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How the Catholic Church saved New York City, Part 1

The narrow hallways of 32 Prince Street in Lower Manhattan silently echo with the stories of an age gone by: the long lost voices of orphan children clamoring in the small courtyard as the nuns would scurry about ushering them across the street for Sunday Mass at the just dedicated “Old” St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mott Street, a faded portrait of grace and beauty painted on a canvas that at the time could easily have been mistaken for hell.

The beginning

The year was 1815, and New York “City” would be completely unrecognizable to those who identify it by its soaring skyscrapers and broad avenues. It was a time when Canal “Street,” actually a canal at the time, was the northernmost boundary. Beyond it were rolling hills, forests, and farms leading clear up the Hudson River. While the “teeming” population of 80,000 supported itself through traditional trades, New York was rapidly becoming the import/export capital of the country with its expansive port and sheltered harbor.

The fledgling Catholic community, made up mainly of Irish, German, and French immigrants, was the religious minority, and anti-Catholic sentiment among the descendants of colonists was de rigueur. Few churches, and even fewer priests, made access to the sacraments a challenge.

On November 24, 1815, following a grueling sea passage that had many convinced she had met her end in the depths of the Atlantic, the 147-ton brig ‘Sally’ dropped anchor in New York Harbor, depositing a weary 68-year-old Bishop John Connolly on the bustling docks of the East River. Connolly, being the second bishop of New York, was the first to set foot on its cobbled streets, as the previous bishop lost his life in the Napoleonic Wars before he could ever make the journey to the New World.

Historian Monsignor Peter Guilday of Catholic University remarks, “It may well be doubted if, in the entire history of the Catholic Church in the United States, any other bishop began his episcopal life under such disheartening conditions.”

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