St. Patrick's Old Cathedral
St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, completed in 1815 was the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York until 1897, when the now more well-known Saint Patrick's Cathedral opened uptown. Old St. Patrick's—a gothic-revival church and designated landmark since 1966—is located on Mulberry Street between Prince and Houston Streets. The cathedral complex includes a Federal-style building across the street that was once the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum and later the St. Patrick's Convent and Girls School; a graveyard—Manhattan's only Catholic cemetery; and catacombs beneath the church.
We recently took a tour of the cathedral complex—although the church is still active, the only way to see the cemetery and catacombs is to pay for a tour. I'd been aware of the cemetery and had gazed at it longingly through the always-closed gates so I was excited to finally be able to see the early 1800s headstones up close. The cemetery is surrounded by a brick wall, which was also a designated landmark, in 1968.
Due to space restrictions, interments in the churchyard eventually stopped, but in 2013 they constructed new columbaria "intended primarily but not exclusively for the cremated remains of Roman Catholics." My main complaint about most tours is that I always feel rushed, and unfortunately we spent very little time in both north and south cemeteries.
The remains of one of the churchyard's most famous residents—The Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a former slave on his way to becoming the first African-American saint—were moved to the crypt below the main altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. In addition to being one of New York Society's leading hairdressers, Toussaint sheltered orphans, fostered children and devoted his life to charity work. A headstone still marks the spot where Toussaint's remains were buried before they were moved to St. Patrick's, a place of honor normally reserved for bishops.
In 1866, a fire destroyed the interior of the church, which was rebuilt and re-opened on St. Patrick’s Day in 1868. Currently, services are given in English, Spanish, and Chinese and the church was awarded Basilica status by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. If the side altar looks familiar, it's because it was the filming location of the famous baptism scene in The Godfather.
The crown jewel of the church is its pipe organ, the last remaining large, intact piece of its kind built by New Yorker Henry Erben. The nearly 2,500 pipes were carried by horse and carriage and installed by hand just after the Civil War. The organ is in need of a pricey restoration, and the non-profit organization Friends of the Erben Organ (honorary chair: Martin Scorsese) was formed to raise $2 million to ensure its preservation.
The official name of the tour is the Catacombs by Candlelight, but once again I felt as if we didn't have nearly enough time to explore beneath the church (the tour and guide were great, I just require a lot of time to poke around). These catacombs aren't like the bone-filled niches of Europe, but more like the ones at Green-Wood Cemetery—underground tunnels lined with hermetically sealed crypts and marked with carved stones. There are 35 family crypts and five clerical vaults, in addition to the newly-built columbaria.
Notable interments include: members of the Delmonico family, founders of Delmonico's, the first American restaurant to allow patrons to order from a menu; Countess Annie Leary, one of the only Catholics to be included in Mrs. Astor's "The 400," a list of fashionable socialites; and Tammany Hall boss and Congressman "Honest John" Kelly.
The tour concludes with a visit inside of the beautiful vault of General Thomas Eckert, a confidant and bodyguard of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation in Eckert's office, and after the war he became president of the Western Union. The walls and ceiling of his spacious vault—I'm not exaggerating when I say it's almost as big as my studio apartment—are lined with Guastavino tiles and the light fixtures still have working, original Edison light bulbs.