“The noblest temple ever raised in any land to the memory of Saint Patrick, and as the glory of Catholic America.”
—Newspaper praise for St. Patrick’s Cathedral when it was formally opened, May 25, 1879
The nobility that the newspapers wrote about certainly includes the stained-glass windows of New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, located on Fifth Avenue between East 50th and East 51st Streets. This is across from Rockefeller Center and Saks Fifth Avenue. There are 94 stained-glass windows, not completed until the 1940s. Charles Connick of Boston; Paul Woodroffe of Chipping Camden, Great Britain; Henri Ely of Nantes in Brittany, France; Nicholas Lorin of Chartres, France; and Charles Morgan of New York created them.
Stained-glass windows, originally explaining Biblical stories to a population that was illiterate, are meant to be “read” from bottom to top, rather than from left to right, as a book is read. The story always begins with the image at the bottom of the left hand side.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, known as ‘America’s Parish Church,’ welcomes more than 5 million visitors each year. Some come to pray and light candles; others attend mass; and another group tours the impressive art and architecture of the Gothic-style cathedral.
The Cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of New York, currently Timothy Cardinal Dolan. It is the largest Gothic-style Catholic cathedral in the United States, and has been acknowledged since its founding as a center of Catholic life in this country.
In 1858 it was New York’s Archbishop John Hughes idea to build a new cathedral outside the main residential area of a growing metropolis. Originally surrounded by open land, within 20 years its neighbors would be the mansion townhouses of New York’s wealthiest families. Many of the the city’s upper crust were Episcopalian, having a grand papist church, dedicated to an Irish saint, was a bitter pill for them to swallow. They co-existed peacefully for 50 years, until, beginning in the 1920s their palatial residences were sold off, and replaced by skyscrapers.
It was meant to replace the first St. Patrick’s Cathedral, used today as a parish church at Mulberry and Prince Streets. Although the cornerstone was laid in August of 1858, work had to be suspended during the Civil War for lack of labor and materials. America’s first cardinal, John Cardinal McCloskey, saw that work resumed in 1865. Work continued under Archbishop Michael Corrigan, who added the towers on the West Front in 1888 and began the east addition.
The man we celebrate today, Saint Patrick, and whom we associate with Ireland, was not a native of the Emerald Isle. He was born in Britain when it was under Roman rule; he was brought to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. He escaped but would return, bringing Christianity to Ireland. He explained the Holy Trinity using the three leaves of the Shamrock. The celebration has been going strong since Patrick’s death on March 17, 461.
Read about a secular use of stained glass at Stained Glass, For the Law and Learning; and discover the building those windows are housed in when you take our Greenwich Village Walking Tour.
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT © PHIL DESIERE 2016