Facebook has learned my preferences pretty well by now, and they knew to send me an ad for a “Catacombs by Candlelight Tour”. Ooooo! Sounds spooky and interesting, I thought. Said catacombs belong to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the northern section of New York’s Little Italy (now the area more specifically known by real estate developers as “NoLita”). That’s right, “Old” St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Not to be confused with the “new” St. Patrick’s Cathedral near Rockefeller Center.
So, of course, we went to check out the tour last month. It’s offered exclusively by Tommy’s New York, and our fantastic tour guide was a guy named Mike. We met up in one of the buildings across the street from the cathedral and at first, we were a little concerned to see the size of the crowd. Fortunately, though, they broke us up into two smaller groups. The other group went to visit the church first and then headed to the catacombs after. And our group started with the catacombs and then visited the church at the end. Either way, don’t panic if you see 50 people when you show up for the tour or worry you’re going to miss anything. You’ll see it all!
History of Old St. Patrick’s
So, “Old” St. Patrick’s is actually the “first” St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC and it’s also the second Catholic church in NYC. The first Catholic church is St. Peter’s, which had acquired the land where St. Patrick’s is now to use as a free-standing cemetery in the late 1700s. In 1808, the archdiocese of New York was formed and since there was now a bishop overseeing New York, a cathedral needed to be built. Thus, St. Patrick’s came to be in 1815, and it served as the early seat for the bishops of NY.
Sadly, though, a fire in 1866 wiped out the interior of Old St. Patrick’s. The new cathedral uptown was already being built at this time to accommodate an expanding congregation, and so the seat moved uptown while Old St. Pat’s was rebuilt and refurbished over the next two years. The cathedral did get back up and running, though, and is still an active parish today. It was even given status as a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
It was also in 2010 that its associated school closed due to low enrollment. Parts of the building that housed the school (and formerly an orphanage) have since been sold and, in typical NY fashion, have been converted to condos, since St. Pat’s is located in what is considered one of the most expensive neighborhoods in NYC today.
Back when it was built, though, St. Pat’s was located in one of the poorest neighborhoods, as it was on the northern end of what’s known as the Five Points. The church became the center of all the gang violence in the area, and anti-Catholic gangs threatened to burn it down. You can still see the original wall that had been built around the cathedral to protect it from rioting and vandalism. In fact, there was so much tension between the various groups in the neighborhood that the Irish and the Italians wouldn’t even hold mass together and would worship on separate floors of the church. Once St. Pat’s in Midtown was completed in 1879, much of the Irish population started moving uptown while the Italians remained downtown (hence Little Italy).
Even if you don’t know much about NYC history, though, you’re probably at least familiar with Five Points if you’ve watched Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. Scorcese grew up in the neighborhood and attended church and school at St. Pat’s, so clearly he had an interest in the area and its history. (You may also recall from one of my earlier posts that he even paid to have a headstone placed in Green-Wood Cemetery for Bill the Butcher, who was the inspiration for the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. Oh, and scenes from The Godfather were also filmed inside St. Pat’s, on Scorcese’s recommendation.)
So, remember above when I mentioned that Old St. Pat’s once had a fire and that it took two years to rebuild? Yeah, well, it turns out the tour is in fact NOT by candlelight but by LEDs in the shape of a tea light. They’re a bit touchy about the whole candle thing since the fire in 1866 was apparently caused by a candle falling over…
When you come from outside and walk downstairs to the catacombs entrance, you’ll see the original perimeter wall of the church and you’ll also see some of the remnants of burnt wood from the 1866 fire. (This area below was actually the space where the Italians used to worship while the Irish were upstairs in the Cathedral itself having mass.) Once we all had our “candles”, our guide, Mike, opened the doors….
And…not so spooky.
We were expecting to see old stone and marble walls and that everything would be all dark and a bit mysterious, but the catacombs are in a fairly modern-looking hallway, complete with “Exit” signs and plywood walls. So, unfortunately, that brought the intrigue level down a few notches for us, but the tour was no less interesting otherwise! (Also, we toured on a Sunday, and when mass let out, you could hear a lot of noise overhead which DID give everything a bit of an eery feel until we figured out where the noise was coming from!)
We started our tour in the central tunnel of the catacombs where you’ll see the cryptstones for about 33 different families’ vaults, which can hold up to 8-12 people each. Several of the families who have vaults here were some of the original benefactors of the church. There are also various vaults for priests, bishops, and nuns (not together, of course). And this is also where you’ll see the vault of the DelMonico family, known in NYC for their steak and for introducing the world to Eggs Benedict and Baked Alaska…YUM!
Next, we moved to the north passage where we saw the clerical vaults for priests, including two of the last teachers from St. Patrick’s School. One of whom, Monsignor Marinacci, died at the age of 103(!) and was buried here in 2014. In addition to being a priest and teacher, he is also known for helping children escape and hide from the Nazis during WWII.
We then moved on to the south passage where we saw what was to be another clerical vault for priests but which is now for sale for the bargain price of $7 million for anyone who would prefer to use it as a family vault instead. This is also where we had an opportunity to go inside one of the vaults, that of General Thomas Eckert, who it turns out was a good friend of Abraham Lincoln and whose desk was used to write the Emancipation Proclamation. This vault is 2-3 times the size of all the other vaults and includes Guastavino tiles, as well as original Edison lighting fixtures. Eckert is buried here with his wife and her parents, but all the rest of the vault space is currently empty.
After concluding the catacombs part of the tour, we headed back upstairs and walked through the graveyard to get to the front doors of the cathedral. Most of the names on the stones are Irish (though there are also many more that are unmarked), and though they no longer bury anyone in the graveyard, there are now places to bury cremains. We entered the cathedral and were able to look around a little, but as it’s still an active parish, we headed up to the choir loft to get a better view and so that our guide could speak with us all a bit more without disturbing those praying quietly in the pews below.
The cathedral is stunning, and Mike told us about the beautiful pillars, which are, interestingly, made out of hollow cast iron. He pointed out where Al Pacino stood while being filmed attending a baptism in The Godfather, and he also showed us the massive pipe organ with its 2,500 pipes. When it was originally used in the 1800s, it required two people to play since at least one person needed to crank a wheel in order to get the bellows to work! We also had an opportunity to walk around behind the organ and pipes and see its inner workings, which was a highlight of the tour for me.
And with that, our tour came to a close. We enjoyed learning a bit about St. Pat’s history, (especially since we had been unaware that it was the predecessor of the huge cathedral uptown) and we liked the bits of info they shared about the neighborhood and what it was like in the 1800s.
As for the catacombs themselves, the history and details were interesting, but they had a more modern and clinical feel than we were expecting. Which, in hindsight, makes a lot of sense because, obviously, things have changed a bit in the last 100-150 years when it comes to how to properly store one’s remains. So, if you’re looking for spooky, this isn’t it, but if you’re looking for interesting NYC history and want to see a beautiful 19th-century cathedral, go check it out!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral: Tour check-in is at 32 Prince Street, New York, NY 10012
- You will meet at one of the church’s buildings across the street and NOT at the cathedral itself. Check-in is across from the graveyard on Prince St., between Mulberry St. and Mott St.
When to Go
- Tours are offered several times a day, seven days a week. Check Tommy’s New York’s website for their daily schedule.
Tips for Visiting
- This is a history tour–not a ghost tour. It’s incredibly interesting, but if you’re looking for super spooky this ain’t it!
- That said, it IS a dark, enclosed space, which may not be super appropriate for young children and/or anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.
- I’d recommend wearing sensible footwear since you’ll be walking around in the dark and there are also several spots in the catacombs where the floor is uneven.
- Our tour had to work around the mass schedule and this could impact the amount of time you can spend in the cathedral and where you will be able to visit. To avoid this, schedule your visit outside of their mass schedule.