The tale of two Cathedrals

Even three-fifths complete, St. John the Divine is the largest cathedral in the nation and one of the largest in the world. 

Estimating the cathedral’s size is not an easy task: is it the length, height, or volume? Often, people say (correctly!) that Rome’s St. Peter’s is indisputably larger. However. . . St. Peter’s is not a Cathedral, but a church! 

A cathedral is the central church of a diocese; it houses a cathedra – a bishop’s ceremonial chair, and serves the administrative function of a bishop’s seat. Therefore, there can be many churches in one city but only one with a bishop’s seat—a Cathedral. New York City, however unusual, is home to two Cathedrals—St. John the Divine and St. Patrick’s. In fact, the Episcopalian Cathedral of John the Divine was born out of an ecclesiastical rivalry with the Catholic St. Patrick’s. 

New York City, first as New Amsterdam, a Dutch Colony, and later as an English colony, was founded and populated by protestants. There were followers of the Dutch Reformed Church from Holland, French Huguenots, Belgian Walloons, Lutherans from Germany, and English Anglicans. Once New York became an English Colony in 1664, the city adopted Anglican as its official religion. The Catholics were intensely disliked and not welcomed. 

After the American Revolution, the newly-formed all-American Episcopalian Church separated from the Church of England. The denomination was similar to the mother church, but since the Anglican clergy were required to swear allegiance to the British monarch, it was unacceptable in the new republic. By the 19th century, the majority of the native, established, and well-to-do New Yorkers who could trace their roots to the early English or even Dutch settlers were Episcopalians. Wealthy and prominent, they built many beautiful churches around town, but never got around to erecting a cathedral. 

“New York As the Founders of The Forward Knew It: A Composite Picture of America’s Largest City At the Turn of the Century”, 1937

In the second part of the 19th century, the religious makeup of the city changed dramatically. Impoverished immigrant masses from Ireland and Italy flooded New York, making the Catholic population swell to half a million! According to NYT, by 1865, the Catholics comprised almost one-half of the city’s population of over a million.

Destitute, the Catholic newcomers occupied the lowest levels of the city’s social structure. While the Protestant elites built magnificent residences, traveled to Europe, and gave balls, Catholic immigrants were lucky to be employed as their servants. 

John Hughes, nicknamed Dagger John, a Catholic bishop with a dagger personality, asserted the Catholic presence in New York by erecting a magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral. When the project was started in 1858, Fifth Avenue at 50th Street was still a remote location. Soon after its completion in 1879, the Catholic Cathedral found itself in the middle of the Millionaire’s Row — a stretch of the avenue lined with the mansions of the wealthiest New York City elites. It’s pretty ironic that while the city’s most affluent citizens attended churches for Sunday services, their servants headed for the spectacular St. Patrick’s Cathedral. 

The Episcopalian diocese responded by planning an Episcopalian cathedral to match and supersede St. Patrick’s. It was supposed to dominate the city from the Morning Side Heights and startle with its enormous size. Started in 1892, the same year as Ellis Island, its construction was plagued by problems, and the Cathedral remains unfinished. 

Even in its unfinished form, it wows. The interior covers 121,000 sq ft, and the entire length of the Cathedral is a record-breaking 601 feet — almost that of two football fields. Despite being unfinished, it’s a living, breathing presence. It’s a functioning church and a spectacular music performance venue that hosted concerts such as the premiere of Duke Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert. It held funerals of Duke Ellington, Nikola Tesla, and James Baldwin, to name a few. On the first Sunday of October every year, it welcomes four-legged creatures, big and small, for a Blessing of the Animals — a special celebration honoring Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals. The event invariably attracts huge crowds of excited animal lovers accompanying their pets to the Cathedral.

If every religious rivalry had resulted in erecting two stunning Cathedrals in one city, the world would have been a much better place. 

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