Tag Archives: St. Patricks Cathedral

Happy Pope Day! A history of the holiest of New York tourists

Pope Francis arrives in New York City today — part of his first-ever trip to the United States — and the city is rolling out the red carpet. In fact, all available carpets are being rolled out and even some throw rugs.

New York loves Popes. (Not always of course.) Only the Marquis de Lafayette and the Beatles have been treated to more rapturous displays of welcome by New York City residents. The city has been host to four previous papal visits, and in each case, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral has naturally been the manic center of activity. In fact three such visits have been immortalized on plaques in front of the cathedral.

But with each trip, the pope in question managed to find a couple other unique corners of the city to visit as well.


Perhaps the strangest visit of all was the very first — Pope Paul VI, the controversial leader who presided over the Second Vatican Council and made a name for himself traveling all over the world. Finally in an era where a man could be both pope and jetsetter, Pope Paul arrived in New York in October of 1965 and promptly went to visit his old roommate, who was performing in a fair.

Courtesy Delcampe.net
Courtesy Delcampe.net

That roommate would be Michelangelo’s Pieta, on loan from St. Peter’s hallways to the Vatican pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair.

The Pope visited the Fair on October 4, 1965, on a busy day that also included mass at Yankee Stadium (the first papal mass ever in the United States), an address to the United Nations, and a meeting in the city with president Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf-Astoria.

5th October 1965: Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images
5th October 1965: Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

Many will remember the thousands of people who greeted the Pope in the original Pope-mobile (“a closed, bubble-top limousine”) during its 25-mile procession through the city. Here’s a fact to delight your friends and neighbors — the first American bridge ever crossed by a Pope in all of history was the Queensboro Bridge.

Today a rounded bench, or exedra, sits in Flushing Meadows park honoring the moment Pope Paul visited the Pavilion. (It seems that whenever a Pope hovers in a place for more than a few minutes, a plaque or monument springs up in its place.)

By the way, I found this extraordinary page full of great photos about that first Pope-mobile.

Length of his visit: 13 1/2 hours

AP Photo/Courtesy New York Daily News
AP Photo/Courtesy New York Daily News



But it’s Pope John Paul who’s the real New York favorite; he held the papal throne for so long that he managed two trips to Gotham City — in 1979 and 1995.

His October 1979 trip was like a rock concert tour, also swinging through Philadelphia, Boston, D.C., Chicago and Des Moines. Part of the enthusiasm was because John Paul, at 58 years old, had just been appointed the year before.

In 1969, as a cardinal, he had held mass at Yankee Stadium, so by the time he did it again on October 2, 1979 — as the Pope — he was as much a fixture as Reggie Jackson. Rain greeted over 9,000 cheering worshippers — or fans — and, according to legend, when the Pope mounted the ballfield to address the crowd, the rain showers stopped. And as a blessing for Mets fans, the next day the Pope also held rapt an audience of 52,000 at Shea Stadium.

Below: the Pope at Yankee Stadium

Courtesy US News and World Report
Courtesy US News and World Report

But like all rock stars, the Pope couldn’t complete his New York odyssey without a performance at Madison Square Garden. Although John Paul also addressed the U.N. and a Saint Patrick’s audience during that trip, he’s best remembered by many for his inspirational address on October 3rd to 19,000 city children.

Saint Patrick’s honored his Holiness’s visit in 1979 by installing a bust. But he would be back. On almost exactly the same day, sixteen years later.

Length of his visit: Almost 48 hours


New York City in 1995 was a vastly different city and John Paul returned for a longer visit — four days in total in the entire New York area — on October 4th. This time, instead of just delivering messages to the clergy gathered at Saint Patrick’s, he spontaneously decided he wanted to walk around the block. And why not? You’ve got shopping, Saks, street vendors selling Pope souvenirs!

Below: In the Pope-mobile, riding by Saks Fifth Avenue

Courtesy Wall Street Journal
Courtesy Wall Street Journal


The Pope also finished off his collection of performing in gigantic venues for mass — holding court in Giants Stadium, the Aquaduct Racetrack in Ozone Park and eventually to 100,000 people on the great lawn in Central Park.

From there, the elderly leader of the Catholic Church gave the city the ultimate shout-out: “This is New York! The great New York! This is Central Park. The beautiful surroundings of Central Park invite us to reflect on a more sublime beauty: the beauty of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God. Then you can tell the whole world that you gave the pope his Christmas present in October, in New York, in Central Park.”

Length of his visit: Almost four days! He couldn’t get enough.

Courtesy Chris Hondros/Getty Images./New York Daily News
Courtesy Chris Hondros/Getty Images./New York Daily News



Pope Benedict XVI came to New York for three days, two nights (April 18-20), arriving in Manhattan on a military helicopter and breaking the apparently holy tradition of visiting New York in the early Fall.  (Still would have needed a light sweater or vestment.)  But Benedict, as the cardinal formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger, actually visited the city in that lesser role in 1988, where apparently he was met with protest from gay activists and shunned by some prominent Jewish leaders.

He hit all the “usual” Pope spots — Saint Patricks, the United Nations, Yankee Stadium — but added a couple interesting detours: Park East Synagogue, St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, and the World Trade Center site.

Below: The Pope viewing the World Trade Center site

 April 20, 2008 Courtesy MSNBC
April 20, 2008 Courtesy MSNBC


Length of his visit: Almost 72 hours


Pope Francis’ exhausting itinerary can be found here.  He’ll make stops first for evening prayer at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, then to the residence of the Apostolic nuncio at the United Nations to sleep.  He speaks to the U.N. Assembly in the morning, then down to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum by lunchtime.

Perhaps the most intriguing stop will come in the afternoon, meeting with students from Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. Whereas the first Pope to come New York fifty years rode through East Harlem in his covered Pope-mobile, Pope Francis will chat with a third-grade class filled with children who will have quite a story to tell their grandkids.

Afterwards he will travel through Central Park and arrive at Madison Square Garden for Mass. At rush hour! Oh right, all the streets are closed. In fact, Fifth Avenue right now is contained in a large fence, easily the tightest security I’ve ever seen here.


But Pope Francis is a man of many surprises. Could he decide that he wants to walk the High Line? And how can he visit New York and not even visit Brooklyn? Is the Pope a Girls fan?



This is a heavily revised version of an article that originally ran in 2008 when Pope Benedict visited New York City.



Terror on Sunday: The failed plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral

On the afternoon of October 13, 1914, a bomb exploded in the northwest corner of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, sending deadly iron shrapnel flying through the room. A stained glass window was shattered and an 18-inch hole (shown in the picture below) was blown into the floor.  While the pews were partially filled with worshipers, there was only a single injury, to a boy whose head was grazed by a piece of flying metal.

That was the second bomb of the day; another explosive, downtown at St. Alphonsus Church on West Broadway, detonated a little after noon.

Photograph shows damage after an anarchist bomb explosion at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011 and Washington Herald, Oct. 15, 1914) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph shows damage after an anarchist bomb explosion at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on October 13, 1914. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011 and Washington Herald, Oct. 15, 1914)  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).


Such a disturbing attack in a public space would cause mayhem in the streets today.  Yet this sort of terrorism was disturbingly frequent one hundred years ago, a tactic used by anarchist groups to sow discontent.

Many of the attacks were primarily aimed at New York’s financiers. For instance, on July 4, 1914, a brownstone exploded on the Upper East Side in the Yorkville neighborhood, killing members of the Anarchist Black Cross.  The explosives had accidentally gone off and were intended for the home of John D. Rockefeller.

The interior of St. Patrick's Cathedral, circa 1907 (Clean-up photograph courtesy Shorpy.com)
The interior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, circa 1907 (Clean-up photograph courtesy Shorpy.com)

No arrests had been made in the St. Patrick’s attack.  But detectives working with the New York Department of Combustibles were on the case, and, in March of 1915, they managed to thwart a second attack on St. Patrick’s with the help of a young detective named Emilio Polignani.

Polignani was only 25 years old. He had been a patrolman for only a few months when he was chosen in the fall of 1914 for a special assignment — to infiltrate anarchist circles and identify the perpetrators of the attack on St. Patrick’s.  His qualifications, according to the New York Times, were “his nationality, his newness to the force and most especially because Captain Tunney had decided that he had the nerve and the resource to carry him through tight places.”

St Patrick's Cathedral 1923 

St. Patrick’s Cathedral 1923

For four months, Polignani lived under cover (possibly not even allowed to speak to his wife) as Frank Baldo, attending anarchist meetings throughout the city, becoming familiar with several of the more radical members. It was in Yorkville that he became friends with an 18-year-old named Charles Carbone.

From the New York Times: “Carbone and Polignani became intimate and used to take long walks together, in which Carbone, according to the detective, inveighed against the rich and suggested bombs as a means of readjusting social inequalities.”

Polignani was even initiated into an anarchist group by swearing an oath administered “on the cross hilt of a dagger to bind him … to his comrades.”

Carbone confided to Polignani details of the botched July 4th bomb meant for Rockefeller. “I am an expert,” he said. “Nothing like that could happen to me.”

Frank Abarno, an Italian anarchist who was charged with planting a bomb in St. Patricks Cathedral, New York City, on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Frank Abarno, an Italian anarchist who was charged with planting a bomb in St. Patricks Cathedral, New York City, on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).


On Christmas the detective met another anarchist named Frank Abarno who later professed the wish to bomb St. Patrick’s. Over the next two months, the three men walked along the East River and plotted a new attack at St Patrick’s, seen as the ultimate representative of both religion and wealth.  What Abarno and Carbone did not know was that Polignani sent pages from their bomb manual down to police headquarters.

Plans were finally hatched in late February to again bomb the cathedral. The men gathered explosive materials at a tenement on Third Avenue then wandering around the church the Saturday before, looking for a more effective spot in which to place an explosive.  Their movements were closely followed by other disguised detectives, clued in by Polignani of the anarchist’s plans.

The new attack on St. Patrick’s Cathedral was planned for March 2nd.  Abarno and Polignani left the Third Avenue tenement that morning with bombs placed under coats and armed with cigars to be used to light the fuses. (Curiously enough Carbone failed to show up; he was later arrested.) They headed towards the cathedral which was filled with hundreds of worshipers in the middle of morning Mass.

Luckily, Polignani had alerted his department of the details of the bomb attack. Waiting for them at St. Patrick’s were dozens of disguised detectives, so many that a Broadway theatrical costumer was employed to fashion the various false appearances.

“Of the fifty [detectives] stationed in the Cathedral,” said The Evening World, “[s]ome were disguised as women worshipers, two as scrubwomen, others as ushers.”

When Abarno  prepared to light the fuse on the bomb with his cigar, one of the scrubwomen “suddenly straightened up and seized [Abarno ] by the arm.” Another detective calmly strolled over to the lit bomb and pinched out the fuse. The Mass went entirely uninterrupted. (Read the breathtaking details of the capture here.)

Photograph shows Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, who were accused and convicted of an anarchist plot to blow up St. Patrick's Cathedral in March 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Photograph shows Frank Abarno and Carmine Carbone, who were accused and convicted of an anarchist plot to blow up St. Patrick’s Cathedral in March 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2012)  George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Polignani kept up the facade for most of the interrogation, and his would-be conspirators were none the wiser.  He argued with Abarno in jail, eventually getting him to talk openly about his involvement (to the delight of detectives who were listening in).  Abarno and Carbone both eventually broke down and were promptly convicted.  They were both sent to Sing Sing in April where they both served six year terms.

Newspapers the following day declared “the episode was the culmination of one of the most intricate pieces of detective work ever achieved by the New York police.”

However the bombings would continue.  The most dramatic incident would take place on September 16, 1920, with a bomb detonating on Wall Street, killing 30 people.


Owen Eagan (1957-1920), a bomb expert in the New York City Fire Department's Bureau of Combustibles. He is holding a bomb recovered from an attempted anarchist bombing of St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York City on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project and New York Times, March 3, 1915) Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).
Owen Eagan (1957-1920), a bomb expert in the New York City Fire Department’s Bureau of Combustibles. He is holding a bomb recovered from an attempted anarchist bombing of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City on March 2, 1915. (Source: Flickr Commons project and New York Times, March 3, 1915)
Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).


Easter fashion parade 1913: Images of the annual stroll, now with automobiles, celebrities and ‘ladies in vermilion’

In the picture above: People in Sunday finery stroll past the New York Public Library building. The library had not even been open two years by the time this picture was taken in March 23, 1913.

New York City’s time-honored Easter custom — the Sunday morning Fifth Avenue Easter bonnet stroll — once turned the wealthiest residents of Fifth Avenue into primping peacocks, their Sunday best on display.   The makeshift parade, which some believe traces back to New York’s Dutch days, blossomed into a full-assault of expensive headwear once the upper crust made Fifth Avenue their home.

Thousands lined the street, either brandishing their most expensive apparel or else to gawk at those wearing it.  It was the closest New York got to a high-end fashion show, with dressmakers parked on the corner, taking notes.  “All the women were slim who could be,” remarked the New York Tribune’s fashion writer, “and a few were who couldn’t.”

But the 1910s brought a new accessory to the Easter parade — automobiles.

A decade before, there were probably no more than 1,000 automobiles in all of New York City. By 1913, there were enough to create what must have been Fifth Avenue’s very first automobile traffic jam.

All the photographs featured here are from Easter Sunday, 1913.

The magnificent Enrico Caruso even participated in the Easter stroll. He looks fanciful in his top hat and a bit like Batman villain the Penguin.

Apparently it was an unseasonably cold day that Easter in 1913 and most society women, braving the chill, wrapped up their fine gowns in heavy wraps and coats of various animal skin.  “Furs and pink noses” was the fashion assessment, according to the Tribune.

Still, in the sea of coats and curious hats, one woman managed to make an impression. “LADY IN VERMILION AN EASTER CUBIST‘ cried the newspaper the following day — on its front page, no less.  “…[W]ho was the young lady in bright vermilion, with lips of a vivid purple, who talked excitedly to hide her shivering as she passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral?”

The New York Tribune ran this banner photograph the following day. (Note the dog in the corner.) Sadly I don’t believe any of these ladies was the aforementioned ‘vermilion lady’:

Of course, there’s still an annual Easter bonnet parade; it’s smaller but far more flamboyant.

Pictures courtesy Library of Congress

Notes from the podcast (#134) St. Patrick’s Cathedral

A spectacle from a hundred years ago: St. Patrick’s in 1912, in a gauze of electric lights. The picture below this post illustrates how this particular light performance made the church standout among the as-of-yet mild landscape of Midtown East. Pictures courtesy the Library of Congress

We hope you like our new podcast on St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Very odd timing to be releasing a Catholic themed podcast, given that Archbishop Dolan is set to turn Cardinal tomorrow and, oh right, the contraception controversy.

The church is closely linked to the history of early Irish New Yorkers. However there were obviously huge bodies of Catholics of other nationalities in the mid-19th century, particularly German Catholics. Archbishop John Hughes himself said that “people were composed of representatives from almost all nations.” That said, Germans Catholics opened their own churches, in particular the Roman Catholic Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, opening in the East Village in 1852, in the new German enclave of Kleindeutschland.

Here’s an interesting read about the 1989 ACT UP protest at St. Patrick’s, from a person who was actually arrested at the protest!

VISIT: The official site for St. Patrick’s has a historical timeline, a map, and information on tours.

MUSIC: The music in this week’s show is from the album ‘O Come Let Us Sing’, featuring the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir and St. Patrick’s organist Donald Dumler. You can find the album on iTunes.

CORRECTIONS: I made a big blunder in this episode. I’ve always prided myself in New York movie trivia, yet I flubbed it in this episode. ‘The Godfather III’ was filmed at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, not at the new one. Sorry for the error.

Speaking of the old cathedral, it’s now a basilica, if you haven’t heard. Although we speak about the original Mott Street cathedral in this episode, you might like to check out our old show (Episode #9). You can tell we’ve come a long way in this podcasting thing!

TIMELINE: We do things a bit out of order at the start of the show, so I thought I’d lay out some of the key dates for you for reference. St. Patrick’s website also has a historical timeline that you can use to follow along. But of the things we speak about:

1801 — David Hosack opens his Elgin Botanical Garden in the vicinity of today’s Rockefeller Center.
1808 — The Diocese of New York is created
1810 — The land where St. Patrick’s sits today is sold to an insurance company, the Eagle Fire Company. One of the trustees of the board is Archibald Gracie. By this time, the Jesuits had already constructed a building on this property.
1813 — Augustin De Lastrange arrives in New York. The following year, he bought the structure and, for a short time, sets up a Trappist monastery here.
1815 — St. Patrick’s Cathedral opens downtown at Mulberry Street.
1828 — The mid-Manhattan land is sold to Francis Cooper, on behalf of St. Peter’s and St Patrick’s, with the intention of building a cemetery
1838 — John Hughes is made a bishop
1850 — The Diocese of New York becomes an archdiocese
1858 — The cornerstone to St. Patrick’s new cathedral is laid. By this time, the controversial figure Madame Restell has already built her mansion across the street, and quite on purpose it seems.
1864 — John Hughes dies
1878 — The ‘Great Cathedral Fair’ is held, raising enough funds to finally complete the structure
1879 — The new Cathedral is officially dedicated
1888 — The cathedral’s distinctive spires are finally completed.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral: Stately grace in bustling Midtown, thanks to a fiery archbishop and a venerable hairdresser

During its early years, St Patrick’s neighbors were luxurious mansions. Today the surrounding streets house retail and tourist attractions. (Picture courtesy Library of Congress)

PODCAST One of America’s most famous churches and a graceful icon upon the landscape of midtown Manhattan, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was also one of New York’s most arduous building projects, taking decades to build. An overflow of worshippers at downtown’s old St Patrick’s demanded a vast new place of worship, even as most Catholic New Yorkers were having an uneasy time due to religious prejudice by angry ‘nativists’.

 Enter ‘Dagger’ John Hughes, the relentless first Archbishop of New York, who hammered the city for equal treatment for Catholics and managed to construct several New York institutions still in existence. Many scoffed at his idea of building a gigantic cathedral so far north of town.

We explore the early years of this once-quiet piece of mid-Manhattan real estate and some of the notable events that have taken place at St. Patrick’s since its opening.

 ALSO: The tale of the revered Haitian hairdresser in the crypt!

You can tune into it below, download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, or get it straight from our satellite site.

Or listen to it here:
The Bowery Boys: St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Notes, corrections, clarifications, sources, and additional information will be posted on Tuesday. Because the set-up was so complex this time around — we bounced around quite a bit between the years 1800 and 1850 — I’ll also have a timeline that can accompany that show.

 Before ‘uptown’ St. Patrick’s, there was downtown St. Patrick’s, the original cathedral which was consecrated in 1815. By the 1850s, with the number of Catholics growing due to immigration, a larger, grander structure was required, one that reflect the congregants’ growing influence. The image below is from St. Patrick’s before the 1866 fire. The facade was rebuilt with less ornamentation.

The land where St. Patrick’s sits today was wooded and sparsely populated 210 years ago. But for a short time, in 1814, a Trappist monastery sat here, the haven of French refugee Dom Augustin de Lestrange.

The undisputed religious leader of New York’s Catholic community was Archbishop John Hughes, whose fierce tenacity — and curious signature — earned him the nickname ‘Dagger John’. He spearheaded the construction of a new cathedral, in an area of town that, in the 1850s, was nowhere near the center of the city. ‘Hughes’ Folly’ would take two decades to build; by the time it was completed, Fifth Avenue had entirely transformed. The Archbishop’s risk had paid off. (courtesy NYPL)

Sunday morning mayhem at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the start of the 20th century. Fifth Avenue became a veritable procession of New York’s wealthiest residents. (NYPL)

An image from the late 19th century. The famous 20,000-lbs. bronze doors, featuring three-dimensional sculptures of saints, would not be installed until a few decades later. (Courtesy NY State Archives)

Inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, during the funeral of former mayor Jimmy Walker, November 1946. (courtesy Life)

Worshippers in 1944, as photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life Magazine.

Another shot of St. Patrick’s in 1909, in one of the last years the cathedral would be surrounded with residential homes. By 1924 it would get its neighbor Saks Fifth Avenue. Fifteen years after that, Rockefeller Center would rise across the street.

What’s the deal with Easter and Fifth Avenue anyway?

Project Runway 1903: Fifth Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral vibrates with fashion.

For well over 125 years, budding fashionistas have been prancing up and down Fifth Avenue on Easter Sunday, displaying elaborate bonnets, hairdos and colorful outfits. Given that modern holiday celebrations are often relatively new (for instance, trick-or-treating has only been a common activity on Halloween since the 1950s), this decorative practice located at this particular spot has displayed a commendable longevity.

And it appears that the bonnet parade is far older than most of the buildings in midtown. After all, people have been dressing up and going to church — and doing so with vanity — since the city was born.

According to a 1905 article in Harper’s Weekly, the display of Easter finery may have begun in the Dutch days along the streets of whatever church was fashionable for the day. By the time St. Patrick’s Cathedral was finally opened in 1879, the wealthiest New Yorkers were already on Fifth Avenue in their townhouses. The cavalcade naturally migrated here, whether the costumed were congregants there or not. With the addition of Saint Thomas Church on 53rd Street (built in 1914), Fifth Avenue became even further inundated with Easter elegance.

Even by 1905, the Easter bonnet parade had become an overwhelmingly popular and even cumbersome affair. “Such a vast number of people come on Easter to see the Fifth Avenue churchgoers walk home from the church that the Avenue, in the Fifties, begins at noon to feel like Park Row at 5 o’clock, when the Brooklynites begin to feel for the Brooklyn entrance.”

The annual Fifth Avenue hat show existed before Saks Fifth Avenue department store, before Rockefeller Center, before any tony Fifth Avenue shops. The affair even influenced fashion for the rest of the year. According to author Nathan Silver, designers and illustrators would flock to the bonnet show for inspiration.

Enjoy your Easter and accessorize with an umbrella this year. Looks like it might rain!

Below: A similar fetching set gathers for the 1908 fashion parade.

Top picture and bottom picture courtesy Library of Congress

So, do we call it St. Patrick’s Old Basilica now?

New York’s original St. Patrick’s Cathedral located in Little Italy — or NoLIta, if you must– just got a serious upgrade yesterday, when the Pope deemed the old, revered Catholic church an officially sanctioned basilica.

A Catholic basilica is a church with ‘certain privileges’, an elite designation where various religious rituals can take place. This is Manhattan’s first basilica, although Brooklyn has two churches that have reached this distinction.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Sunset Park, which gathered its first small congregation in 1893, became the first on November 1, 1969. I don’t know the specific reason why it became New York’s first, but grandeur certainly helps, and Our Lady’s got it, a massive, Romanesque stone behemoth set back and towering above the intersection at 5th Avenue and 60th Street.

The Cathedral of St. James, designated the city’s second basilica in May 1982, is minuscule and modest in comparison, tucked back from the bustle of Flatbush Avenue. Its austerity lies in its history: it’s the first Catholic Church on Long Island, its cornerstone laid in 1822, just as the population of the young city of Brooklyn was exploding.

But the 1820s were not a welcoming era for Catholics in the United States, and a young Catholic Church in Manhattan, dedicated in 1818 for St. Patrick, bore the brunt of New York anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiment in its early years. Although its ornate, showier successor opened in 1879, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral has weathered on. Its distinction as a basilica just underscores its value as one of New York’s most important historical structures still standing.

For more information, check out one of our early podcasts on the history of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. [You can download it directly from here.]

The website of Our Lady of Perpetual Help has a further, very heartfelt explanation of the importance of the basilica designation.

And thanks to our Facebook fan Jarrett Brown for inspiring this post!

Pic courtesy the NYPL digital gallery

Anne Hutchison vs. Benjamin Linus from ‘Lost’!

“Heretic, you are hereby banished from the island!”

I got into my love of New York City history by way of several years of interest in American religious history. So I was personally looking forward to the three-part American Experience series ‘God In America’ (on PBS), which got its start last night. I recommend it overall, although it relies heavily on reenactment techniques you may find distracting.

To be clear, this isn’t about religion in North America, but simply ‘God’, the Judeo-Christian God, by way of our country’s foundation. For instance, Native American religions are introduced and dispensed with in the first ten minutes, during a segment on the Spanish Catholics and their religious clash with the Pueblos.

The first part provides a clean explanation of how Christianity radically changed for the New World, how it was infused with independent spirit and mobilized for the demands of harsh, unexplored terrain. It covers the era of the Revolutionary War (and Thomas Jefferson’s contributions to the ‘freedom of religion’), the spread of Evangelical revivalism, and the early battles between the established Protestants and the Catholicism of newly arrived Irish immigrants.

New Yorker ‘Dagger’ John Hughes figures prominently in this episode, the fiery bishop who fought the city over its requirement of using one particular religious text, the Protestant-friendly King James Bible, in public schools. Hughes made a more visible contribution to New York City with the commission of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

‘God In America’ leans quite heavily upon reenactments, as with the tales of another icon of New York history, Anne Hutchinson. She is no match in her battles with John Winthrop in the Connecticut colony, not so much because of her actual religious determination, but because Winthrop is played by two-time Emmy winner Michael Emerson, best known for the evil Benjamin Linus from ‘Lost’.

And Hutchinson’s story fades before they get to my favorite part — her settlement in New Netherlands in the area of Pelham Bay, Bronx.

Parts two and three unroll over the next two nights. There’s also a one-hour special ‘God In New York’ hosted by Jon Meacham that comes along for the ride, focusing on New York’s unique religious diversity. It features a small recap of the city’s religious history, with a special focus on the Flushing Remonstrance.

First officer down: Highbinder riots at St Peter’s Church

Broadway and City Hall, in 1809. The mobs of the so-called ‘Augustus Street Riot’ would have scuffled just to the west of this illustration. (Courtesy NYPL)

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, there have been 778 New York law enforcement officers who have died in the course of duty. Fourteen of the last fifteen were those men and women who succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses. The last firearm-related death, Omar J. Edwards, came almost a year ago, in a strange, tragic case of mistaken identity.

The official count considers all officers from as far back as 1802 and the days of the New York City watch under the supervision of its renown High Constable Jacob Hays. (See our podcast below for more information.) Hays would be the sole administrator of this early form of law enforcement and would lead the group until the formation of the New York Municipal Police in 1845.

The watch’s first casualty came in 1806. The man’s name was Christian Luswanger, murdered in the line of duty during a very curious riot.

This was still a city shaking off its colonial trappings and still finding its identity. The mayor of New York that year was 37-year-old DeWitt Clinton, the well connected nephew to the former governor of New York and a man with great things in his future. The British had been gone for over two decades, and the city and its port were rapidly growing. But the real jump starts to the city’s economy and expansion — the Erie Canal, the debut of the steamboat, the Commissioners Plan — would come in the next decade.

New York was small but restless. When mayor Edward Livingston formed the night watch in 1801, it required only a handful of men, overseen by a Watch Committee on the city council (or Common Council). By 1806, all watchmen reported to Hays, and the constable reported to the council, who often directly advised on priorities. “The Captains of Watch in the first district [should] be particularly attentive to the neighborhood of Burling Slip,” according to the minutes of one council meeting.

Hays supervised a couple captains for each of New York’s wards — captains with such sturdy names as Magnus Beekman, Nicholas Lawrence, Gad Dumbolton and William Van Wart. Those captains had other men reporting to them, including Christian Luswanger, of which almost nothing is known — regular watchmen didn’t appear in the council payrolls, only the captains — nothing at all, except for the event which took his life. An event sometimes referred to as the Augustus Street Riots*.

In 1806, St Peter’s Church was the only parish in town if you were a practicing Catholic. (The current building, sometimes called Old St. Peter’s, a simple, neo-classical gem near the WTC site, was built over the old structure in 1840.) It’s most famous congregant would be Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be declared a saint.

Built in 1785, the church (at right) was a perpetual target of anti-Catholic sentiment, and violence would erupt here on Christmas morning, 1806. As worshippers gathered for midnight mass, a group of rowdies gathered outside, prepared to disrupt services.

One source, perhaps drawing from a contemporary New York Evening Post article, calls the group of about fifty a ‘gang’ called the Highbinders. However I’m not exactly sure it was any kind of an organized gang. The word ‘highbinder’ would eventually come to mean any kind of gangster and would even be slang for a corrupt politician. The first ‘gang’ of New York is commonly thought to be the Forty Thieves, who wouldn’t surface for at least another twenty years.

Simply consider them a massive of drunken, anti-Catholic thugs — sailors according to one source, “a nativist gang of apprentices and propertyless journeyman butchers” according to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace — all looking to cause trouble. Parishioners ran to get their alderman who eventually broke up the crowd. However they returned the next night — Christmas night — far more incensed, only this time the churchgoers were ready, armed with weapons. Certainly the defenders were not merely parishioners than other Irish immigrants who had heard about the prior evening’s altercation and came looking for a fight.

They got one. The two groups clashed through the street, a few dozen men on each side, travelling from the church’s doorsteps up to the Irish neighborhood in the Sixth Ward — many, many years before it would be called Five Points.

In this melee, the watch were called to quell the violence and arrest the rioters. Jacob Hays may have been there; several of his captains certainly were. Watchman Luswanger was called to join them. Somewhere along the way, a rioter stabbed Luswanger, and the watchman died of his injuries. Apparently, this did nothing but bring more rioters into the chaos.

Diarist William Otter presents a vivid recollection of these events, although he does not mention Luswanger: “The church was surrounded with a motley crew of Irish and sailors…engaged in deadly conflict…..The mob fought from the door of the church to Irish town, being the distance of about a fourth of a mile….A great deal of property was destroyed by the mob and a great deal of human blood shed.”

It took most of the night watch and the light of day to dissolve the rioters. Ten men, all Irishmen, were arrested. The mayor offered a reward for any information on Luswanger’s demise, but danced around firm condemnation of either group. I’m gathering from the lack of evidence that the case of who stabbed the watchman remains unsolved.

NOTE: One of my prime sources on this article states that the watchman’s name was Christopher Newfanger, not Christian Luswanger. I believe the latter is correct, and it is the name officially recognized by the police department.

*According to Forgotten New York, Augustus Street “was later called City Hall Place and in 1941 it was again renamed for Patrick Cardinal Hayes who had died in 1938.”