The role of St Patrick’s Cathedral changed drastically between the 1840s and 1879, primarily due to a change in demographics. The Irish Potato Famine brought a huge influx of poor, Catholic Irish to the city of New York, many of whom looked to St Patrick’s and its new archbishop, John Hughes, for help facing the rising tide of anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant feeling spreading across the country in the decades leading up to the Civil War.
The Cathedral School was a key institution for these new immigrants, providing children with both academic training and social skills intended to help them adapt to the American cultural milieu. It frequently suffered from a lack of adequate funding. Hughes fought to gain government funding for parochial schools, and when that effort failed, constructed a privately funded and parallel parochial school system instead. By the end of his tenure as archbishop in 1864, the New York Diocese had established 31 free schools, and another 67 existed in the neighboring dioceses of Albany, Brooklyn, and Buffalo.
The 1840s school controversy was essentially a battle for funding between the Catholic parochial schools, championed by Archbishop Hughes, and the Public School Society, originally incorporated as the New York Free School Society, which held a monopoly on both schooling and government funding in New York City. Though the Society professed to be secular, favoring no religion over another, in practice these schools leaned heavily towards Protestantism. Catholics protested the exclusive use of Protestant Bibles in class, as well slighting references to Catholics within school textbooks. Bishop DuBois had offered to serve as a liaison between Catholics and these Public Schools, in exchange for supervisory privileges over teachers and textbooks. Although this proposal was refused, the Public School Society did offer to review the textbooks and delete any offending passages. These conciliatory gestures were insufficient for Archbishop Hughes, who ultimately chose to pursue government funding for a separate, Catholic school system. He was supported for a time by Governor William Henry Seward, who believed that the education of America’s newly arrived immigrants was essential to their becoming American citizens, and should be provided in whatever language or religious faith was necessary for them to accept it.
The school controversy triggered an outpouring of anti-Catholic feeling in Protestant publications and pulpits across the city. Hughes’s political involvement led to hysterical cries of a “Romish plot to unite church and state.” This provoked and reflected rising nativist feeling across the United States, epitomized by the growth of the American Party, or “Know Nothings,” a national political movement that proved active between 1845 and 1860.
“If a single Catholic church is burned in New York, the city will become a second Moscow.”
~Archbishop John Hughes, following the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia
Violent outbreaks against Catholics increased through the mid-nineteenth century. The 1844 riots in Philadelphia led to the burning of two churches and 12 Irish Catholic deaths. Those responsible planned a similar rally in New York City, which was canceled following a show of force by Archbishop Hughes and the Irish Catholic volunteers he gathered together to defend the Cathedral.
The Civil War further complicated relations between the Irish Immigrant community and their fellow Americans. One of the most visible outbreaks of these strained relations were the Draft Riots of 1863. Irish immigrants under attack by Nativists like the Know-Nothings competed with African Americans for jobs, and these existing tensions were magnified when the Union passed the Enrollment Act of 1863, enacting a draft which excluded African Americans. Irish Americans objected to that exclusion, as well as to the controversial practices of substitution and commutation. Riots broke out in New York City, and the mob targeted the wealthy, Union supporters, and African Americans. The Colored Orphan Asylum on W. 44th St was burned to the ground. Although its inhabitants escaped safely, at least 11 other African Americans were brutally killed, as well as 108 other victims, mostly rioters. The riots continued for four days, until Federal troops arrived and were dispersed throughout the city to keep the peace.
The Church’s role and stance in this tumultuous era is complicated. There are documented cases of many Catholic priests throughout the city holding back the mob from further destruction, of both African American and Protestant homes, churches, and people. Archbishop Hughes left his sickbed to speak out against the riots, though only after extended pleading from civil authorities. Though he did not espouse the violence of the riots, Hughes was a staunch supporter of the Union and the draft, and considered soldiering a patriotic and religious duty. When requested by President Lincoln, Hughes went abroad, attempting to prevent European support of the Confederacy. As was the case with the School Controversy, his continued involvement in the political arena was not met with universal approval by the Church, and some credit his involvement in the Civil War for his failure to attain the rank of Cardinal.
Though Hughes declared himself to be anti-slavery, he and the Church also opposed the abolitionists, claiming that Northern interference was not the most effective method of ending slavery in the South. They were also perhaps afraid to speak out more strongly and risk further endangering the Catholic Church’s unstable position in America.
The land on which St. Patrick’s sits was originally purchased by St. Peter’s parish in 1801 for use as a cemetery. When the Cathedral was built in 1809, any graves within the building site were moved to other locations on the property. Over the next several years the property grew, and a network of family crypts was completed beneath the church. In 1833 a new cemetery at 11th St replaced St. Patrick’s as the primary Catholic cemetery in the city, but when St. Peter’s expanded in 1836, it was St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral that received the displaced remains. St. Patrick’s purchased land for burial in Queens in 1847, and the first burial in what is now Calvary Cemetery took place the next year, though the old cemetery continued to see use by people like Pierre Toussaint, buried 1853, who possessed family plots. Today Calvary Cemetery covers 365 acres divided into four parts, with the largest number of interments in the United States.
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