Deep under Manhattan’s streets lie hermetically sealed vaults and crypts that paint a 19th-century picture of the city, complete with tales of elite New Yorkers who shaped the city and Tammany Hall political intrigue. And seven days a week, anyone can tour them by candlelight.
Tommy Wilkinson, 48, runs daily tours of the catacombs underneath St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. The cathedral, completed in 1815, sits squarely in what is now known as NoLIta. While the tour isn’t meant to be ghoulish, it does lend itself to an ideal Halloween jaunt.
"It’s not spooky, it’s not supernatural. The catacombs are still an active cemetery, it’s still a sacred place," Wilkinson said. "If you like films like "The Godfather," "Gangs of New York" … it’s a tale of immigration, but through the lens of the early catholics."
Wilkinson, a Staten Island native who now lives in Manhattan, launched the tours through his company, Tommy’s New York, in June 2017 — several months after he said he bumped into a monsignor of the church. He was giving his own tours after working for a tour bus company, leaning on his experience in architecture and metal working. The church wanted to partner with a tour company to show off its historic catacombs, Wilkinson said, and he found himself in the right place at the right time.
"I never knew we had catacombs under the city," he said. "After doing a walk through, everything just gelled."
Small group tours cost $35 per person and are offered three or four times each day. The tour begins with a look at the church’s 19th century cemeteries then moves through the cathedral itself, where the group ascends into the choir loft. Wilkinson said from there, the group descends below the church and enters the corridors of the catacombs, carrying (LED) candles, and finally ending up inside one of the chambers.
"I worked it out so I can take people into the off limits areas," he said. "When you go down there, you’re down in the dark around these crypts and vaults where all these early catholics are buried. Without saying it’s creepy, it’s an experience."
Wilkinson said the tour touches on the people interred — including the Delmonico family, of restaurant fame — as well as the history of the neighborhood itself.
"Half of my clients are actual New Yorkers and it’s a rediscovery of their hometown, discovering things that are right below our noses here," he said. "For people from abroad, it’s a real sense of how this city was established and the people who struggled to make it what it is today. It’s just a very unique, sacred space here in the middle of a dramatically changing neighborhood."