Organizers of the city's 253-year-old St. Patrick's Day parade said Wednesday they would lift a long-standing ban on gay groups marching under their own banners.

Only one such organization is being permitted to march next year -- OUT@NBCUniversal, composed of employees from the parade's broadcaster -- but starting in 2016, any gay organization can apply to be included in the Irish celebration, the organizers said.

The move marks an about-face for parade organizers and the Archdiocese of New York. At a news conference late Wednesday, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called the unanimous decision by the parade's board "a wise one."

"Times have changed," said NBCUniversal executive Francis X. Comerford, a parade trustee and its 2012 grand marshal, in an interview. "The parade is 250-plus years old, and different times call for different solutions."

The parade is among the city's biggest annual events, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators to the line of march on Fifth Avenue.

While gay people have not been barred as individuals, they could not march with their own organizations -- a policy that has prompted boycotts by prominent politicians, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, and led several corporate sponsors to withdraw support of this year's parade.

Several gay organizations said the announcement was a good start but not enough. Nathan M. Schaefer, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda, called it "long overdue" but "disappointing and self-serving," saying organizers should "go even further" and welcome more than just one LGBT group to the March 17, 2015, parade.

At City Hall, de Blasio called the decision "a step forward" and "progress" but added that he needs to know more before deciding whether to end his boycott.

The parade has become a flashpoint in past decades, beset by litigation and protests. Dolan's predecessor, Cardinal John O'Connor, resisted demands for gay inclusion, declaring at a 1993 St. Patrick's Day sermon that "Neither respectability nor political correctness is worth one comma in the Apostles' Creed."

But much has changed since then, as LGBT activists gained momentum with same-sex marriage rights and other victories. Last year, parade sponsor Guinness, the Ireland-based beer-brewing giant, withdrew its backing.

A spokeswoman for Guinness' corporate parent, Diageo, said Wednesday the company is now open to talking to parade organizers about returning as a sponsor.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and a longtime foe of gay-rights groups, said, "The political pressure came from people like de Blasio, the economic pressure came from Guinness, it came from NBC." He added, "The corporate, Wall Street gang, they're all lined up with the gay-rights agenda."

With Ivan Pereira