New York Catacombs

New York City, New York (NY)

Stepping beneath an old church takes visitors deep into the heart of the New York Catacombs.

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Exploring the New York Catacombs

Beneath the soaring spires of the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Nolita, New York City's Northern Little Italy, lies a captivating world waiting to be discovered – the ancient New York Catacombs. Originally conceived as a response to the city’s burial space limitations, these catacombs have evolved into sacred chambers, echoing the city’s intricate past. They were closed off from public access for years but now beckon adventurous souls to explore their depths by the soft glow of candlelight.

"It’s a whole other world that feels entirely detached from New York City."

The catacombs as described by a tour guide.

Constructed over two centuries ago, the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral is a building of grandeur. Recent renovations, including the restoration of the iconic Henry Erben Organ, have revived its magnificence. Yet, while the cathedral garners much attention, it is the descent into the cold crypts, reminiscent of 1815 when the cathedral was built, that truly captivates visitors.

The Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral

The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, known as Old St. Patrick's, has stood as a cornerstone of faith and history for more than two centuries. Initially serving as the cathedral of the Archdiocese of New York, it witnessed the growth and transformation of the city. Designated a New York City landmark in 1966 and declared a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, Old St. Patrick's honours Catholicism in New York City.

The History of the New York Catacombs

Creating the New York Catacombs

Beneath the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the New York Catacombs are among the few catacombs in all of the United States, steeped in the intertwined history of the church and its surrounding community. From the formidable Bishop John Hughes, affectionately dubbed "Dagger John," to the waves of immigrants finding solace within its walls, the catacombs offer a glimpse into the struggles and triumphs of generations past.

New York Catacombs 6
- Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Constructed between 1809 and 1815, the catacombs of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were born out of necessity. As New York City expanded, burial space became scarce, leading to the creation of underground chambers to accommodate the deceased.

There are 35 family crypts and 5 clerical vaults, housing a myriad of notable figures. Each vault was created in a different style, from Romanesque arches to Gothic vaults, reflecting the architectural trends of their respective eras. Notable individuals include first resident Bishop of New York, John Connolly, Congressman John Kelly, the Delmonico family, General Thomas Eckert, and philanthropist Countess Annie Leary.

The catacombs also showcase certain features exclusive to the 19th-century, such as original Thomas Edison light fixtures and tilework by Rafael Guastavino. For over two centuries, access to these subterranean passages was restricted to clergy, workers, and family members.

However, in February 2017, the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Cathedral opened its catacombs to the public, offering candlelight tours that delve into the rich tapestry of New York's Catholic history.

Catacombs by Candlelight Tour

"It’s the only active Catholic cemetery here in Manhattan."

Thomas Wilkinson, who created the tour in partnership with the church and is the name behind Tommy’s New York walking tours.

The tour provides an exceptional opportunity to explore these candlelight-lined halls steeped in over 200 years of history. With a duration of approximately 1.5 hours and a cost of $37 per person, they are well worth a visit.

Preparing for the New York Catacomb Tour

Before venturing into the St. Patrick’s Cathedral’s catacombs, visitors must prepare appropriately for the experience. Comfortable walking shoes are essential, given the uneven terrain, and carrying a light jacket is advisable due to the catacombs’ cooler temperatures.

"Photography may be restricted in certain areas to preserve the sanctity of the site," notes tour guides. Visitors are also encouraged to travel light to navigate the confined spaces more easily. Maintaining respect for the deceased and your fellow group, throughout the experience, ensures a peaceful atmosphere, enhancing the overall experience.

Exploring the New York City Catacombs

“It gives the sensation of what it would have been like to come down here when the catacombs first opened in 1815 when there was no electricity and you would have entered by candlelight or torch.”

Thomas Wilkinson.

The tour descends through the original stairway into the catacomb tunnels, revealing a hidden world detached from New York’s busy streets overhead. Each chamber holds a unique narrative of New York’s history, from tragedies of the past to the grand catacomb of General Thomas Eckert.

Among the highlights of the catacombs tour is the fact that visitors are witnessing a place of great historical significance in the city as the final resting place of some of its first inhabiting citizens.

"These catacombs are very reverent places of burial, you’ll usually find trustees and benefactors, so the early families that literally supported the Church."

Tommy Wilkinson.

Wilkinson's tours offer visitors a glimpse into the lives and deaths of bishops, politicians, and other influential figures interred within. "Every parish has to stand on its own legs and find ways to support itself," explains Wilkinson, emphasising the importance of the tours in sustaining the church financially.

"Their final resting places, often marked with ornate tombstones and sculptures, tell stories of the eras they lived in."

The catacombs as described by a tour guide.

Intricate artwork adorns the catacomb walls, providing a visual journey through the ages and offering insights into past artistic trends and cultural values.

“As visitors raise their own candlelight to read each inscribed catacomb marker, it's one more step they take back into a world where New York City was transformed.”

The catacombs as described by a tour guide.

Preserving the New York Catacombs

Over the years St. Patrick’s Cathedral has faced financial challenges. However, since 2017 the revenue generated from tours has significantly contributed to the upkeep of six historic buildings associated with the church. From roof repairs to cemetery maintenance, these funds are vital for preserving the cathedral's legacy.

Furthermore, the sale of cremation niches within the catacombs, reflect the cathedral's commitment to preservation and adaptation. These efforts, alongside immersive experiences like The Diamond Wedding re-creation, ensure that the cathedral remains a vibrant hub of culture and history for generations to come.

However, the tours offer more than just financial relief. They serve as a bridge between the church and the community, fostering a deeper appreciation for its cultural significance. Exclusive spaces, previously inaccessible to the public, are now open for exploration, offering insight into the church's role in the neighbourhood over the past two centuries.

To discover other subterranean worlds, why not read our articles on the Paris Catacombs or the Seattle Underground?

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