The cornerstone of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral was laid in 1809, and it opened its doors to the public on May 4, 1815. As the first cathedral and second church in Diocese of New York, created by Pope Pius VII in 1808, St Patrick’s played a crucial role in the growth and development of the city’s Catholic population over the next two hundred years. St Patrick’s congregation began as a small group of Irish, French and German immigrants, all more or less well off and accepted by New York’s native-born Protestants. By 1850, however, the congregation consisted of a significantly larger, poorer, and less assimilated post-famine Irish immigrant population. Their very presence seemed to threaten social order and provoked considerable unease within the growing metropolis.
“The Congregation chiefly consists of Irish, some hundreds of French and as many Germans; in all according to the common estimation of 14,000 souls.
~Fr Anthony Kohlmann, reporting to Rome, 1808.
St Patrick’s was constructed on Mott and Mulberry St in 1809, in what was then the outskirts of the city. Designed by Joseph Francois Mangin, the completion of the building was owed to a number of fundraisers and charitable contributions from the community, including Protestants and members of the only other Catholic church in Manhattan, St. Peter’s.
Catholic New Yorkers prior to 1809 were administered by the geographically distant Diocese of Baltimore. A dearth of clerical supervision meant that the laity exerted considerable control over parish affairs. This caused some tension at St Patrick’s between the laymen traditionally charged with the upkeep and worldly concerns of the church, known as trustees, and clergy assigned to the church. During the diocese’s early years these two factions often clashed over topics such as the raising and distribution of funds, and the hiring of teachers for the Cathedral School. The school was founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1817, the order’s first mission since its founding by New York City native Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in 1809.
Initially founded as an Orphan Asylum which then grew into a free school offering a basic education to the surrounding immigrant community, St Patrick’s School helped to assimilate many waves of immigrants into American society. The school existed on charity, receiving no government funding; a fact that would play a major role in the “Education Battles” that arose in the 1840s.
St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum, Prince St., New York City, originally constructed in 1826 as an orphanage and free school, rebuilt after the fire of 1837. Although there have been a number of additions and renovations over the years, the exterior has changed very little. The building became The St. Patrick’s Convent and Girl’s School in 1886, and was declared a Historic Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966 as one of the last Federal Style institutional buildings in New York City.
“You have no idea of the importance of the free school attached to the cathedral.”
~Archbishop John Dubois to Mother Rose White, Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity, regarding the necessity of the Cathedral School following the school building’s destruction by fire 1837
Bishop John DuBois had guided the Church in New York during it’s early years, but frequently faced resistance from his mostly Irish congregation, who saw him as an outsider due to his French parentage. In 1842, Bishop DuBois passed away, and his coadjutor, Bishop John Hughes, became the new leader of the Diocese of New York. He would become a well known and controversial figure in the years to come, championing the rights of Irish Catholics in New York and firmly establishing the Church in the fabric of America.
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