Urban Decline: 1962-2000

The second half of the 20th century was a difficult time for the city of New York socially and economically. A 1962 newspaper article on the parish revealed that it was “hard put to make ends meet” due to declining membership, while a 1976 article describes a sexton who “carries handcuffs on his belt and a walkie-talkie that links him to the local precinct.” Catholics of the 1960s and ‘70s were also coming to terms with the radical changes instituted by Vatican II, and St Patrick’s was faced with more change on top of that, as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 triggered new waves of immigration from Asia and South America.


St. Patrick’s High Altar, with communion rail, 1939.

basilica altar

St. Patrick’s High Altar post-Vatican II, sans communion rail.

The Second Vatican Council resulted in a great many changes for Catholics in both the way they worshipped and the way they lived their lives. The priest now conducted mass facing the congregation and encouraging them to participate, no longer separated by a communion rail like the one pictured above, which was torn down. Masses were also now delivered in the vernacular, to make them more accessible to parishioners. Although St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral had historically made an effort to provide priests who spoke the language of the congregation, this change made that effort even more crucial to the church’s ability to serve its congregation. It also increased the inherent difficulties of serving a multi-lingual community– the church now needed to offer different masses for different languages, increasing the priests’ workload. Documents show that St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral began offering Spanish language masses as early as 1970.

Prior to 1965, US Immigration laws operated under a quota system, limiting the number of immigrants allowed from any given country. The system favored immigrants from northern and western Europe and excluded African and Chinese immigrants entirely. The new legislation opened the doors to an influx of Chinese and Dominican newcomers to the neighborhood, who were then faced with the challenge of learning how to live in their new country.

Reflecting the Church’s new commitment to involvement of the laity, as well as the presence of a new group in the community, the financial statement St. Patrick’s issued to the parish in 1971 was translated into the dominant languages of the community- English, Italian, and Spanish.

“I love our Old Cathedral, it is in my heart. It is the cradle of the Catholic Church in N.Y. I would appreciate you going there and renovate[sic] it. It is in bad need.”

~Terence James Cardinal Cooke, Archbishop of New York, when assigning Monsignor Marinacci to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in 1970


Monsignor Nicola Marinacci

Monsignor Nicola Marinacci immigrated to New York in 1949 at Cardinal Spellman’s request, to serve the Italian-speaking population of the diocese. He became pastor of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral in 1970, where he worked closely with the school, and dedicated himself to the education and support of the children of the parish. In 1978 he was commended by Cardinal Cooke for his ”efforts in the parochial school” as well as his work with the different ethnic groups in the parish.

Cardinal Cooke sent Monsignor Nicola Marinacci to Old St Patrick’s in 1970 with a mission, a long overdue renovation of the Cathedral. Thanks to the Cardinal’s encouragement, the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the new cathedral, on 5th Avenue) contributed a majority of the cost, which eventually amounted to $200,000.00. In spite of their own socioeconomic difficulties, nearly $37,000 was collected from parishioners in the form of individual “Memorial” contributions to help pay for the restoration and beautification of their house of worship.


The school, too, was showing signs of economic hardship. As of 1985 it maintained a staff of 20 teachers, only 4 of which were nuns. All of the students were eligible for free or reduced price lunches, indicating the economic hardship prevalent in the neighborhood at the time. Another report from 1986 only strengthens this impression, claiming that involvement in the Parent Teacher Association was limited because “people are afraid to come out at night because of neighborhood problems.” Another report from that era cites the school’s location as a factor in frequent teacher turn-over, indicating the neighborhood’s poor socioeconomic condition.


A classroom in the Cathedral School, circa 1992. The financial reports sent out to the parish in 1980 were in English and Spanish only, indicating that the Italian contingent had become less prevalent. The parish school reported that 55% of their students as of 1985 were Hispanic, 32% were Asian, and 2% “White”.

Fr. Andrew Thi

Fr. Andrew Thi

As evidenced by the changing demographics of the Cathedral School, the 1980s saw a marked influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States. This was in part due to the People’s Republic of China’s removal of emigration restrictions in 1977.  Many of these newcomers came to the area of New York traditionally known as Chinatown, causing its borders to expand, and bringing them into contact with St. Patrick’s.

Father Andrew Thi was born in Canton, China, and was sent to St Patrick’s Old Cathedral in 1985 as parochial vicar, a collaborator or agent of the parish pastor. His presence allowed St Patrick’s to better serve its increasing Chinese community, offering Chinese language masses, Bible study groups, and other community services, including English classes. These services are still offered today, and continue to ease the transition of new immigrants to America.




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