Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Old St. Patrick's Rectory -- No. 263 Mulberry Street

photo by Alice Lum
The Catholic Church in Manhattan got off to a rocky start.  During British rule Catholic worship was prohibited by law.  Then, in 1785, almost immediately after the British left, St. Peter’s Church was founded and a Georgian-style church was built on Barclay Street—three years before the Washington took office.

The Roman Catholic population continued to grow and on April 8, 1808 the diocese of New York was created (covering all of New York State, New Jersey, and several Long Island counties).  Within the year French-born architect Joseph-Francois Mangin was commissioned to design the first Catholic cathedral in American—St. Patrick’s.  The architect had recently completed the design of City Hall in conjunction with John McComb, Jr.  The completed church on Mulberry Street near the corner of Prince Street was dedicated six years later on May 14, 1815.

But the presence of a cathedral and a bishop did not mean that Catholics were warmly accepted.  In 1834 the Board of Trustees resolved “that a wall shall be built around the Cathedral and churchyard" to protect both the graveyard and the church from rioters bent on destruction.  The decision proved to be wise move.  Ten years later the church was besieged by a violent mob of anti-Catholic and anti-Irish rabble intent on torching the cathedral.  The bishop at the time was the dynamic 47-year old John Joseph Hughes. 

He assembled parishioners and members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians behind the wall.  The defenders punched holes in the wall for their muskets and fought back the mob which was chanting “paddies of the Pope.”  Although the Catholics held off the rabble; several of the fine windows of the church were smashed in the melee.  Bishop Hughes fired off a letter 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.

The Irish-born Hughes had been made bishop in 1842, succeeding John Dubois.  It was apparently during his term that the imposing Rectory was constructed directly across from the Cathedral.  Five bays wide, the handsome Greek Revival structure encompassed two wide building lots.  Constructed of red brick with brownstone trim, it was home not only to the bishop; but to the parish priests—as many of seven at some times. 

John J. Hughes was elevated to Archbishop when New York was made an Archdiocese by Pope Pius IX in 1850.  At the time St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the largest church in Manhattan.  But Hughes had bigger plans.  In 1852 the Archdiocese purchased the block of land far north on Fifth Avenue at 50th Street.  The plot was so far removed from the established city that critics called the project “Hughes’ Folly.”  The cornerstone was laid on August 15, 1858 and the immense white marble cathedral began rising.

Then, in 1861, Civil War broke out.  One by one construction workers marched off to war until eventually work on the Cathedral stopped completely.  Three years later Archbishop John Hughes died, never to see his magnificent church completed.

John Cardinal McCloskey moved into the Rectory as the new Archbishop.  Although the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral would not be officially dedicated until 1879; Archbishop McCloskey left the old Mulberry Street rectory by 1875 and took up residence in the Archbishop’s mansion at No. 218 Madison Avenue.  It was there, on March 16, 1875, that he received the telegram informing him that he had been elevated to cardinal—the first in America.

A month later, John McCloskey received his cardinal’s hat in the parlor of the old Rectory.  Later he would repeat the ceremony across the street in the old Cathedral. 

The Rectory in 1914 looked exactly as it does today -- The Catholic church in the United States of America, 1914 (copyright expired)

After the doors to the new Cathedral opened in 1879, the old Mulberry Street Cathedral became a parish church on May 25.  By now Father John F. Kearney had lived in the Rectory for 13 years.  Kearney was born on Broome Street in 1839.  As work had ground to a stop on the new Cathedral during the war, Kearney was studying for the priesthood in Emmittsburg, Maryland.   He became an assistant priest in the Old Cathedral in 1864—two years before the church burned nearly to the ground.  (It was possibly during the reconstruction of the old cathedral that the handsome mansard roof was added to the old Greek Revival Rectory.)

Now, the Very Rev. William Quinn who had been vicar-general at the old Cathedral moved to the new St. Patrick’s; leaving Father Kearney as rector of the Mulberry Street church.  The priest took over the parish at a time of noticeable change in the neighborhood.  While the original parishioners in the cathedral had been almost exclusively Irish; now waves of Italian immigrants filled the streets. 

Later Father Kearney would remember “The changes in population came on gradually, but I should say that in 1873 the first large Italian immigration began.  There had been hard times in Italy and thousands came over here in search of work.  Again in 1882 there was an especially large number of them.”  Because he spoke Italian, Father Kearney was able to reach out to the Italian Catholic population. 

The Victorian mansard was possibly added during the reconstruction of the damaged Cathedral.  photo by Alice Lum
In the first years of the 20th century New York City was plagued with anarchist terrorists, including the Black Hand.  The Italian group was responsible for assassinations, extortion and bombings.  Police Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino was working in Italy in 1909 when he was gunned down by the Black Hand.  His body was returned to New York and his funeral took place in Old St. Patrick’s.

As the day of the ceremony neared, Father Kearney received a letter at the Rectory.  It was from the Black Hand and threatened to blow up the church.  According to The New York Times, “He read the letter and then calmly said, “If the church goes—I go with it.”

By 1916, as he celebrated 50 years of living in the Rectory and serving old St. Patrick’s, Kearney held the title of Monsignor.  For another seven years he would crisscross Mulberry Street, going back and forth from the Rectory to the old cathedral.  Then on the evening of April 11, 1923 the Right Rev. Mgr. John F. Kearney called into his room the four parish priests who shared the Rectory.  The following day The New York Times reported “To them he gave his blessing, and a few minutes later he died.”

An estimated 10,000 mourners were present at Mgr. Kearney’s funeral.

The former Bishop’s residence and Rectory drew little attention to itself over the years.  In May 1939 when Old St. Patrick’s celebrated its 130th Anniversary, a “colorful procession” started at the Rectory and wound around the streets before returning to the old church.  And in 1950 Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman chose the Rectory to despair over the failure of continued peace after the end of World War II.

“Entrusted with this peace and the future of our youth we have once again failed ourselves and them—beguiled, deceived, betrayed, defeated by Communists, fellow travelers, apathetic and guileful people and public servants.”

photo by Alice Lum

Today the dignified old structure, still used as the Old St. Patrick’s Rectory, is lovingly maintained and beautifully intact.

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