'An awesome place to pray' Church: St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue has drawn visitors through the century, from the pope from Rome to city dwellers right across the street.

Sun Journal

November 24, 1996|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Every day at noon, attorney John Fogarty slips out of his office at Rockefeller Center and walks across Fifth Avenue to St. Patrick's Cathedral to receive communion and spend a moment in prayer.

He has been attending the noon Mass long enough to have learned to tune out the sounds of the tourists shuffling in the aisles. He says he doesn't think much about the historical and architectural significance of St. Patrick's. "To me, it's church," he says, rushing down the cathedral steps to return to work.

Then he stops, reflecting for a second about what he has just said, and recants.

"It still takes my breath away," he says. "When you think about it, it's a pretty awesome place to pray."

St. Patrick's Cathedral -- an entire city block, with glistening marble walls, 17 saints altars and 71 stained-glass windows -- was the largest cathedral in the United States when it was completed in 1879.

Its founder, Archbishop John Hughes, was following the tradition set by Roman Catholics of the Middle Ages, by building an ornate house of worship to reflect the magnificence and majesty of God.

"The idea was to create a place that gave the feeling of transcendence," says Duncan Stroik, a professor of architecture Notre Dame University.

"Cathedrals were designed to be places to get us out of ourselves and into a higher realm and closer in touch with God."

St. Patrick's Cathedral is on Fifth Avenue at 51st Street, surrounded by office towers and high-priced shops.

Pope Paul VI, in the first visit by a pope to the Western Hemisphere, prayed here.

Pope John Paul II prayed here during trips to the United States in 1979 and 1995.

The Dalai Lama addressed 5,000 people at an interfaith ceremony here in 1979.

Archbishop Hughes and James Renwick, the architect, chose the Gothic cathedrals of France as their model.

The great cathedrals at Chartres, Rheims and Amiens were archetypes of Gothic -- soaring arches supporting peaked ceilings, flying buttresses supporting thin exterior walls.

So St. Patrick's would be a 19th-century rendering of 13th-century Gothic, and be filled with religious art imported from Europe or made in an imitation of Renaissance styles.

The lower tier of stained-glass windows was made in Chartres; the upper tier in Boston.

The rose window, 26 feet in diameter, was the masterpiece of stained-glass artist Charles Connick, who depicts the faces of angels in the eight petals of a rose, the petals symbolizing the eight Beatitudes given by Jesus during the Sermon on the


The main doors are solid bronze, weighing 4,000 pounds and depicting figures important to the start of the Christian mission in New York: St. Isaac Jogues Martyr, the first priest of New York; St. Frances Cabrini, who worked to help impoverished immigrants; and Kateri Tekakwitha, a woman called the "Lily of the Mohawks," who was ostracized by her people after she became a Christian.

About 3 million tourists a year visit the cathedral -- the crowds shuffling in and out of the aisles of the cathedral's sanctuary and giving it the same feel as the traffic-snarled streets outside.

"It's a very active church, and it's going to get more active during the holidays," says Thomas Young, the cathedral's volunteer archivist.

"Shoppers from as close as Brooklyn and as far away as Europe come here to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, then they stop in here to say a prayer."

"I come to New York about two times a year and I always come to St. Patrick's," says Marta Colon, a 56-year-old visitor from Puerto Rico whose arms are loaded with shopping bags.

"It's a moving experience," she said. "That's why so many people come."

The cathedral has been an important attraction since the day the cornerstone was laid in 1858. At the time, New York barely extended beyond 23rd Street; at 51st Street there was mostly open space. Members of Hughes' congregation wanted their cathedral closer to the heart of the city. But Hughes chose this site.

The 51st Street property was affordable -- Hughes paid $11,000 -- and the archbishop foresaw the explosive growth of the city. Large numbers of Irish Catholic immigrants were already arriving in New York. Hughes predicted that by the time St. Patrick's was finished, it would sit at the center of New York.

"It turned out to be a brilliant decision," says Stroik.

Renwick, the architect, worked five years on the plans for the cathedral. On Aug. 15, 1858, Hughes led a ceremony to lay the cornerstone. More than 100,000 people attended.

"They say that on that day, all the trains in New York went uptown only," says Young, the archivist. "Everyone wanted to see the beginning of what was going to be the biggest church in the country."

St. Patrick's, named for the patron saint of Ireland, was dedicated in May 1879 in a ceremony that lasted from morning to sunset and made front-page news across the country.

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