It’s hard to think of NYC as a particularly religious city, let alone a Catholic one. But contrary to popular belief, plenty of New Yorkers worship the almighty God along with the almighty dollar, with Catholics making up the largest sect of the city’s religious folk. According to data from the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of New Yorkers identify as Catholic. Thirty-three percent, aka 2.9 million people out of 8.8 million, is a far cry from New York being a second Vatican City, but Catholicism has a surprisingly sizable presence throughout the five boroughs. That being said, allow me to take you on a tour of some of the city’s most notable Catholic sites in this Catholic’s guide to NYC.
St. Peter’s Church
22 Barclay Street
Don’t let the gray facade fool you. This FiDi church has a backstory that is far from dull. Originally built in 1785, St. Peter’s Church is the first Catholic church in New York State. There were Catholics in New York years before, but anti-Catholic sentiment made it dangerous and, for a time, illegal to openly practice Catholicism. The founding of St. Peter’s didn’t result in the end of anti-Catholic hostilities in the city, but its existence was a major milestone in NYC’s Catholic history.
When you’re there, check out St. Peter’s 9/11 memorials along the front and the side of the building. And make sure to look inside the church too: the facade may be gray but the interior is a vibrant work of art.
Mother Cabrini Memorial
Battery Park City Esplanade
St. Francis Xavier Cabrini is celebrated all over NYC with a shrine, park, street, and mural all named in her honor. But I think the most fitting memorial to this patron saint of immigrants is her Battery Park statue, which faces Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty from across New York Harbor. The Italian-born saint crossed those very waters with the majestic Lady Liberty in view when she arrived in New York in 1889. Her mission in New York was to help poor Italian immigrants who were arriving in the U.S. in massive numbers. By the time she died in 1917, Mother Cabrini and her team of religious sisters had created 67 schools, hospitals and other institutions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, all dedicated to helping immigrants get their footing in the U.S. For her work, Mother Cabrini is honored as the first U.S. citizen to be canonized as a Catholic saint. For a visual representation of her life, be sure to note the carvings that surround the Mother Cabrini statue.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Shrine
7 State Street
A ten-minute walk down Battery Place from the Mother Cabrini Memorial will take you to a charming red brick building which houses a shrine to the first American-born saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton. Don’t be confused by the signs for Our Lady of the Rosary Church; the shrine is within the building. In fact, this picturesque church, now out of place among Lower Manhattan’s glass skyscrapers, sits on the land Seton herself lived on during the early days of the American republic. The materials in the shrine will teach you about Seton’s short but full life, during which she founded the U.S.’ first Catholic school for girls and the nation’s first congregation of religious sisters, all at the expense of losing her social standing as an upper class New Yorker. (To be “acceptable” to New York’s upper class in the 18th and 19th centuries, you had to be an Episcopalian.)
The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral
263 Mulberry Street
Pour one out for this church because it has seen some things. The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, also called Old St. Patrick’s as to not confuse it with Midtown’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, is the second-oldest Catholic church in NYC. Built between 1809 and 1815, Old St. Pat’s initially served the large Irish immigrant population that lived in this part of lower Manhattan for much of the 1800s. Due to extreme anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment during that era, Old St. Pat’s and its parishioners were attacked by nativist groups on multiple occasions. The church’s defenders even cut holes into its outer wall so they could aim their muskets at their attackers. That same wall that protected the parishioners nearly 200 years ago is still standing today. But that’s not the only interesting thing about Old St. Patrick’s. Deep underground in the belly of the church are catacombs, an underground cemetery that can hold the remains of 35 families. Several notable New Yorkers have made the catacombs their final resting place, including Congressman John Kelly, Countess Annie Leary, and members of the Delmonico family. Say hello to them when you take a Catacombs by Candlelight tour.
Father Duffy Square
Seventh Avenue and West 47th Street
The center of Times Square seems an odd spot to honor a priest, but for over 80 years this has been the site of the larger-than-life memorial for Father Francis P. Duffy, a theater-loving war hero. Born in Cobourg, Canada in 1871, Father Duffy ran a Catholic theological publication before becoming an army chaplain during the Spanish-American War. He reprised that role at the onset of World War I, serving the soldiers of the Fighting 69th, a predominantly Irish American army infantry regiment from New York City. Father Duffy was devoted to his soldiers, often making his way to the front lines to tend to the physical and spiritual needs of the wounded and dying. For his service, he was honored with numerous awards from both the U.S. and French governments, making him the most decorated cleric in U.S. army history. After the war, Father Duffy wrote a memoir called “Father Duffy’s Story” and served as the pastor of Holy Cross Church near Times Square from 1920 until his death in 1932. (The placement of the memorial makes more sense now, doesn’t it?) Though it’s 17 feet tall, it’s easy to overlook Father Duffy’s bronze memorial among Times Square’s technicolor tornado, but take some time to scan the QR code on the sign near the statue to hear Father Duffy tell his story himself.
St. Malachy’s Church
239 West 49th St
They say when in Rome, do as the Romans. Well, when in the Theater District, do as the thespians. For over a century, St. Malachy’s Church has been as much a part of the Theater District as the performers are. According to the church’s bio, it was a run-of-the-mill Catholic church until 1920, when the neighborhood transformed into the Broadway Theater District we know and love. St. Malachy’s embraced the neighborhood’s new demographics by altering its mass schedule and other church activities to accommodate the theater workers’ lifestyle. The church is still a significant part of the community, as it is tradition for performers to go to St. Malachy’s on opening night to light a candle for the success of their show.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
St. Patrick’s Cathedral makes a statement, and I’m not just talking about its stunning Gothic Revival design. Conceived of and built in an era where anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiments were rampant, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was not only a larger place of worship for the city’s growing Catholic population; it was also a testament to the dignity of Catholics in the city and nationwide. (Or in laypeople’s terms: it was an FU to the haters.) These days, around five million people a year, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Take a guided audio tour of the massive block-long building narrated by Timothy Cardinal Dolan and then stick around to experience daily Mass, which is given at multiple times throughout the day.
The Met Cloisters
99 Margaret Corbin Drive
Founded by devout Baptist John D. Rockefeller, Jr and his friend George Grey Bernard in the 1920s, the Met Cloisters might appear to be an odd choice to put on a Catholic’s guide to NYC, but if you set aside the history of the institution and instead think about the history of its contents, you’ll find that the Cloisters, a museum of medieval art, is one of the most Catholic things in NYC. Medieval art was primarily religious in its nature, and the dominant religion in Europe at the time was Catholicism. What’s more, the museum building itself is a reconstructed French monastery. Between the castle-like architecture, the gardens, and the hundreds of depictions of saints and biblical scenes, a visit to the Cloisters will feel like a religious experience.
Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto
831 Mace Ave
Who would have guessed that you could find holy healing waters in NYC, let alone in the Bronx? But lo and behold, right in the churchyard of St. Lucy’s Church in Allerton is a beautiful replica of the renowned Our Lady of Lourdes grotto from France. According to St. Lucy’s website, parish priest Msgr. Pasquale Lombardo took a trip to France and was so inspired by the shrine in Lourdes that he had a replica built in the Bronx. Since its completion in 1939, people have been making the pilgrimage to St. Lucy’s to seek the Virgin Mary’s intercession and to collect the holy water coming from the 39-foot stone cave. There is no shame if you want to fill up a jug with the holy water. Everyone does it. And while you’re there, make sure to view the church’s replica of Scala Sancta behind the grotto.
I hope this Catholic’s guide to NYC enlightened you, spiritually and otherwise. If there are any other notable Catholic sites that you think I should add to the list, please share them in the comment section.
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