The Other St. Patrick’s

25 03 2008

Last week was all about St. Patrick’s Day debauchery (and a very winsome horse). This week I have a different St. Patrick’s in mind, the one I visited over the weekend.

On Friday afternoon, I’d just dropped off my last “waitressing resume” of the day at a cute Nolita cafe, where the somewhat frazzled and very grumpy manager gave it a cursory once-over, and then asked my availability before brusquely informing me that he’d be calling people on Monday for interviews (translation: “I’m not interested in hiring you so get out of my sight.”) After much the same success all day, and with aching feet and whirling head, I self-pityingly plodded my way along Mott street on the way home.

But my dreams of a nice glass of wine and some self-indulgent chocolate came to an abrupt halt when I saw a lovely church in the middle of Mott Street. Still not having decided where I would go for Easter Mass, I decided to get closer and see if it was Catholic. Not only was it Catholic, it was Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a landmark about which I’ve been curious for a while. The facade is nothing much as far as cathedrals go (St. Patrick’s having burned down in a fire in 1866, was hastily rebuilt in two years and thus gave up its grand facade), but the inside is lovely. It’s similar in style, though not in scale, to the larger and more famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral and there is something so warm and welcoming about it that I decided I would attend Easter mass there.

On Sunday I journeyed out of my way to attend mass at the new special church, and was not disappointed. Not only did the priest give a beautiful (and well-appointed given my weekend bout of self-pity) sermon, but the music was lovely (some unseen and very rich male voice) and the church itself a friendly place. It was a stark contrast from my experience when my mother visited last year and requested that we attend mass at the lovely, sacred St. Patrick’s. The awe-inspiring interior and spectacular sense of place waned a good deal with the lector gave a speech before offertory about how much one should pay when the basket came around. Not only was the “price” of mass exorbitant, I found it slightly distasteful to have said anything at all: yes, there were many tourists in the church who may not understand mass, but it almost felt like this mass was yet another overpriced trip to the top of the Empire State Building.

Not so at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, where the vaulted ceilings and ornate altar are augmented by a larger sense of community and history. At the final blessing, the priest welcomed all those Easter-only attendees and told a little about the church, mainly that its cemetery and crypt house the ancestors of those in the area, and probably many of those among us in the congregation. This was particularly apropos given that entering the church that very morning I had noticed a plaque on the door memorializing someone named Louis Russo, possibly of no relation but I like to ponder some distant bloodline.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was the second Catholic Church in the U.S. and has a long and tumultuous history, which includes persecution of its people (who fought to protect it), a fire in 1866, and a cameo in one of America’s favorite movies, The Godfather. In its cemetery are buried many of the heroic men from its early Irish parish, who fought in the 69th regiment of the Civil War Battle of Bull Run (the only regiment that didn’t flee). Over time Italian immigrants populated the area and the parish became less Irish, but today it is a mix of all, mostly Italians, Dominicans, and a large enough Chinese following to warrant a Chinese-language mass.

Whatever its parish, it is a lovely landmark with a rich history, and perhaps one of the most overlooked attractions in the city. For more on the church’s fascinating history, check out this very thorough (and entertaining) podcast by my friend and former employer Tom and his partner Greg, otherwise known as New York’s history podcasters extraordinaire, The Bowery Boys.

Lesson learned: The St. Patrick’s on 50th is breathtaking, and definitely a sight to see, but next time the parents visit I’m taking them to the original. (For those also wanting to visit, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is located on the corner of Mott St. and Prince.)



One response

25 03 2008

I love this entry! Can’t wait to see the newly discovered old church. Now Dad and I have more incentive to get to NY quickly. May I suggest that next you write about your Spanish speaking endeavors? Love ya. Mom

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