|photo by Alice Lum
|sketch from the collection of the New York Public Library
The New York Gazette reported upon its opening that it was "a grand and beautiful church, which may justly be considered one of the greatest ornaments of our city..."
Named for the patron saint of Ireland, anti-Irish prejudice threatened it nearly from the start. In response the Ancient Order of Hibernians established its headquarters across the street from the cathedral, for one reason, to protect it. That protection became necessary in 1844 when anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic mobs moved on the church in an attempt to burn it.
Bishop John Hughes assembled the Hibernians and other parishioners behind the brick wall surrounding the cathedral. The defenders punched holes in the wall for their muskets and fought back the rabble who were chanting "paddies of the Pope" and other deriding slogans. Nevertheless, the crowd managed to smash many of the fine glass windows with flying bricks and stones. Not to be intimidated, the Bishop wrote to Mayor James Harper threatening "Should one Catholic come to harm, or should one Catholic business be molested, we shall turn this city into a second Moscow," referring to Napoleon's somewhat recent siege of that city.
As the decades passed, St. Patrick's burial yard and the crypts and tombs in the labyrinth below the church became the final resting place of early New York notables. Buried here is Haitian-born slave Pierre Toussaint, currently being considered by Rome for sainthood.
Although his was the largest church in the City, Bishop Hughes yearned for a more magnificent cathedral. The plot of land on Fifth Avenue and 50th Street was purchased in 1852. Nevertheless, that same year he had eminent organ-builder Henry Erben install a new pipe organ in the existing church.
Work on the new James Renwick-designed cathedral started in 1859 but it would be nearly two decades before it was completed. Meanwhile the congregation downtown grew. On April 1, 1861 The New York Times reported on the crowds at Easter mass. "Many persons were obliged to depart without having effected an entrance to the building, and the patience of the obliging Seaton and his corps of assistants was sorely tried by the persistent and sometimes obstreperous applications for admission, so eager was the desire of the Catholic population to participate in this service."
A raging fire ravaged the cathedral in 1866 and, despite construction continuing uptown, the structure was rebuilt. Henry Engelbert was brought in to reconstruct the old church. Although he is best known for his grand Second Empire style buildings, he brought St. Patrick's back as a boxy Gothic structure, re-dedicated in 1868. Gone were the twin towers and the imposing Federal-style window, but St. Patrick's emerged with the comfortable, inviting feeling present today. As the cathedral neared completion Henry Erben rebuilt the organ which, with its Gothic-Revival cabinet, is still in use.