The Hidden History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral

St. Patrick's Cathedral Interior

Nestled among the modern skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, you could be forgiven for mistaking the striking Gothic architecture of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as a medieval artifact in the heart of New York City. Though not quite that old, the storied cathedral is renowned for its beautiful Neo-Gothic design and rich history. Not too many people, however, realize the true story behind one of New York City’s most iconic and celebrated landmarks. Here’s a quick look at the hidden history of the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The origins of St. Patrick’s Cathedral dates to the middle of the 19th century to the year 1853. That year, John Joseph Hughes, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, announced his intention to build a larger, more modern cathedral to accommodate the city’s rapidly growing Catholic population. The original St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located on Mulberry Street in what is today Lower Manhattan, has simply grown too small to house the diocese, due in large part to the city’s booming Irish and German immigrant populations. Thus, it became clear that a larger cathedral was needed, one that signified the growing importance of the city’s Roman Catholic populace.

The location of a grandiose cathedral on Fifth Avenue – well to the north of the city’s main population center in what was little more than farmland – was often seen as foolish by many New Yorkers of the time, so much that the project was dubbed “Hughes’ folly.” Still, the ambitious archbishop pressed on, hiring architect James Renwick, Jr. to design the cathedral and laying the cornerstone on August 15, 1858.

Work began in 1858 but soon paused due to the Civil War. After the war ended, work on the towering cathedral resumed in 1865. Finally, after two decades of arduous construction, the cathedral was completed in 1878 and finally dedicated on May 25, 1879. Even after its completion, work continued in smaller projects as a rectory was added in 1880 and twin spires in 1888. A lady chapel was later added in 1906 as well.

Since its completion, St. Patrick’s Cathedral has become one of New York City’s most iconic landmarks. It’s once far flung location is now the heart of Midtown Manhattan, hosting the starting point of the famed St. Patrick’s Day Parade every year. Attesting its importance, the cathedral was declared an official New York City Landmark in 1966 and later a National Historic Landmark in 1976. It also holds the distinction of being the most visited church by Popes in modern times outside of Italy, most recently hosting Pope Francis during his 2015 visit to the United States.

Once dubbed a “folly,” the iconic cathedral is now one of New York City’s most cherished landmarks. It’s religious importance, beautiful architecture and interesting history attract millions of worshippers and visitors alike each year.

Photo Credit: Public Domain via Pixabay