Early last month, amid protests against police violence in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the pink brick wall surrounding the cemetery of the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NoLIta was spray-painted with graffiti, while a storm window protecting one of the church’s soaring stained-glass windows was broken.
None of the graffiti — “BLM,” “PIG EW” — appeared anti-Catholic, suggesting that those wielding the paint cans saw the wall primarily as a blank surface that could serve as a billboard for their cause.
But the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, at Mott and Prince Streets, is no stranger to civil unrest, and that very wall played a central role in deterring violence two centuries ago, when very different antagonisms roiled the city’s streets.
“The wall was put up almost 200 years ago to protect the church from rioters” so it could “keep its doors open for the waves of immigrants that landed here and were welcomed,” said Rev. Brian A. Graebe, the church’s pastor. “When was it last attacked? Probably the nativist riots.”
In 1836, the Gothic Revival cathedral was targeted by American-born Protestant agitators who feared the building was a central command post from which the pope might move to take control of the Protestant-dominated city. Alerted that the nativists planned to sack the cathedral, the church’s Irish Catholic defenders posted armed sentries and cut holes for musket barrels in the recently built wall, which surrounded burial grounds both north and south of the building.
As the “anti-Catholic army” surged up the Bowery, “its advance scouts reported back on the fearsomeness of the Gaels’ military preparations and the fortresslike impregnability of their walled cathedral,” wrote the historians Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burrows in their book “Gotham.” The nativists retreated.
The stakes of the conflict rose as a hard-nosed new archbishop, John Hughes, who was known as Dagger John because of the knifelike crucifix with which he adorned his signature, organized his community’s immigrant-filled ranks, endorsing political candidates and pressing for public funding of parochial schools.
In 1844, the cathedral again came under threat after a pair of Catholic churches were torched in Philadelphia. As New York nativists planned a massive rally, the bishop warned that attacks on Catholic churches would be met in kind. Alluding to the Russians’ scorched-earth strategy in their war against the invading Napoleonic army, Hughes cautioned New York’s nativist municipal officials that “if a single Catholic church were burned in New York, the city would become a Moscow.”
With the bishop’s permission, “men with guns patrolled the streets outside the cathedral,” according to a biography of Hughes by John Loughery. The nativists again stood down.
This scene of well-armed Irish-Catholic defiance was dramatized, with artistic license of time and place, in the 2002 film “Gangs of New York,” directed by Martin Scorsese, who was once an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.
“This place is just breathing stories and lives long forgotten,” Mr. Scorsese said of the church in “The Oratorio,” a 2019 documentary. “And it was built by people who flocked here from all over the world to start a new life in this city, the city that for me has always been synonymous with America itself.”
This first St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built from 1809 to 1815 after plans by the French-born architect Joseph François Mangin, who codesigned New York’s City Hall. The site, which had previously been used by St. Peter’s Church as a graveyard, lay in what was still a rural area north of town.
Constructed barely a generation after the 1784 repeal of the anti-Catholic law in New York State, and primarily serving abjectly poor Irish immigrants, the cathedral was a bold assertion of Catholicism in the burgeoning, multiethnic metropolis. At 120 feet long and 80 feet wide, it was the largest church in the city and one of the earliest Gothic Revival buildings in the country.
The north and south walls are made of rough gray fieldstone, each adorned with eight arched, stained-glass windows divided into three sections and topped with elegant gothic tracery. The Mulberry Street facade, also primarily of fieldstone, has a pointed stained-glass window as its centerpiece, flanked by four niches.
The windowless Mott Street facade is more severe, its brown-stucco surface topped by an unadorned gable, the result of an incomplete restoration after the cathedral was gutted by fire in 1866.
After that blaze, the church’s interior was rebuilt in the Gothic manner, with a ceiling of ribbed arches carried on gracious clustered columns, each one made up of eight slender shafts bundled together.
The building was the seat of the archdiocese until the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral was dedicated at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue in 1879. Old St. Pat’s, as the first cathedral is colloquially known, then became a parish church until 2010, when it was declared a basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.
Among those who helped finance the original cathedral was the remarkable figure of Pierre Toussaint, who has been declared “venerable” by the Catholic church, a step on the road to sainthood. Born a slave in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, Toussaint was brought to New York in 1797 by his French owners, whom he supported by serving as a kind of hairstylist to the stars — tending the tresses of society women like Alexander Hamilton’s granddaughter, Eliza Hamilton.
Freed upon his owners’ death, he bought the freedom of his future wife and his sister, and he became a leading supporter of the Prince Street orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity. He took Black orphans into his home and helped found the city’s first school for Black children.
Toussaint’s hairdressing business made him wealthy and afforded him continual contact with the city’s elite — many of them Protestant — from whom he raised considerable money to build the cathedral.
In 1826, Toussaint sold tickets to a groundbreaking oratorio of sacred music at the cathedral to raise funds for a new Federal-style orphanage at 32 Prince Street, which today houses church facilities and luxury condos. The Live Aid of its day, the oratorio was the biggest event of its kind New Yorkers had ever seen, featuring works by Joseph Haydn and George Frideric Handel.
The main attraction was the first Italian opera company to perform in the Americas, a group led by Manuel Garcia and starring his daughter, Maria, who would become a celebrated diva under the name Madame Malibran.
In 2004, Jared Lamenzo, an organist at Old St. Pat’s and the basilica’s future music director, unearthed this forgotten history at the New York Public Library, by way of a 1905 periodical.
“I was ecstatic to find this program,” Mr. Lamenzo said. “It was very important because it included this opera company featuring Madame Malibran, a superstar, who was all of 17 at the time.”
Mr. Lamenzo’s dream of recreating the oratorio was realized in 2018, when the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, a Sardinian opera company, restaged the music at Old St. Pat’s. The performance was informed by early 19th-century musical scores located in European libraries by Francesco Zimei, a musicologist.
Funds raised at the event went to the friends of the Erben Organ, a nonprofit group, for the future restoration of the church’s 1868 pipe organ, a gracious beast of an instrument larger than many of the area’s tenement apartments. Handcrafted by Irish, English and German immigrant artisans at a nearby Wooster Street factory, the organ is a masterwork of Henry Erben, the 19th century’s most prolific organ builder.
The instrument is a marvelously intricate device that Mr. Lamenzo, who studied mechanical engineering at Harvard, describes as a “pneumatic computer.” To watch his hands fly around its three manual keyboards while his feet dance across its pedals is to witness the operation of a retro-futuristic contraption that seems like something out of a Jules Verne novel.
A mechanical wonder, the instrument requires no electricity between the organist’s fingertip or toe and each valve that admits air into one of its 2,500 pipes. And the music that issues from those pipes — the smallest the size of a pencil, the biggest 24 feet tall — ranges from a celestial whisper to an earthshaking, Old Testament thunderclap.
The organ was commissioned after the 1866 fire, a munificent investment that Mr. Lamenzo described as an inspiring statement to the church’s Irish immigrants that “we’re not going anywhere.”
As the neighborhood has evolved since then, the instrument has played at tens of thousands of weddings and masses attended by waves of Irish, Italian, Hispanic and Chinese immigrants, among others.
But still the organ speaks with a voice resonant of the turbulent era in which it was created.
“We call it a sound of solace and of joy — there’s a triumphant sound — but there’s also a sound of melancholy to it,” Mr. Lamenzo said. “It was built after the Civil War, the archbishop Hughes had just died, and cholera is back in 1866.” All these strains of history can be heard in the organ’s breaths, he said, which produce “a visceral sound that can really get into you.”