The Italian nature of St. Patrick’s parish solidified during the first half of the 20th century, in spite of some remaining resistance from the Irish hierarchy within the Church. Although immigration had slowed, those who were already there entrenched themselves firmly, clinging to their roots and creating a culture based around their families, their heritage, and their faith. In some cases this necessitated further negotiation with the Catholic Church. When St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral needed a new parish priest in 1929, the question of whether or not he should speak Italian came to the forefront. Members of the parish sent a petition to the Cardinal, seen below:
For these reasons we earnestly implore you to assign to this parish an Italian speaking priest and preacher of impressive, inspiring personality, who will be able to command the respect and devotion of all in the district, whether Italian or American born.”
~A petition from members of the community to his Eminence Patrick J. Cardinal Hayes, on the appointment of a new pastor to St Patrick’s Old Cathedral, 1929.
The men behind the 1929 petition cited a number of reasons for their request. The most obvious was the recognition of the fact that the entire population was now Italian, “in birth or extraction.” But they also mention that there was great outward movement from the neighborhood as well, particularly among the younger generation. Most intriguing is the idea that an Italian-speaking pastor would attract families living within the parish that did NOT currently attend church, of which (the petition implies) there were many. A related document from the Diocesan Council, dated December 1928, further supports this idea, suggesting that an Italian-speaking priest might “possibly ameliorate the deplorable financial condition of that parish.” Records remain unclear on whether or not the petition was granted, although no Italian names appear on the list of priests tied to that parish at that time.
Inter-diocesan documents from1936 also note a decrease inchurch attendance beginning with the change in immigration law. The correspondence in question notes that there were four churches within the parish boundaries, all serving the same population. Without new immigrants arriving to take the place of others who had moved elsewhere, the population was insufficient to fill The Church of the Most Holy Crucifix, The Church of Our Lady of San Loreto, The Church of the Most Precious Blood, AND St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral parishioner Dorothy Day became well-known as a leader of the Catholic Action movement that emerged during this time. More radical than the majority of her parish, Day is celebrated as a co-founder of the Catholic Worker in 1933. She is currently being considered for sainthood by the Vatican, and her movement, focused on social justice and service to the poor, still provides housing, soup kitchens, and similar services to the poor, homeless, and hungry of New York City.
The images below show the people of Little Italy, leaving church, shopping, and supporting the War effort– fully participating in American society, even as they cherished the traditions and culture of the country their families had left behind.
The people of Little Italy had a strong sense of self-identity, focused on their roots and the towns that they or their parents had immigrated from. This dual existence as American and Italian was crucial to the formation of identity in the area, as was the church. In the words of former St Patrick’s parishioner Martin Scorsese, who grew up in the neighborhood, “You identified yourself by parish. You weren’t from the Lower East Side, you were from Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese attended the Cathedral and the cathedral school as a child. St. Patrick’s appears in several of his films, including “Mean Streets”, “The Godfather”, and “The Godfather III.”
1951 brought new recognition to an old denizen of St Patrick’s cemetery—Pierre Toussaint. An active and influential member of St. Peter’s Catholic Church, who was then buried in the St. Patrick’s cemetery, Toussaint’s name was submitted to the Vatican for canonization by Cardinal Spellman. Toussaint’s case is still underway, but his remains have since been removed to the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue.
Click here for the next chapter in the history of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral!