History Of St Patrick’s Cathedral In New York City

St Patrick's Cathedral History

St Patrick’s Cathedral Interior Photo: Brian Kachejian ©2018

Early Pre-History of St Patrick’s Cathedral

The history of St Patrick’s Cathedral goes all the way back to colonial days. During that time period before the American Revolution, Catholics were not welcome in New York.[1] However, after the end of the American Revolutionary War, the alliance between France and Spain brought more people to the New York area. Those people included the French, Spanish, Irish, and English. The French and Spanish opened many private chapels that were friendly to the Catholics.[2] The battles between the Catholics and Protestants still resonated but the impact of Irish immigrant’s dedication to their Catholic faith and the open arms of the French immigrants paved the way for the eventual building of Catholic chapels. Nonetheless, the anti-Catholic movements, and the battles between the Protestants and Catholics would still continue on into the 1800’s in a most ferocious fashion.

Original Land Purchase

The land on Fifth Avenue where St Patrick’s Cathedral now stands was purchased by the Jesuit congregation of the Catholic Church. The Jesuit Congregation was an order that focused on education, research and other various pursuits. Based on their order, the land purchased in 1810 was utilized in the building of a college and a chapel.

The Jesuits sold the land in 1814 to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance also know in history as the French Trappists. When Napoleon began to lose power in 1815, the Trappists felt it was safe to return to France without facing anymore religious persecution. The Trappists abandoned the property on Fifth Avenue. For years, the chapel at fifth avenue stayed closed.

Eventually, the chapel at the property at Fifth Avenue was reopened in the 1830s by New York Bishop John Dubois. The parish was soon plagued with financial problems and because of an incompetent board of trustees, the property was sold at auction in 1844.[3] To lose a church was devastating to the parish that supported it. A young priest by the name of Father Michael A. Curran fought hard in raising funds to buy back the church. Father Curran worked effortlessly in raising funds and eventually was able to buy back the chapel and property it stood on. As the parish continued to grow, there was a need for a larger church. As the continued rise in Catholic immigrants began to spread throughout New York City, the site in which the church was located was chosen to be utilized in the building of the new St Patrick’s Cathedral.

The Battles

In 1850, Father John Joseph Hughes was anointed The Archbishop of New York. The importance of the anointing of Father John Joseph Hughes as Archbishop of New York cannot be ignored when looking back at the history of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Bishop Hughes stood in the middle of the wars between the Protestants and the Catholics in the mid 1800’s.  The Catholics and their churches were constantly attacked by Protestants. Bishop Hughes fought vigorously against the attacks. Bishop Hughes organized thousands of Irish men to defend the Catholic churches against Protestant attacks. Bishop Hughes even stationed sharpshooters on the rooftops to defend the old St Patrick’s of Basilica Church on Mulberry Street.[4]

Bishop Hughes was not just determined to defend the church, but also to continue to build new churches. His fight to defend the Catholics and fuel the spread of those practicing Catholicism in New York City resulted in a doubling of those practicing Catholicism in New York City. It also lay the groundwork for doubling the amount of Catholic Churches in New York City. One of those would be the new St Patrick’s Cathedral which would  be built on the property between 50th and 51st streets and Fifth Avenue. It was the same location that was purchased in 1810 by the Jesuits and had gone through so many closures and financial problems for over forty years.

In 1853, the Archbishop of New York John Joseph Hughes hired an architect by the name of James Renick to start designing the plans for the new St Patrick’s Church on Fifth Avenue. What was so fascinating about Bishop’s choice was that after years of battling Protestants, Bishop Hughes chose a Protestant architect to design the new St Patrick’s Cathedral.[5] Renick’s reputation clearly convinced the Bishop that he was the man for the job.

The Construction

The cornerstone construction began in 1858. So much of Manhattan stands on bedrock. At the front entrance of St Patrick’s Cathedral, was a ledge of bedrock rising all the way to the surface. The ledge slopes eastward close to twenty feet below the surface. The foundation stones that were placed in the ground for St Patrick’s Cathedral were made of blue gneiss granite. Dix Island granite from Maine was also utilized in the foundations of St Patrick’s Cathedral.[6]

James Renick’s plans called for diversity in design. The patrons of the Catholic Church represented many different nationalities. Renick tossed away the old English design in favor of a more European model that would represent the variety of European nationalities that had become part of the Catholic Diocese.[7] There was a strong representation of the Gothic Medieval style that represented some of Europe’s most famous Cathedrals such as the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, and The Basilica of Saint Clotilde in Paris. These Cathedrals including St. Patrick’s had commonalities such as the way the windows and doors were laid out in groups. Perhaps the biggest inspiration Renick took from the Gothic European Medieval style was the installation of twin tall octagonal towers. The two towers were built with tall openwork spires leading to the top of the towers.

St Patrick's Cathedral

Photo: diego_cue [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Cologne Cathedral in Germany

Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral, Germany – Photo: Brian Kachejian ©2018

The construction of the new St Patrick’s Cathedral came to a halt when The Civil War broke out in 1861. When the Civil War ended in 1865, Cardinal McCloskey made sure that work resumed right away on the Cathedral. Finally in May of 1879, St Patrick’s Cathedral opened its doors to the public for the first time. While the new St Patrick’s Cathedral had opened its doors in 1879, additional work on the Cathedral continued for years. The West Front Towers were added in 1888. The Eastern extension of the Cathedral continued on into the 1900’s.

History of The Organs & Organists Of St Patrick’s Cathedral

The famous New York Organ builders George Jardine and Sons were responsible for installing the first organ in St Patrick’s Cathedral in the years 1879. It was an organ that included four manuals and fifty six ranks. One year later in 1880, organ builders J.H. & C.S. Odell installed a twenty three-Rank, two-manual in St Patrick’s Cathedral chancel. For those unfamiliar with organ terms, a manual is a keyboard on an organ. An organ with four manuals has four keyboards. A rank is a set of organ pipes designed to produce the same timbre of a particular organ key. A rank consists of ten organ pipes. St Patrick’s Cathedral’s first organ had fifty six ranks which meant there were five hundred and sixty pipes producing the sound of the organ. That, is simply breathtaking.

William F. Pecher would be hired to become the first organist and director of music at St Patrick’s Cathedral in 1879. Jacques C. Ungerer was hired as an assistant organist in 1893 until he took over as the main organist and director of music in 1904. Ungerer would hold those titles from 1904 to 1929. In 1927, St Patrick’s Cathedral was able to recruit the renowned organist Pietro A. Yon who had been the Titular Organist of the Vatican. Pietro Alessandro Yon’s arrival at St Patrick’s Cathedral as an assistant organist fueled a movement to replace the original organs at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Eventually, Pietro Alessandro Yon would replace Jacques C. Ungerer as musical director at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Pietro Alessandro Yon was not just an organist and director but also a composer and teacher who taught many musicians including Cole Porter. Historians cite the fact that Pietro Alessandro Yon’s time spent at St Patrick’s Cathedral signified the glory years of music at St Patrick’s. (8)

Those glory years led by Pietro Alessandro Yon as stated earlier resulted in the installation of two new magnificent organs at St Patrick’s Cathedral. The new Gothic designed Chancel Organ was put into service in 1928. The organ showcases 1,480 pipes. The organ was designed by George Kilgen & Son of St. Louis, Missouri.  

Robert J Reiley designed the new Gallery Organ that was dedicated on February 11 1930. The organ cost $250,000 to build in 1930’s dollars which would equate to a few million in modern currency. The organ contained an astonishing seven thousand and eight hundred and fifty five pipes. Over the years, both organs would undergo renovations, restorations, and enhancements. The organs are still currently in use along with several other organs placed throughout the Cathedral.(9) 

St Patrick's Cathedral History

St Patrick’s Cathedral Gallery Organ – Photo: Brian Kachejian ©2018

Historic Funerals at St Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral held the funeral mass for the most famous New York Yankee of all time who we all know as Babe Ruth. In 1948, 6,000 people attended the funeral while nearly 75,000 people lined the streets to pay their last respects to the great Yankee they all called The Bambino! St Patrick’s Cathedral also held a funeral mass for legendary New York Yankee Roger Maris who passed away in 1985. Former New York Yankees player and manager Billy Martin who died in a car accident in 1989 was eulogized at St Patrick’s Church by Cardinal John O’Connor in 1989. (10)

On June 8, 1968, Presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy’s body was flown in from Washington D.C. to be eulogized at St Patrick’s Cathedral. Only three days earlier, Robert F Kennedy had been assassinated while campaigning for President of The United States. His younger brother Sen. Edward M. Kennedy gave the eulogy for his brother. It was a eulogy that used many of Robert F Kennedy’s own words that he spoke while running for President of the United States. After the funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral the body of Senator Robert F Kennedy was placed on a train to Washington D.C to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. His casket was draped in an American flag. The funeral train would be seen by somewhere between one and two million people along the 252 mile trip to Washington D.C. (11)

Under the altar at St Patrick’s Cathedral is a crypt that has served as the burial ground for past  New York Catholic Diocese Cardinals and Archbishops. These include, Archbishop John Joseph Hughes, John Cardinal McCloskey, Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, John Murphy Cardinal Farley, Patrick Joseph Cardinal Hayes, Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman,Terence James Cardinal Cooke, John Joseph Cardinal O’Connor and Edward Michael Cardinal Egan.

The Impact of St Patrick’s Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral was built to accommodate the growing number of Catholics immigrating into the New York area during the nineteenth century. It was a result of Archbishop John Joseph Hughes’ battle against the anti-catholic wave that had been present in the New York area since colonial days. It was the first Gothic Medieval style Church built in the United States and it remains the most famous Cathedral ever built in the Americas. Its popularity has led it to become one of New York’s top tourist attractions as millions walk through its majestic doorways to get a glimpse of the famed interior.

While over the past twenty years it has become a huge tourist attraction, St Patrick’s Cathedral has served the people of New York during the most difficult times. In the aftermath of 9-11, St Patrick’s served as a place of solace for so many New Yorkers. The Cathedral has continued to hold memorials for those who lost their lives during the 9-11 attacks.

St Patrick’s Cathedral still holds mass seven days week. It is a place of worship despite its popularity of a tourist attraction. The History of St Patrick’s Cathedral serves as a reminder of the struggles all men and women faced due to issues of race, religion and bias. It’s tall majestic magnificent spires stand in tribute to the human spirit, faith and perseverance of all who dedicated their lives in the building, serving, and celebration of the historic St Patrick’s Cathedral.



[1] YORK, CATHOLIC EDITING COMPANY NEW. CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden … Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius x. FORGOTTEN Books, 2016. P. 275

[2] P.283

[3] P.284

[4] Mendelsohn, Joyce, and James E Garrity. “History.” Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral & Church of the Most Precious Blood, 2001, oldcathedral.org/history.

[5] Loth, Calder and Sadler, Julius, The Only Proper Style, New York Graphic, Boston, 1975.

[6] “NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES INVENTORY — NOMINATION FORM.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, npgallery.nps.gov/nrhp/AssetDetail?assetID=84d45cb2-58e7-41d0-ad4e-7c9779ff0cbe#.

[7] Loth, Calder and Sadler, Julius

(8)”Pietro A. Yon (1886-1943).” St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Accessed March 01, 2019. https://saintpatrickscathedral.org/pietro-a-yon.

(9)”The Cathedral Organs.” St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Accessed March 01, 2019. https://saintpatrickscathedral.org/the-organs-of-st-patricks-cathedral.

(10) YORK, CATHOLIC EDITING COMPANY NEW. CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Undertaken to Celebrate the Golden … Jubilee of His Holiness, Pope Pius X. FORGOTTEN Books, 2016.

(11)Waxman, Oliva B. “Robert F. Kennedy’s Funeral Train: Story Behind Rare Photos.” Time. June 05, 2018. Accessed March 01, 2019. http://time.com/longform/rfk-funeral-train-photos/.


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