Rather than write about the church my family attended, I would like to write about one that has inspired and uplifted countless Irish Catholics, as it still does. I’m talking about venerable St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, through whose doors millions of Catholics have passed and prayed and found solace.
The year was 1847 when James O’Hora, my great great grandfather, joined the mass of people fleeing famine and disease ravaged Ireland. They washed ashore all along the North American coast, but primarily, as James did, at the port of New York. Entering the harbor was an overwhelming experience for a rural populace, with ships as far as the eye could see and crowds of people and tall buildings looming in the distance. Many of those exhausted immigrants stepped onto Manhattan’s South Street wharves alone.
But not quite all alone. Thanks to a New York Bishop named John Hughes, known as Dagger John in some circles for his militant style. Six years earlier he had helped found the Irish Emigrant Society to offer assistance to the newly arrived Irish. Himself born in Ireland in 1797, he had experienced firsthand the mistreatment of Catholics when his younger sister Mary died and English law forbade a priest to preside over her burial, a travesty he would never forget. To escape that persecution John’s father brought the family to America in 1817. John entered the seminary in 1820 and was ordained in 1826.
After serving in the parishes of Philadelphia, Father Hughes was consecrated a bishop in 1838, a time when anti-Catholic nativists held sway. They considered Catholicism a backwards, superstitious religion and the devotion of its adherents to the Pope a threat to liberty. Protestant fundamentalists weren’t shy about trumpeting those beliefs in their newspapers and books, stirring up so much fear and hatred that burnings of Catholic churches and convents became commonplace. Catholics were a decided minority at that time, but they had something better than numbers, they had Dagger John on their side. He was determined that Irish Catholics in America would not become the second class citizens they were in their own country.
Bishop Hughes hit the ground running. He saw the immigrant’s need for an education were they ever to get ahead, and he tried to secure funding from the city, the same funding Protestant schools were already receiving. After being rebuffed he stated, “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward, in our age the question of education is the question of the church.” By the end of his career his diocese held over 100 schools providing solid Catholic educations, along with hospitals and orphanages.
But his biggest challenge came in 1845. With the failure of the potato crop in Ireland, the floodgates of immigration opened. Fortunately, Bishop Hughes was a man ahead of his time and precisely the right man for this time. In addition to the Emigrant Society he started numerous neighborhood parishes and outreach programs. He helped create mutual aid societies, brought the St. Vincent de Paul Society into the city to aid the suffering poor and worked tirelessly to find employment for his flock.
The influx from the famine quickly swelled the number of Catholics in the city and in 1850 New York was made an archdiocese. Rome wisely also made John Joseph Hughes its Archbishop. Around this time, Archbishop Hughes, began to dream of a cathedral, a grand one built and funded by New York Irish, one to raise their morale and sense of self worth. On August 15, 1858 a crowd of more than 100,000 gathered at a building site that at the time was far outside the city. They were there to witness the laying of the cornerstone of the new St. Patrick’s. Only a fraction of the needed funds had been raised, but the Archbishop was a determined man. Unfortunately, the cathedral’s construction was halted by the Civil War and not finished until 1879, long after Archbishop Hughes’ death in 1864. He never saw his cathedral completed, but the mind’s eye of such a visionary man surely did. At the dedication Mass on May 25, as an act of respect, John Cardinal McCloskey had Archbishop Hughes' coat of arms hung over St. Patrick's doors.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral... just saying the name conjures up reverence and awe, the majesty of faith and the human spirit; along with a sense of belonging to something more powerful than ourselves that will go on long after ourselves. It was exactly what was needed at the time it was conceived, and today we still need it; for exactly the same reasons.