Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Old St. Patrick's Cathedral Becomes a Basilica

The altar at Old St. Patrick's.
The umbrella presented to the church, signifying its new rank as a basilica.
A closer shot of the altar
Another shot of the organ.
The organ.
A Chinese family that wished to take their picture with me.
A shot of the crowd during the reception.
Another shot of the crowd.
That skull on a cell phone that is common on condemned buildings.

This past week I got an e-mail from the Hibernians that Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Mott and Prince Streets in Little Italy, was being upgraded to a basilica, an honor sometimes given to important churches in a city, making Old St. Patrick's the Pope's official church in New York. Completed in 1815, it's unique-looking because it has no windows in the front, and high walls guard the graves on either side, a reflection of the anti-Catholic sentiment at the time, as rioters would destroy the stained-glass, and at one point nativist mobs even tried to burn the church to the ground. Despite its centrality to early Catholic life in this country, the Archbishop said that while filling out the paper work to apply for basilica status, he needed to prove that the church was still an active and important house of worship, and the Archbishop noted that despite all it's history, this church was not a "museum", but a "living, vibrant parish", as could be seen by the hundreds of Chinese faithful who packed the sides of the church, while some important guests took up the pews.

I was hastily given the job of an usher and a green, white and orange sash, and told to seat a well-dressed older Chinese woman in pew 5. She was with Father Jonathan Morris, who often appears on Fox News. I knew I recognized him but didn't say anything ... then I took the obviously important Chinese woman 5 rows to the back of the church instead of the front. My mistake. I just told her it was my first day here. I tend to say that a lot.

Anyway, it was a little unorganized as I had to guard two pews for Hibernians marching in the procession, trying my best to stop a whole slew of octogenarians who were trying to sit there, most of them with canes, one of them even blind. I didn't exactly feel comfortable asserting my authority over these people, and nobody was really going to listen to me anyway. But even though the Hibernians and Knights of Columbus bickered for a little while over who needed to sit where, and that two seats in the second pew needed to be saved for Justice Scalia and his wife (who I don't think showed up), eventually everything got settled just in time for the ushers to start spreading the word to each other that the Archbishop was coming through the door at any minute.

I stood in the back throughout most of the service mainly hoping that I wasn't in the way, until the head of the Hibernians asked me to go up to the front of the church so that I could help supervise the filing out at the end. So I walked up the center aisle alone during the closing prayer while the Knights of Columbus flanked me, about twenty on each side, a bunch of old guys in full uniform and swords drawn. When I got to the front of the church I made sure not to trip or fall backward or anything because I knew everyone would see me but at the end of the service Cardinal Egan came up to me and said, "Thanks for coming."

Next was off to the reception, where I went straight for the buffet table because I hadn't eaten all day. The place was packed and the line barely moving, and unfortunately prevented me from talking to Archbishop Dolan again. By the time I spotted him, he was already leaving. He gave a general wave in my direction and then a cop escorted him out the door.

I did meet Cardinal Egan, though. He was signing programs, and luckily had time for one more. He said, "So tell me about yourself."

Now, I knew I'd get about thirty seconds to talk, so I tried to make it count. "Well, Your Eminence, I'm with the Hibernians, I'm the Division 1 Historian, and I'm happy to be a part of all this. This is a great church with a lot of history." (Or something like that.)

He signed my program and then said, "And off we go." And quickly walked out the door with a priest. He had said something similar the last time I saw him ... he's obviously coached.

While wandering around the reception, a Chinese woman who barely spoke any English and had two small children came up to me and gestured to a camera. I thought she wanted me to take a picture, but soon realized that she wanted her four-year-old son to take a picture of her with me. The lady obviously thought I was more important than I really was. Her son could barely work the camera, taking a couple of pictures of the ceiling, so I suggested that someone get a picture of all of us.

On a side note, after I left, I saw a big picture of a skull talking on a cell phone, on a dumpster outside the Puck Building. I was surprised to see it because I'd seen the same picture on the side of McGurk's Suicide Hall, at 295 Bowery near East 1st Street, which was unable to receive landmark status and was demolished in 2005, but around the turn of the twentieth century prided itself as being "the roughest joint in town", a very dangerous dive bar where at least five back-room girls killed themselves by drinking carbolic acid.

I've added a video here that I found on YouTube of a news report of the ceremony, but, no, I wasn't able to spot myself.

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