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St. Patrick's Cathedral: A sanctuary in New York City

By Dorothy Delgado Novicio Published Mar 12, 2023 8:54 pm

As the Catholic faithful observe the season of Lent, it is quite fitting to take a look at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is one of the most iconic structures in New York. The more than 160-year-old church with spires towering in Gothic splendor is what my Muslim friend describes as the most beautiful building she has ever seen in the heart of Manhattan. She told of how she spent almost half a day admiring the details and exploring its elegance.

While it is a holy ground for Catholics, there is something very universal and unifying about the church. It is not only a place of worship, but a haven for the tired and the weary, a refuge for the seeker, and a stop for the harried shopper. It is also an attraction to curious tourists (throngs of them visit every day), a picture-perfect spot for selfie buffs, and a center of awe and grandeur for people of different faiths and nationalities. This I observed from the comings and goings in the church, as necks crane, phone cameras snap, and appreciative eyes stare tirelessly at the walls, ceiling, nave, or the center altar. This flurry of activities intermingles with hushed conversations, muffled prayers, or subdued sobs. 

A view from the nave: One weekday shortly before Mass, children from a Catholic grade school visited Cardinal Dolan.

On a day when New York was draped in sub-zero temperatures, I saw a middle-aged woman with her dog tucked comfortably among her belongings in one of the huge pillars reinforcing the church. Once shortly before a weekday mass, the usher patted a man who must have peacefully slumbered in the pew. On one occasion, security politely called the attention of a man who carelessly took pictures of the Lady Chapel also known as “a sanctuary within a sanctuary,” which lies at the rear of the cathedral. Maybe he was unmindful of the huge sign that cameras are strictly prohibited in the area or he was simply captivated by the magical sight. One time, a young lady received Holy Communion with a poodle popped under her jacket.

The rhythm of life inside St. Patrick’s undeniably mirrors the pulse of New York and America as a whole. It is a place of tolerance, where a toddler’s giggle harmonizes with angelic hymns echoing from the choir loft. It is where visitors meander respectfully in gentle cadences and worshippers earnestly pray. Here everyone comes as a wanderer, a pilgrim in the land of endless possibilities and promising opportunities. It is here where faith in oneself and faith in a Higher Being are deemed essential to achieving one’s dream or perhaps where one’s unbelief is confronted.

Looking at the enchanting ceiling is like looking up at the heavens.

When I see tourists read the framed hagiographies of Catholic saints–from the 19th-century mystic Saint Sharbel Makhlouf to the modern-day Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta–in whose honor the side chapels of the enormous cathedral were built, I am filled with ardent hope. A wish that visitors would also learn a lesson or two on love and peace, kindness, and compassion from these models of altruism and charity. 

On Sundays, parishioners walking along Fifth Avenue scurry as the church bells toll to signal the beginning of mass. His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York, celebrates the 10:15 a.m. solemn mass at St. Patrick’s every Sunday. A rock star in the Catholic fandom, Cardinal Dolan exudes an inspiring and towering presence not only because he is over six feet tall but because as he walks calmly to the altar at the start of the celebration, the congregation goes abuzz. Sometimes he stops by a pew to bless a chuckling baby carried in her father’s arm or he waves at a yawning boy. At times, he halts to simply greet a family with a beaming smile as he gestures the sign of the cross. He often punctuates the rather solemn processional to personally reach out to his flock, which probably gives his security detail the jitters. 

The elevated pulpit where Cardinal Dolan or any priest celebrant delivers his homily and where readings are done on Sundays

The effervescent prelate shares concise and compelling reflections about the gospel and readings and on universal themes of faith, hope, peace, and charity as they relate to events happening in the world today.

On the particular Sunday leading to Lent, there was a tinge of frustration with the usual tender message of Archbishop Dolan. He talked about bullying, addiction, gun violence, mass executions, wars, and natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Turkey that claimed thousands of lives. “What has happened to humanity and the dignity of the human person?” he asked. The congregation went silent as the good cardinal stated, “let us do our part” to make our world a better place.

A nomad for almost two decades now, it has always been my goal to acquaint myself first with the terrain of our new environment. I initially thought that New York would be the most challenging. I dreaded the thought of being lost in this very busy city due to an unfounded fright of chase scenes along the avenues of Manhattan to the tricky subway stations or the unfamiliar side streets, which I had only seen in movies. As it turned out, crisscrossing the roads has become a breeze. This I realized when I declared that St. Patrick’s Cathedral would always be my reference point, my true north in the event that I get lost in our new adoptive city. It, too, has become a delightful sanctuary.

St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in New York

It is said that St. Patrick’s was built from the contributions of immigrants who came to New York in the mid-19th century. Skeptics thought the cathedral would never be built. But then Archbishop John Hughes and his flock who migrated to New York from various countries persevered. At a time when a different wave of skepticism and trials pervades, it is always good to look back at how the church was built, how it continues to hum with life, and how all are welcome to enter.

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The author recently relocated to New York where her husband is posted at the Philippine Mission to the UN.