St. Patrick’s Cathedral – one spectacular folly!

The facade of St. Patrick's Cathedral
The facade of St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Architect: James Renwick Jr.

Built: 1858-1879

John Hughes, Archbishop of New York, had a vision for a new, grandiose Catholic cathedral that would offset the indignities suffered by the Catholics in 19th century New York. They called it Hughes’ folly.

Up until the 19th century, New York was a Protestant stronghold with an insignificant Catholic minority. Back in the 17th century, when the city was born as New Amsterdam, Europe was torn by deep religious conflicts and there was very little love between the Catholics and the Protestants. The first settlers of New Amsterdam were the Dutch, along with the French-speaking Walloons and the Huguenots, followed by the English, and then the Germans – all Protestants. Everything changed in the 19th century when the immigrant masses poured to New York from Italy and Ireland. They were desperately poor, mostly uneducated and… Catholic. By this time the Americans who could trace their roots to the early settlers, especially the Dutch, considered themselves the elites. The Catholic newcomers did not fair well, and the main Catholic house of worship – Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral – located on Mulberry St., was quite modest.

Looking northeast at the front (Mulberry Street) side of St. Patricks Old Cathedral
Looking northeast at the front (Mulberry Street) side of St. Patricks Old Cathedral

John Hughes’ decision to construct a spectacular Catholic edifice was a bold statement asserting the status of the new immigrant classes as Americans. John Hughes, known as Dugger John for his larger than life personality, created the concept of a hyphenated American. Despite the resistance from the “nativists” among many other difficulties, he achieved the integration of underprivileged Irish immigrants into American life.

Hughes decided to build his new Cathedral on 5th Avenue at 50th street. A folly, indeed, as the area was pretty much still a wilderness. However, he bet on the fact that Manhattan would be growing north and it was just a matter of time until the mighty St. Patrick’s would find itself in the middle of the most prestigious residences of the city’s most exclusive set. The construction of St. Patrick’s started in 1858 and took 21 years to complete.

St. Patrick's Cathedral from across Fifth Avenue. Atlas by Lee Lawrie - on the forefront
St. Patrick’s Cathedral from across Fifth Avenue. Atlas by Lee Lawrie – on the forefront

The new St. Patrick’s was unapologetically spectacular. Built as a Gothic Cathedral, it’s light and graceful. The structure is the crowning achievement of James Renwick Jr., who started his architectural career with the exquisite Grace Church – one of the best known Protestant churches in the city – and went on to build quite a few religious structures around town.

St. Patrick Cathedral is named after the patron saint of the Irish. It’s the seat of the Archbishop and the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of New York. Archbishops of New York are buried in a crypt under the high altar. Their honorary hats, called galeros, hang from the ceiling over their tombs.

The Cathedral also functions as a parish where people can get baptized and married. The most famous marriage which took place there was that of Frances Scott Fitzgerald. The renowned novelist married his wife Zelda Sayre on April 3, 1920, inside a rectory in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The groom was 23, and the bride just 19.


Funeral masses for Babe Ruth, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Arturo Toscanini, Celia Cruz, Andy Warhol, and Joe DiMaggio were held at the Cathedral.

St. Patrick’s enormous main doors are made of bronze, each weighing 9,200 pounds. They are decorated with the sculptures of local saints and are said to be constructed in such a way that they can be opened and closed with one hand.

St. Patrick's Cathedral and Lee Lawrie's Atlas
St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Lee Lawrie’s Atlas
Inside St. Patrick's Cathedral
Inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral
Interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Stained-glass window in St. Patrick's Cathedral
A stained-glass window in St. Patrick’s Cathedral
The facade of St. Patrick's Cathedral
The facade of St. Patrick’s Cathedral


William J. Stern “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish” Spring 1997, The Social Order, New York

James Nevius, Michelle Nevius “Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York” Simon and Schuster, 2009

Nancy Milford, “Zelda: A Biography”, Harper Perennial; Modern Classics ed. edition, 2013

From Wikipedia “John Hughes (archbishop of New York)”

Anthony D. Andreassi, “An archbishop nicknamed ‘Dagger John’” March 15, 2018 America, The Jesuit Review

Christopher Winn “I Never Knew That About New York”, Plume, 2014

MARIELLA RADAELLI “The sound and the fury of Arturo Toscanini” MAR 10, 2017, Italo-Americano

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