St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City is seen at night Sept. 17, one week before Pope Francis is to hold vespers with priests and men and women religious at the cathedral (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz).

The Shield of St. Patrick: The Role of a Cathedral in U.S. Catholic History

When Pope Francis presides at Vespers tonight in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York City, there will be a lot more going on than meets the eye. Could those mute stones speak, they would tell quite a tale of the outsized role of the cathedral in the eyes of the American Catholic Church, and also give a clue to the importance for Cardinal Timothy Dolan of having today’s event happening when and where it does.

The eye will be met, of course, by a beautiful Gothic Revival cathedral built of Tuckahoe Marble, fresh off a $175 million dollar restoration project, one finished in the nick of time. It seems like only yesterday there was scaffolding everywhere on the structure, both inside and out. The archdiocese actually says it’s not done—two more months to go—and the project was announced in March 2012, fully a year before Pope Francis was elected and long before anyone dreamed of a pope’s visit to New York City so soon after Pope Benedict’s visit in 2008. Once the papal visit was announced, however, suddenly deadlines became a lot more definite.

But to understand fully why tonight’s service is a signal moment in this papal visit, we need to step back 136 years, to 1879 and the cathedral’s dedication. Conceived by famous New York Archbishop John Hughes, the tough-talking Irishman and erstwhile stone-breaker known as “Dagger John,” the structure was completed fifteen years after his death, as was typical for such large building projects in his time. During his life, however, the slowly rising building was often derided as “Hughes’ Folly.” It was situated absurdly far from the city’s heart, critics laughed, practically out in the country; it was too expensive, stealing money from Irish immigrants who were then relying on city services overmuch; it would be a pretentious and gaudy eyesore that future generations would regret.

Hughes’ bête noire during the years of construction and fundraising was a familiar one to his successors, particularly Dolan’s predecessor: the New York Times. According to Charles Morris, the author of the masterful history American Catholic, Hughes presented the cathedral to New York’s Irish Catholics as a monument to their ancestors as well as a rebuke to their erstwhile masters: “The spiritual descendants of St. Patrick have been outcasts from their native land and have been scattered over the earth,” Hughes proclaimed at the laying of the cornerstone in 1858, but this new church would show “the honorable history of the Irish,” a people who had always received from the world “the largest share of justice and the smallest share of mercy.” The Times was savage in its rebuke the next day, accusing Hughes of “that bad taste which, of late years, has more or less characterized everything His Grace has said or written outside the immediate sphere of his archiepiscopal duties.” (Think of that the next time someone tells you the press is increasingly anti-Catholic these days).

Fundraising and construction came to a halt during the Civil War, and Hughes died in 1864, but the decade after saw this former countryside location become a desired address for New York’s elites. Among the new neighboring mansions, Morris notes, were three for the descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one for department store magnate A. T. Stewart, and another for Caroline Trow, New York’s leading abortion provider.

Press coverage of the actual dedication in 1879 provides the clue to the cathedral’s importance in the minds of New York’s Catholics.

For a Gothic cathedral to “work” architecturally, it generally must convey a sense of vertical worship—a sweeping movement from the ground to the heavens, from the quotidian work of the people all the way up to the glory of God. In architectural terms, Gothic cathedrals usually convey their sense of awe and vertical worship internally by the use of a high vaulted ceiling over a long and narrow nave supported by flying buttresses, and express this sense externally by soaring spires that draw the eye from the hulking body of the church straight into the sky. A visitor to St. Patrick’s today will see that effect very clearly, though almost certainly not in the sense that architect James Renwick Jr. intended. (He clearly never anticipated Mies van der Rohe and the rise of the skyscraper; happily, some of the steel and glass unfortunates that surround the cathedral today mirror back its exterior in ways Renwick could also not have imagined).

The day after the St. Patrick’s dedication in 1879, newspaper line drawings of the new cathedral showed the structure complete with its soaring Gothic spires. Morris notes that today’s historian is hard-pressed to find ANY depiction of the Cathedral on that day that does not show it with completed spires. In fact, they weren’t even built yet: there wasn’t enough money. The building was simply the squat body of the church, with squared-off bases where spires would eventually be added in 1888. Nevertheless, both artists and reporters seemed intent on showing the Cathedral not as it truly was, but as what it would become. Why would reporters and artists deliberately misrepresent a church building?

Because before it opened, it was a symbol transcending its meaning.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral said to the city’s Catholics (and eventually to the nation’s) a simple thing, one obviously intended by Archbishop John Hughes: We Have Arrived. Most of the donors may have lived in tenements (though the archdiocese notes on its website, perhaps a bit defensively, that 103 rich donors gave $1,000 each), most of its worshippers were poor and uneducated, but there it was—a cathedral to rival Europe, built by the reviled outcasts driven by need or force from their European homes.

For the generations to come it was the same, a symbol of a muscular Catholicism that had its own contribution to American culture and civic life, one it would give without being asked. And despite Dagger John’s detractors, it is today exactly at the heart of the city—a destination for more tourists than worshippers.

These days, American culture is a more complicated story—our new arrivals still start on the bottom rung culturally and economically, but many American Catholics see themselves as integrated elements of American culture…most of the time. We’re not always sure, even with six of nine justices on the Supreme Court and a vice president and Tom Brady and Stephen Colbert.

And so of course Cardinal Dolan wanted to show off the refurbished St. Patrick’s for Pope Francis, and for tonight’s visitors. (By the way, tonight’s event—though advertised as for priests and religious—includes a number of current and prospective donors to the archdiocese). It’s a way of saying We Are Still Here. Dolan’s renovations have not been without controversy. This project has taken place during a sweeping and sometimes cynical culling of the archdiocese’s ailing schools and parishes (including this reporter’s own). It can be hard for New York Catholics—the descendants of those who built the cathedral and for whom the cathedral was built—to understand why a pope who wants a church that is poor would want to see a church pretending to be rich. What to do with those many Catholics who think $175 million might be better spent?

Probably the pope doesn’t want to complain. Might he have been just fine with the old St. Patrick’s? But ours is still an Irish-American church, particularly in this town, and there is a guest for dinner. So lace curtains it is, and the Waterford (if it’s not chipped).