Not long before I graduated elementary school, I remember going to church with my father. He was an usher at Sunday’s nine o’clock mass, the same one I attended with my eighth grade class, and when he came to my pew, he always managed to give me a nudge with the collection basket. That morning, we’d arrived early and stopped in the churchyard while my father had a cigarette. He asked me if I knew why most churches have fences around them while ours had a high wall. The wall was red brick, so old that it sagged and leaned. He told me that early in the church’s history, the wall was used for protection against Protestants who wanted to burn down our church. In defense, some parishioners lined up along the wall with guns, he said, while others stood on the surrounding roofs ready to throw cobblestones onto the attacking gangs. My father learned the story through neighborhood oral history which he passed on to me.
At that age, the story really caught my attention. Old Saint Patrick’s wasn’t just a church; it was a fort. It made me think of the John Wayne westerns, like Fort Apache or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I had been brought up on where the cavalry held off Indian attacks. This was just as exciting and made it clear that my church had a history. It went back to a violent time when it wasn’t safe to be a Catholic.
After I learned the facts of the incident, I went to examine the surface of the brick wall. I was curious to see any remaining traces of the loopholes that were made for the muskets. It was a clear day, with the sunlight skimming across the wall and showing its rough texture. There were irregularities like discolorations in the mortar and slight variations in the brick, but after almost two centuries of weather and brick erosion, I couldn’t be sure.
Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in lower Manhattan was my childhood parish and the church where my parents and grandparents were married. The church’s Catholic school, which was the oldest in the City, began as the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum in 1817, and stood across from the church on Prince and Mott Streets. Founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton and her Sisters of Charity, the school initially served generations of Irish families. During my years there, the enrollment was predominantly Italian, and subsequently comprised of Puerto Rican and then Chinese children.
The brick building, which replaced the wooden original, like Old Saint Patrick’s, is a New York City landmark. The school is still standing, though it closed recently due to low enrollment. Times change and so do demographics. There are now fewer Catholics and fewer traditional families with children in that area. On a recent visit to Mott Street, I noticed an antique shop had opened in a classroom that had its own entrance from the street. I went in and the shopkeeper asked if I needed any help. “I’m not shopping,” I said. “I just wanted to see my fourth grade classroom.”
“Feel free to look around,” she told me, and asked what it was like before.
“The desks are gone but everything else was looks the same,” I said and added that through the shop’s rear window, I could look into the schoolyard where we used to assemble before class.
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The mother of a friend I grew up with had died. She was close to ninety, and I hadn’t seen her since I was in my teens, but there I was at her funeral as a show of respect for my friend.
The last time I was at Saint Patrick’s as a devout Catholic, I was in my early teens. Back then there was a stand of votive candles in the rear of the church dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. I would donate ten cents, light a candle with a taper and say a prayer while gazing at the painted plaster bas-relief above. The carving depicted souls in human form writhing in flames. The prayers were meant to shorten the time the dead spent in Purgatory. I had been taught that a good Catholic shouldn’t fear the spirits of the dead, or even his own death, but since then I had drifted away from religion.
In a meadow that was once a Catholic graveyard, the cornerstone of the first Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was laid on June 8, 1809. Three thousand people, both Catholic and non-Catholic witnessed the ceremony.
Old Saint Patrick’s was first established as a graveyard, after the congregation of Saint Peter’s, the city’s first Catholic Church, outgrew its cemetery. In 1801, through purchases and donations, lots were accumulated for a Catholic cemetery outside of the city, on what would eventually become Mott Street. At the time, the location was referred to simply as “the meadows between Broadway and the Bowery Road,” the only points of reference when other north-south streets were yet to be surveyed. The new Catholic graveyard stood between these two thoroughfares, a locale considered relatively convenient because Prince Street connected them.
I grew up on that same block of Mott Street, passing the church and graveyard every day on my way to and from school. Back then, the neighborhood around the church was known as Little Italy. I didn’t have to travel far, with my friends and classmates, school and church all nearby.
In its early days, the church would have been situated outside the city. The early initial settlement of Manhattan began at the East River at the southern end of the island and initially progressed westward toward the Hudson or “North River,” as it was called then. The land north of what would later become Canal Street was an area of forests and meadows, dotted with small farms and estates of the rich.
On paper, surveyors laid out what would become Catherine Street, later known as Mulberry Street, at a slightly askew angle. According to Stokes’ Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498 -1909, the rear wall of the church follows the western boundary of what was once the Tucker Farm. As a child I often played on there, but never noticed its misaligned position until seeing an old Sanborn map. On a recent visit, as I compared the rear doors at opposite ends of the building, the angle was clearly visible. On the Mulberry Street side of the church, the door nearest Prince Street stands about two feet within the graveyard wall, while the door at the other end of the building protrudes onto the sidewalk. This exists today because of the boundaries of a Dutch farm that was there over four-hundred years ago.
In a guidebook of 1828, the cathedral’s roof and tower is described as “a most conspicuous object approaching the city from the east.” It goes on to say that on the façade, “…niches are left open for statues that are to be placed.” As a child I recall seeing that they were obviously empty and asking my parents what was missing from those hollows. They told me that as far as they knew, there was never anything there. The niches remain empty today.
According to James Hart, who was the assistant sexton in 1820, the area around the church was still wild enough for a fox to be caught hiding among the gravestones. During my childhood, the only wildlife there were sparrows nesting in the trees. Although a schoolmate, Paulie, once told me he saw a turtle in the north graveyard from his kitchen window. I didn’t believe him until one morning when the sexton left the door in the graveyard wall open, we slipped in early and I saw it for myself. It was a sunny day in early spring and the ground was spongy from recently melted ice and snow.
“Do you suppose it crawls under the church to stay warm?” I said.
“Yeah, maybe it hibernates. I don’t know, but he looks like he had an accident.” Paulie pointed to a small crack in the turtle’s shell. “I think we should get some peroxide and a bandage,” he said.
We were kneeling down beside the turtle, reaching cautiously as if to examine our patient.
“What are you kids doing here?” The sexton, Mr. Russo, grabbed us by our collars. He was tall and angry, and from our vantage point we directly faced his pants tucked into high black rubber boots.
“We didn’t mean any disrespect. We were just looking,” I said. “That turtle’s got a crack in it.”
Russo loosened his grip on our collars and bent down to take a look. “You can stay a little while but don’t come back,” he said dryly. “That turtle will heal on its own.”
An unofficial use for the north graveyard, at least when I was growing up, was a nighttime playground. When we were still students at Saint Patrick’s School, we would climb into the graveyard at night from an adjoining backyard to play tag or hide-and-seek. This was traditionally done around Halloween with the older boys goading the younger ones. We hid behind gravestones and climbed the trees. I don’t think any of us really enjoyed it, we were too scared. We never went into the south graveyard because it was under the windows of the Prince Street Convent convent on Prince Street where the nuns who taught us at Saint Patrick’s School would have been able to see us. We were more afraid of them than we were of ghosts and goblins.
In the mid-nineteen fifties the parish decided to build a youth center on land abutting the graveyard on Mulberry Street. The builders must have accidentally disturbed a grave because bones were found in the excavated soil. It was drizzling that day. I’d been dismissed from school and instead of going home, went to the Mulberry Street entrance of the graveyard, where some high school boys told me I’d see the bones. Workman had left a big pile of reddish soil on the street. Someone pointed out what looked like pieces of wood stained red by the soil and protruding from the pile. I had never seen bones before. A kid nudged one of them with the toe of his sneaker and it rolled onto the pavement. Startled, all of us jumped back, but we were more curious than scared. We began to move in for a closer look when some adults saw what was happening and went to the church to get one of the priests. Soon Father Principe arrived with an altar boy carrying a folded white cloth, and we were sent home. I was later told he went through the dirt, gathering all of the bones, wrapped them in the white cloth, and took them to the rectory. Unofficially, it was said, that the remains were those of Bishop Dubois, the third bishop of the Diocese of New York. They couldn’t have belonged to Bishop Dubois because his grave was under the entrance at the Mott Street side of the church. This fact, which didn’t become commonly known until much later, did nothing to discredit the story that he has since haunted the rectory, hiding the shoes of the parish priests who live there.
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Not all of the interments at Saint Patrick’s are in the graveyard. There are also vaults under the church. During the Cold War in the Fifties and Sixties, when air raid drills were common, it was simply “duck and cover” under our desks, but other times the school marched quietly across Prince Street to an iron door set into the ground in the churchyard. It opened to expose a stone stairway that led to the catacombs under the church. As we descended, the atmosphere became cool and damp and bore a faint odor of incense. We lined up two by two, in class order, filling the dimly lit corridors between the vaults. Except for our footsteps on the stone floor, it was silent. Crosses were cut into the walls above the locations of the vaults and large stone plaques indicated the names of the dead priests interred there. These plaques were mounted over the entrances of each vault, like doors which could still be opened. We stayed long enough to recite a rosary praying “for the conversion of Russia.” The nuns told us the Russians were atheists and needed our prayers, and our Hail Marys echoed through the corridors.
Not too long ago, I had the opportunity to revisit the catacombs. The sexton led a small group of preservationists on a tour. We entered through a narrow staircase under the altar, rather than by the familiar stairway beneath the iron door in the churchyard, and I became disoriented. The lighting had been modernized, and I was able to see the tomb markers clearly. I came across a relatively new one, with Monsignor Tomasso carved into it. He was the parish pastor when I was a child. I hadn’t thought of him in years. I remembered him singing Latin hymns at mass in his beautiful baritone voice, and there I was, standing next to his tomb. We eventually came to the iron door, but it appeared to be rusted closed. The sexton explained it was scheduled to be repaired and would be a more convenient entrance for future tours. I was amused to think that a place I remembered as holy and solemn was on its way to becoming a tourist attraction. The sexton revealed to the other tour-goers that I had grown up in Saint Patrick’s parish, and I told them about praying for Russia while we waited out the air raid drills. An elderly woman visiting from a preservationist organization in Connecticut joked that if any bombs were dropped during a real air raid they would have been Russian bombs. The preservationists were there for history, not religion.
When the tour ended, the group left, but I stayed alone in the churchyard looking at the fortress-like wall surrounding the grounds.The wall had been built for protection at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment in New York was high. My father learned this from his father, an Italian-Catholic immigrant. My grandfather, in turn, was told the story by Irish-Catholics who heard it from their fathers who had come to New York years before. Standing in the churchyard, I thought of the generations that had passed through Old Saint Patrick’s and the number of births, weddings, and deaths recorded there, my family’s included. Despite its age, the wall was still formidable.
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Robert Iulo has a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from New York University. His work has appeared in Culinate, Deep South, Epiphany Magazine and he has had a special feature published in the Mississippi Sun Herald about his volunteer work on the Mississippi Coast after Katrina. He lives in New York City with his wife.