The church wall that protected Irish immigrants

Manhattan has no shortage of beautiful and historic houses of worship.

But walking by St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which spans Prince Street between Mulberry and Mott Streets in what was once working-class Little Italy and is now a neighborhood of boutiques and coffee spots, makes you feel like you’ve been transported to the early 19th century.

The Gothic Revival church building, the weathered tombstones, the black cast-iron fence surrounding a yard of grass and trees all give off a quiet, ghostly feel.

And then there’s the 10-foot brick wall surrounding the churchyard, which doesn’t say keep out as much as it feels like a protective moat around the church and the worshippers inside.

Apparently that protective function is exactly why the wall was built.

In the decades after the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral was completed in 1815 (it was the city’s second Catholic church), an orphanage and parochial school opened as well.

Soon, a tide of Catholic immigrants fleeing poverty and later famine across the Atlantic made their way to the city.

It wasn’t as if Catholics were welcomed to New York with open arms before then. But the multitudes of Irish coming to the city in the 1830s and 1840s spurred on a nativist movement against them that resulted in lethal gang brawls and the burning of Manhattan’s third Catholic church on (now defunct) Sheriff Street by arsonists.

In response, church leaders built the 10-foot brick wall that still stands today.

“Although the exact date of construction is unknown, stories suggest that in 1835, Bishop John Hughes was compelled to station parishioners on already-extant walls so as to protect the cathedral from a fire-wielding anti-Catholic mob,” stated Place Matters.

Bishop Hughes was John Joseph Hughes, an Irish-born priest who was consecrated as a bishop at St. Patrick’s in 1838—and eventually became the first archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York.


“In the following years, nativist mobs had advanced on St. Patrick’s several times but were turned back after receiving reports that armed Irish defenders—posted by Bishop Hughes—were stationed along Prince Street and behind those brick walls which had been specifically constructed to protect the Cathedral,” proclaimed the church website.

After the Civil War, the Irish were still scorned, but the nativist movement lost steam. The inside of old St. Patrick’s burned in an accidental fire in 1866; it was rebuilt two years later.

The church walls were undamaged, so the same walls we walk by today, where vendors park their wares and fashionable people stroll and window shop, are the ones that helped protect vulnerable immigrants 175 years ago.

[Second image: NYPL, 1880; fourth image, NYPL, 1850s; fifth image, NYPL 1862]

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16 Responses to “The church wall that protected Irish immigrants”

  1. Zoé Says:

    Wow – thanks for bringing this alive for us. I never heard that a Church was burnt down. It reminds me of anti-Muslim sentiment now when people want to build mosques.

    It does look like a fortress wall. I just assumed it was built to surround a cemetery & keep out the dust & dirt (a bigger problem then) & noise. It’s a beautiful wall.

    • John Says:

      Zoe, it reminds me that blacks are not the only group that have suffered the unfortunate wrath of discrimination.
      Regarding Mosques, these Irish Catholics were not aiding and abetting the destruction of America; assimilation was the objective.

      • Tom B Says:

        Exactly what I was thinking John.

      • John Says:

        There may be anti-Mosque sentiment, however, to the best of my knowledge, no Mosques have been set ablaze by Christians. This refuge for Irish Catholics was burned. History is so important for putting things in perspective.

    • Aidan Says:

      Zoe have a look in France they have had Hundreds burned as well as there cathedral, I could go on the UK ect.
      I grew up in an Irish part of London and it was a lovely mix of people and we had a close connection with the Jamaicas that’s why we have the Notting Hill carnival up the road.😁
      The Media only show you what they want you to see.
      These things have been sent to test us we need to unite and not let the bad few keep us apart.

  2. Sean Says:

    When St. Patricks’s sold its old school building across Prince Street at Mott Street a couple of years ago, it used the money to refurbish the wall, which had settled and warped and buckled oddly over the years and looked like it was about to collapse at any minute. Sections of the wall had to be off kilter by at least a 5 degree angle.

    Well, the contractor rebuilt the wall (using the same bricks, I believe) and purposely laid the bricks back at the skewed angles and curvatures as a nod to the historic position and form of the original wall.

    So the “new” wall today still has the same odd curvature to it, looking like it will collapse any moment, although it was rebuilt rather recently.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I’m glad you wrote this Sean, because when I went back to the wall this past weekend to take photos, I thought it seemed a little cleaner and less curved that I’d remembered it from years past. It still does have a slight slope to it, which I’m glad they kept.

  3. Jay Says:

    Thanks for this, my great grandparents were married in Old St. Patrick’s in 1881

  4. Roger_Paw Says:

    I had no idea about all this history, thank you! I have met a few of the staff there over the last several months and they couldn’t be lovelier.

  5. Zoé Says:

    I will switch to following you only on Facebook Ephemeral where I can block seeing certain people’s comments even when you would still be able to read them.

    • Zoé Says:

      *My above comments are out of order; which apparently happened because when I commented directly from my email my comment ended up above the others.

  6. Zoé Says:

    *In fact Irish NYers frequently attacked the Lebanese & Syrians of Little Syria. And then of course there were the EVER so peaceful Westies gang in Hells Kitchen. And they were in violent powere there until the late 1980s. Name one Muslim community w/ a violent organised murderous crime gang like the Westies or the earlier ones that were next to Little Syria. Racism thrives in the absence of reality.

    • Aidan Says:

      Zoe we grew up fighting for our life’s before and after Patricks time.
      It was a country of Clans and it was in this time that the kingdom of Ireland fell.
      There is much to learn it’s all very fascinating.🙏

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    Fascinating…glad the walls survived.

  8. Zoé Says:

    Of course I will not follow you on Facebook now Ephemeral. (As I wrote earlier). Given the fact that you have left this extremely racist comment from John about the building of Mosques “aiding and abetting the destruction of America”. AND left in Tom B’s racist comment agreeing w/ John’s racist comment; yet you have deleted my replies defending Muslims which pointed out that Muslims have been here since 1492 w/ Columbus & as Black African enslaved people & included a list of some of the racist murder attacks against Muslims & Arabs & people mistaken for Muslims – inc mosques.

    Why delete my comments defending Muslims yet not the racist comments against Muslims? WOW. I never curse or call people names or attack people’s religions. Yet my comments in defense of Muslims were deleted. I am sorry that I ever trusted this hate filled space & ever came on here. How painfully disturbing to see how widely this kind of racism is tolerated.

  9. Kathleen crosby Says:

    Is there a way to trace the names of children who were in the orphanage. My deceased father in law was in one in early 1900

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