Dolan celebrates ‘200 years of love’ at Old St. Pat’s


By Lincoln Anderson

Archbishop Timothy Dolan led Mass at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott St. on Sunday, kicking off a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the historic house of worship.

The cathedral’s cornerstone was laid in 1809, and it took six years to complete the structure, which is why the bicentennial recognition will last, not one, but six years. The church served as the New York Catholic Diocese’s first cathedral until the new St. Patrick’s at 50th St. and Fifth Ave. was completed in 1879. In the early 1800s, Old St. Patrick’s congregation was mainly Irish, but also French, German and some Spanish. Today the cathedral is in what’s now known as Nolita, and the Masses are held in Chinese, Spanish and English.

The cathedral was packed to capacity last Sunday as Dolan, New York’s newly appointed archbishop, entered to a swell of applause, waving to his left and right, and passing under the drawn swords of the Knights of Columbus.

In his remarks, Dolan said he had been honored to visit the crypt beneath the cathedral that morning, where his early predecessor archbishops lay entombed.

Dolan summed up the cathedral’s history as “two hundred years of love, service, family, solidarity and community.” But he added, “We can never allow the church we love just to become a museum, or just to become a memory. We are alive.”

Dolan said he was so proud of the old cathedral that he would ask Pope Benedict to elevate it to a basilica, sparking applause from the congregation.

“I just think it deserves it,” he said, citing “endurance” and “faith.” Mentioning the early cathedral community’s “tenacity,” he recalled how the Ancient Order of Hibernians had defended the church in the face of anti-Catholic mobs who sought to burn it down.

Remarks were also given by the church’s other religious leaders in both Chinese and Spanish. The church’s current pastor is Monsignor Donald Sakano.

Afterward, Dolan exited out through the front door, again to heartfelt applause.

Sister Kathleen Marie Aucoin, a member of the Sisters of Charity — the religious order that used to run an orphanage at what is now Old St. Patrick’s School — was visibly moved, a tear streak under her eye.

“This is home,” Aucoin said. “This is our cradle.”

Among the prominent officials attending the Mass was Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

“It was an awe-inspiring event,” Kelly said afterward. “The church is beautiful, I hadn’t been it for a few years and it just sort of hit me again what a beautiful church it is.”

A group of three women in their 70s and 80s who grew up together on Mott St. — Millie Scarpulla, Jean Licari and Fonsina Pumilia — came back for the event, in one case traveling two hours. They recalled going down into the crypt as kids and baptisms and marriages in the cathedral.

Asked later about the fate of another Downtown Catholic church, Our Lady of Vilna on Broome St. in Soho, Dolan told The Villager he was sure his predecessor, Cardinal Edward Egan, made the right decisions. More than two years ago, the archdiocese closed Our Lady of Vilna, citing its damaged roof and a dwindling congregation. But the church’s former members and its supporters in the city’s Lithuanian community contend it is repairable and that it still had a healthy-sized congregation. They filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese last year to reopen the church.

“After eight weeks, I’m hardly versed in all the particulars,” Dolan replied when asked about Our Lady of Vilna. “At a cursory glance, I would say that the decisions that Cardinal Egan reached were very sane.”

Told that Our Lady of Vilna’s supporters want to meet with him, hoping he’ll be more sympathetic than Egan, Dolan responded, “I’m always happy to meet with everybody, but if it’s to change the decision Cardinal Egan made, it might not be that productive.”

The celebratory Mass was followed by a parade up Mott St. that included everything from Civil War re-enactors representing New York’s Fighting 69th regiment to floats sponsored by Little Italy restaurants with smooth-crooning singers. Old St. Patrick’s School’s float, designed by Macy’s, featured students sitting at antique desks. On a float bringing up the rear was a 10-foot-high scale model of the star of the hour — Old St. Pat’s.