the doors have a connection to New York, and include Isaac Jogues, a martyr and the first Catholic missionary to enter New York, Mother Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized, Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, and Elizabeth Ann Seton the first American citizen to be canonized.
Top Secret #4
St. Patrick’s Cathedral was New York City’s Tallest Building
According to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, “From October 1888 until October 1890, St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 330 feet high was the tallest building in New York City and the second tallest in America surpassed only by Philadelphia’s City Hall.” As the New York World Building was not begun until 1889, it does that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was indeed the tallest building in New York City for two years after the spires were added in 1888. And if you don’t count the antenna spire of the New York World Building (the roof went to 309 feet, the antenna to 349 feet), St. Patrick’s would have been taller.
As the world’s tallest buildings in this era were primarily focused on the new skyscrapers, and St. Patrick’s was certainly not the tallest cathedral in the world during this time, it is often left off of discussions about the world’s tallest buildings historically.
Top Secret #3
The Missing Cornerstone
On August 15, 1858, the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Cathedral was laid by Archbishop John Hughes. The stone, which had been hewn by a 22-year-old Irish immigrant, was left open for two years so that New Yorkers could leave offerings in it. The cornerstone also contained “a parchment litany in Latin of ecclesiastical and government officialdom and a celebratory news report on the recent laying of the first Atlantic cable, heralding instantaneous communication with the continent from which so many of New York’s immigrant Catholics hailed.” It was sealed exactly two years later on August 15, 1860; then it went missing.
Today, no one knows exactly where the cornerstone is located and mysteriously the Archbishop John Hughes wrote that the cornerstone, “in all probability, will never be disturbed by human agency,” at the time it was sealed.
The Cathedral considers it one of its greatest mysteries. According to some theories the cornerstone is long gone, according to others, it is still hiding along the Fifth Avenue facade of the Cathedral, at 50th Street.
Top Secret #2
St. Patrick’s Cathedral Appears in a Grammy Hall of Fame Song
In 1963, Michelle Philips and her husband, John, went for a walk along Fifth Avenue. The couple, who were members of the folk group, the New Frontiersmen, were in New York City seeking fame and fortune. During that winter, they were staying at the Albert Hotel, near Washington Square Park, while fame eluded them.
The night after their Fifth Avenue walk, John woke up in the middle of the night and began composing a song. Michelle provided the lyrics for beginning of the second verse using St. Patrick’s Cathedral as inspiration: "Stopped in to church / I passed along the way / Well, I got down on my knees / And I began to pray.” The song, as well as the Michelle and John Philips, became famous when they joined The Mamas & The Papas, a few years later.
Well, Frank Sinatra sang once: "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." The Mamas & The Papas have made.
Top Secret #1
The heat of too many candles
It's common to see visitors to St. Patrick's lighting prayer candles. But in the days immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, so many people were lighting candles in the cathedral that the heat from the flames was causing the glass candle holders to shatter.
Bonus Historic Facts
1. The site of the present cathedral was bought for $11,000 on March 6, 1810, as a site for a school for young Catholic men to be conducted by the Jesuits.
2. This school failed, and in 1813 the land was sold again to Dom Augustin LeStrange, abbot of a community of Trappists (from the original monastery of La Trappe) who were in America fleeing persecution by French authorities. In addition to a small monastic community, they also looked after some 33 orphans.
3. With the downfall of Napoleon in 1814, the Trappists returned to France, abandoning the property (the orphanage was maintained by the Diocese of New York into the late 1800s) — some of the monks traveled to Canada, however, and eventually founded St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
4. The facade and 100 meters tall spires of the cathedral. The Diocese of New York, created in 1808, was made an archdiocese by Pope Pius IX on July 19, 1850.
5. On October 6, 1850, Archbishop John Joseph Hughes announced his intention to erect a new cathedral to replace the Old St. Patrick's, located on the intersection of Prince and Mott Streets on Mulberry Street.
6. The "Old Cathedral" had been destroyed by fire in 1866 but was rebuilt and rededicated by 1868. It is still a parish church and is the oldest Catholic site in New York City.
7. The cornerstone for the new cathedral was laid on August 15, 1858, just south of the diocese's orphanage, much further north of the populous areas of New York at that time. The cathedral was designed by James Renwick, Jr. in the Gothic Revival style.
8. Work was begun in 1858 but was halted during the American Civil War, commencing again in 1865. The cathedral was completed in 1878 and was dedicated on May 25, 1879, its huge proportions dominating the mid-town of that time.
9. The archbishop's house and rectory were added from 1882 to 1884 and an adjacent school (no longer in existence) opened in 1882.
10. The Towers on the West Facade were added in 1888, and an addition on the east, including a Lady Chapel, designed by Charles T. Mathews, began in 1901.
11. The stained glass windows in the Lady Chapel were designed and made in Chipping Camden, England, by Paul Vincent Woodroffe between 1912-1930. The cathedral was renovated between 1927 and 1931, when the great organ was installed, and the sanctuary was enlarged.
12. The cathedral and associated buildings were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976