Walking Through the Catacombs of St. Patrick’s in Little Italy [PHOTOS]

Posted on: July 11th, 2018 at 5:00 am by

Photo: David Bergman

When walking around New York City, you can take in a whole different world if you just stop texting, get off Instagram, remove your Beats headphones and, instead, look up and down to notice the smaller details of the city: gargoyles carved into buildings, plaques set into sidewalks, mosaics wedged into odd places. But what about about taking it a step further and looking underground?

That’s where you’ll find the only catacombs in Manhattan (and one of the very few in the US) – underneath the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral (aka, Old St. Patrick’s) in Little Italy. But, you’ll need a little help getting inside. When we heard that Tommy’s New York was giving tours, we jumped at the chance for a peek.

Thomas Wilkinson of the eponymous Tommy’s New York started the tours last year, when the Monsignor of the cathedral told him about the catacombs. It became a hit. Wilkinson and his guides now do three tours a day, seven days a week, averaging about 100 people a day.

Photo: Lori Greenberg

The tour includes the history of Old St. Patrick’s, the interior of the Basilica, the cemetery and, of course, the catacombs.

Wilkinson started with an introduction to the history of the neighborhood, describing the tour as “a tale of New York immigration, through the lens of early New York Catholics.” Then our tour guide Leo took us through the rich and fascinating history of the institution itself.

Built between 1809 and 1815, the Gothic Revival style church was designed by Joseph-François Mangin, a co-designer of City Hall. It was the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York until the current Saint Patrick’s Cathedral opened in 1879.

Photo: Phil Collis

With its storied history, the building was designated a New York City landmark in 1966, and the cathedral complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. It was declared a minor basilica – the only one in the country – by Pope Benedict XVI on March 17, 2010.

From both guides, we learned about an attack on the cathedral in the 1830s by the Nativists, who were also known as the “Know Nothings,” an anti-immigrant political party, which at the time meant anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, and xenophobic. The Bowery Boys, a notorious Nativist gang, was also known for fighting the Five Points gangs, including the Dead Rabbits. (If you have read or seen the film Gangs of New York, you know that the Bowery Boys were led by the infamous “Bill the Butcher.”)

We learned how the Ancient Order of Hibernians fought off the Nativists using muskets, which they poked through the cemetery’s brick walls, constructed to defend the church. Those walls were used as a fortress against more than one attack.

Photo: Lori Greenberg

Leo took us through the cemetery, showing us specific gravestones including that of Pierre Toussaint (1766 – 1853). The Haitian born Toussaint was a slave, but made a fortune as a hairdresser (his clients included Eliza Hamilton). He was able to pay for the freedom of his family and help many others, leading to his becoming venerated: a step on the way to sainthood. Joking about the next steps, Leo quipped, “So, if you see any miracles while you are here, please let us know!”

We toured the church, learning about, among other things, its history of hosting the first operas and the first orchestras in America. In a more contemporary part of its history, the baptism scene from The Godfather was filmed here. (Fun fact: Sophia Coppola was the baby.) We got an up-close look at the 1868 Henry Erben pipe organ. A fundraiser to restore and repair the organ has been started by Martin Scorsese, who served as an altar boy at Old St. Patrick’s.

We moved on to the catacombs where, in the darkness, we held electric tea lights. Leo told us the history of many who are buried in the vaults, each of which can hold up to twelve people. (Once the vaults are full, they are sealed shut.)

As Leo projected images of the luminaries of old New York who are buried here, we learned about many of them, including the members of the Delmonico family (Delmonico’s was the first restaurant in New York, inventing dishes such as Eggs Benedict and Lobster Newburg), “Honest John” Kelly who was a boss of Tammany Hall (he was the successor to Boss Tweed, and it is said that Kelly’s nickname was more ironic than truthful), Countess Annie Leary, and Thomas Eckert, an advisor to Abraham Lincoln.

Photo: Lori Greenberg.

The only vault we could enter, since it’s not yet sealed, was Eckert’s. It’s decorated in a luxurious style of the era, with tiles by famous engineer and designer Rafael Guastavino  (who created the arched, tiled ceiling downstairs at Grand Central, as well as in the Municipal Building), and light fixtures by Edison and Co.

One vault is still up for sale. It fits nine people, and it can be yours for only $7 million.

We’ve only scratched the surface of the wealth of history offered in the tour, so you should see it for yourself. You can find more information about the Catacombs by Candlelight tours here.

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