Here in New York City, we have an incredible wealth of historical and cultural sites to visit. As an osteological supply company, we take a special interest in how human remains are displayed, curated, and talked about. At the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (usually shortened to “Old St. Patrick’s”) the cemetery and catacombs are a fascinating view into the history of immigration, religious freedom, and political history in the city of New York. We were privileged to attend tours of the catacombs and cemetery as part of our initiative to visit local death-culture exhibits.
Old St. Patrick’s is the original Archdiocese of New York City, and as such has been the religious home and final resting grounds for many luminaries of the Catholic faith. To be interred in the catacombs of Old St. Patrick’s was a distinction that came with large donations to the congregation, and as such, some of the most influential founding New York families have family crypts in the catacombs, or graves in the cemetery. One interesting fact we learned on the tour was the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery. A graveyard is attached to a church, while a cemetery is not. Old St. Patrick’s cemetery is called such because it existed before the basilica had been built. Other important terms discussed were the meaning of “cathedral” versus “basilica.” A cathedral is a church led by a bishop, whereas a basilica is a distinction given by the pope to a large and important church.
Old St Patrick’s was built from 1809-1815 in what is now the “Nolita” area of Manhattan (a term invented by a real-estate company to describe the area North Of Little Italy) in what was originally outside the original settlement of New York City. As the city grew around the church, the area became a refuge for many immigrants. Now, as prices have sky-rocketed in the area, and the orphanages and schools run by the Catholic Church have shut their doors, the area has become a deeply desirable and expensive locale.
The tour featured the stories of several historical figures that shaped New York City, and Catholicism.
One such figure was Pierre Toussant. Toussant came to New York by way of Haiti, as an enslaved person. His owner’s allowed him to be trained as a hairdresser, which was one of the few professions enslaved people were allowed to have in that era. His skill was widely appreciated, and his client base was huge and illustrious, including individuals such as Elizabeth Schuyler, the wife of Alexander Hamilton. Eventually, he was able to amass a fortune for himself. His owner gave him the opportunity to buy his freedom, but he refused so that he could afford to buy the freedom of others. He eventually was released from slavery, but continued to work well into his elderly years to buy the freedom of enslaved people, and to better the lives of black people in early New York. He also heavily funded the construction of the church. His remains were originally interred in the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s alongside his wife and daughter. But Toussant’s incredible charitable works were noticed by the Vatican,and after being declared “A Servant of God '' in 1991, his remains were moved to the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral (previously an honor reserved for clerics) and in 1996 he was declared Venerable by Pope John Paul II, and is on his way to being declared a saint. His legacy of charitable works and tremendous personal sacrifice, in a hostile and oppressive society, are worthy of remembering.
Another important figure was that of Jean Dubois, an Episcopal priest who led the congregation rather unpopularly during 1826-1837. As a French-born person, his English was perfect, but heavily accented, and this was disliked by his congregation during a period of heavy anti-immigrant sentiment. As the bishop of New York, it was his right to be buried in the catacombs of the church, but it was his wish to be laid to rest under the sidewalk at the front entrance of the church so that people could “walk on me in death, as they wished to in life.” The ultimate passive-aggressive move, his grave remains there to this day.
Another important leader was Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes. Called “Dagger John for his sharp critiques of politicians and leaders, Hughes was born during a time of extreme persecution of Catholics in Ireland. He leaned into this characterization by signing his name with a cross that was slanted to resemble a dagger. His family was impoverished, and he came to the United States seeking religious freedom and economic empowerment. Working as a ditch-digger, he sought to gain an education at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland, only to be turned away. It was through the advocacy of the first American-born saint Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton that he was finally able to receive an education, and join the priest-hood. Dagger John viewed education as necessary for the advancement of Irish immigrants in the United States, and is actually responsible for religion being removed from public schools, due to his objections of it being taught with Protestant bibles. Dagger John is also responsible for the fortification of the church. A tall brick wall extends around the basilica grounds, due to the virulent anti-Catholic anti-Irish sentiments of the time. When an anti-Catholic mob threatened to burn down the church, Dagger John told the mayor at the time he would burn the city down if a single member of his congregation was harmed. The mob never arrived at the church, and Dagger John cemented his position as a formidable leader. He went on to found what is now Fordham University, and worked to promote Catholic education. His remains, once housed in Old St. Patrick’s, were also moved to the new Cathedral.
The catacombs of the church also represent interesting histories. Most crypts were retroactively sealed due to a city-wide ordinance after a pandemic erroneously believed to be caused by bone fragments entering the water system. But these stone walls hold much history. From clergy who in previous Catholic tradition would have remained unnamed in an unmarked grave that were moved to be housed in a marked crypt, to the crypt of Countess Anne Leary (a distinction given by the Vatican, not by noble birth), to the early prominent families of New York who were wealthy enough to donate significant amounts to the parish thus securing their family crypts, these catacomb halls were filled with amazing stories.
Some interesting facts we learned were that anyone with a period after their name represented the last of their bloodline, the final space for a crypt has been purchased for several million dollars, one crypt is decked out with lights by Thomas Edison himself, and some crypts have had to be cracked open to inter more family members.
The cemetery and catacombs are still active, meaning people are still being interred there. A space in the columbarium (a place where cremains are put to rest) can be reserved for any practicing Roman-Catholic of good character. The church is also well-known for their spring visitors: three sheep from the town of New Paltz who are driven down to graze on the cemetery grounds. The church has an active congregation, and people can attend services or confession there.
This tour is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the history of immigration in America, and appreciate the death-rituals of American Catholics. We highly recommend it for anyone in the area!