Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral
Beneath the recently renovated Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Little Italy, there is a very little-known secret. A huge wooden door that looks more befitting of a medieval castle than an urban church stands between an old basement chapel and the final resting place of dozens of souls from New York’s past.
Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral was first built by the Irish immigrants who migrated to New York in 1700’s and 1800’s to provide a place of worship amidst terrible anti-Catholic sentiment cultivated by the British Protestants who dominated our Eastern seaboard.
When Italians began arriving en masse at the latter part of the 19th century, the Irish, who so vigilantly fought for their chance to build Catholic churches in which they could safely worship, didn’t want newcomers worshipping alongside them. The religion, although the same, has different cultural nuances that wedged the Irish from the Italians. The Irish saw the Italian practices of saint processions and “la festa” as virtually pagan and not a pure form of Catholicism.
The Irish pulled all the weight in the New York Archdiocese and constituted virtually every position within its hierarchy; therefore, the Italians who were seen as uncivilized and often contributed little-to-nothing in church donations, were forced to worship in chapels within Church basements. This practice was universal throughout New York and elsewhere, especially in Saint Patrick’s. The former Italian chapel in Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral is where this doorway into another world exists.
Originally the resting place of the first Catholic, Irish bishops of New York, the catacombs eventually became home to others including some of the Italians who were crucial in merging both cultures in one church. Eventually, the Italians were integrated by the likes of Countess Annie Leary who was a philanthropist who supported the Italian American immigrants and helped them blend into society and become engrained in Saint Patrick’s parishioner base.
Amongst those also interred here are five priests, two bishops, 33 families and one Civil War General.
Countess Annie Leary (1803-1879)
An interesting person and one of the first pro-Italian American philanthropists who is interred here is Countess Annie Leary. Predating even Mother Cabrini, the Countess was responsible for helping the Italian immigrants of lower Manhattan by donating funds to help build a predominantly Italian church on Sullivan Street so that the Italians no longer had to worship in the basements of Old Saint Patrick’s and Transfiguration. Most notable of her contributions to the Italian American constituency is the Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle, which was donated by Countess Leary before her passing.
It was a privilege to take part in the tour of the Catacombs beneath Saint Patrick’s. To be intuned with the Italian American significance whilst also exploring beneath the streets of Little Italy was an exhilarating experience. We recommend this tour especially during this time of year.
By: Raymond Guarini