The plan of the Latin cross cathedral occupies an entire block. It is 120 meters long and 53 wide. Inside, the height of the vaults is 34 meters. It is still the largest neo-Gothic cathedral in North America and can accommodate approximately 2,200 people.
A cathedral of light imprisoned in a forest of skyscrapers. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral pinnacles and pointed arches suddenly appear between the smooth vertical walls of the buildings that crowd the center of Manhattan. And the church seems almost a mirage.
Instead, it has been there since the end of the nineteenth century, a striking icon of an architectural current born from a style born when the discovery of America was still far ahead.
St. Patrick’s Location
The foundation stone was laid on August 15, 1858. Perhaps Archbishop John Hughes, an Irishman who had earned the nickname “Dagger John”, “John stiletto”, dreamed of a cathedral that would rise to the sky like the Virgin in the Assumption day. And he chose the bold lines of the neo-Gothic for the seat of the new archdiocese, which was to be the largest and most beautiful in all of North America.
Back then, there was little or nothing about Midtown Manhattan we know today. An inhospitable place on the outskirts of New York, where only barren land and poverty proliferated. Archbishop Hughes, however, against all expectations of his contemporaries, saw us right and sensed that the city would grow there. Today St. Patrick’s, nestled between Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue, is just one block from Rockefeller Center and is in the center of the triangle formed by Times Square, the United Nations headquarters and the south side of Central Park.
For many years after his consecration, the New Yorkers called that grandiose stone vessel that floated in a wasteland “the folly of Hughes”. To build it, the archbishop had not only emptied the coffers of the archdiocese and raked everything possible through fundraisers and a “cathedral fair” that lasted two months, but he had turned against “the city that mattered”, formed by a ruling class of Protestant faith who contested the compatibility of Catholicism with the free and republican spirit of the United States.
But Dagger John was a tough nut to crack and he wasn’t intimidated. And on one occasion that remained famous, he even went so far as to threaten the mayor. In the 1950s, the Catholics of the United States were composed almost entirely of Irish immigrants who had just landed, poorly supported by a large group of Protestants who had arrived in the New World a few generations earlier. A real historical movement called Nativism arose, which opposed the installation of newcomers even with violence.
Thus, when two Catholic churches were set on fire in Philadelphia, Hughes did not hesitate to warn the first citizen, a nativist sympathizer, that “if even one church in New York had been set on fire, the city would have become a second Moscow.” The archbishop was referring to the war meaning of the phrase “scorched earth”, a strategy put in place by Russia in 1812 to leave only the conquest of an expanse of smoking ruins to the Napoleonic troops entering Moscow.