Pope Francis heaped praise on Catholic nuns on Thursday in his first New York appearance, calling them "women of strength," in a move to salve wounds opened by his predecessor who had launched a probe into what he had regarded as radical feminists.

A six-year clash between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious ended in April, after the group, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. nuns, agreed to demands they keep within Roman Catholic doctrine.

"I would like to express my esteem and gratitude to the religious women of the United States," Francis said in an evening prayer service at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of the highest-profile churches in the United States.

"What would the church be without you?" said Francis, who succeeded Pope Benedict in 2013. "Women of strength, fighters ... I wish to say 'thank you,' a big 'thank you.'"

Benedict had launched a probe into some 341 religious orders representing 50,000 nuns in 2008, after criticizing nuns as taking a soft line on issues such as the use of birth control and homosexual activity, both of which the church opposes.

The probe attracted public attention in the United States, with many Catholics complaining that the male-dominated Vatican was unfairly picking on nuns who have played a huge role in church education and hospitals over the past few decades.

Thousands of New Yorkers prayed with Pope Francis on Thursday evening during vespers.

The audience ranged from ecstatic city residents who stood on the pews to see him to priests and nuns -- as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who met the pope outside the cathedral. The entire cathedral prayed the rosary together.

"He is here as our brother, our father and our pastor. Welcome to New York," said Cardinal William Murphy.

"Here in New York we love you and welcome you."

The pope blessed the church with holy water and greeted parishioners, including a young girl using a wheelchair.

Ricard Arteca, 63, came for the evening prayers, from Rego Park with his wife.

"I'm overwhelmed by the pageantry, everything," he said. "St. Patrick's itself is very special for the city."

Sister Annette Allain, 62, of East Harlem said it was a privilege to be there.

"Francis is giving everyone, not just Catholics, a shot in the arm," she said. "I think his biggest thing is your actions speak for itself."

"We feel so proud of ourselves and the work we have done," said Sister Irene Nkromah, 53, a member of the hand maids of the divine redeemer in Flushing.

"I feel happy seeing him here. I appreciate him coming here," Nkromah said, adding: "If he is accepting of our work, then God is accepting."

Others said they appreciated his spirit as well.

"He's very warm and likes to reach out to the people," said Roseanne Capengro, of Cove Neck, L.I.

"You see him all the time go to the crowds and greet them so openly," she said. "I hope everyone comes together after they see this."

With Reuters