Posts Tagged ‘Gothic churches New York City’

The church wall that protected Irish immigrants

June 11, 2018

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]

Broken remains of a Norfolk Street synagogue

September 12, 2013

NorfolkstreetsynagogueThe once-spectatular, now rundown building at 60 Norfolk Street started out in 1848 as the Norfolk Street Baptist Church.

It still has all the wonderful Gothic Revival touches of a mid-19th century church: arched windows, four-leaf tracery, and a high, vaulted nave inside.

Ten years later the church moved out, following its well-to-do members uptown as the neighborhood became an enclave of poorer immigrants.

Norfolkstreetsynagogue1900sA Methodist church took it over until 1885, when Orthodox Jewish congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol bought it for $45,000—and stayed for 122 years.

Founded by immigrants, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was “the oldest Orthodox congregation of Russian Jews in the United States,” states

The congregation made some cosmetic changes so the place looked more like a synagogue.

“The new owners added a Jewish star to the roof and reconfigured the altar area to become a bima, but otherwise left the plain Gothic church intact,” says Inside the Apple.

In its day, thousands of Lower East Side residents worshipped here. But you know the story: the neighborhood changed, residents moved or died, and the congregation dwindled.


Designated a city landmark in 1967, Beth Hamedrash Hagadol leaders closed the synagogue in 2007.

Since then, time and harsh weather have taken their toll. Windows are blown out, moldings have chipped, plaster falls, and overgrown brush block the entrance and give an eerie, abandoned feel.


Last year, the congregation asked the landmarks commission for permission to tear down the synagogue and  sell the land to developers.

That request is on hold. In a city that loves its past, it’s surprising money can’t be found to turn around this historic bit of the Lower East Side.

[Second photo, about 1900: Wikipedia; Third photo, Wikipedia]