At Fifth Avenue, between 50th and 51st streets, and right across the street from Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral could hardly occupy a place more at the center of New York City’s fast-paced action.
That’s made the slowdown due to the life-altering effects of the coronavirus even more apparent. The cathedral normally bustles from morning to night, with parishioners and workday visitors attending the frequent daily Masses and a steady flow of tourists stopping to say a prayer, and perhaps take a photo, at America’s Parish Church.
More than 5 million people come by each year, it is said. The major restoration completed a few years back put an irrepressible sheen back in the Gothic Revival landmark. When the cathedral’s doors are open, the view is the most breathtaking of any house of worship in the city, in my opinion.
New York Catholics can point to St. Patrick’s with a pride of place and belonging. Many archbishops of New York, including Cardinal Dolan, have welcomed groups of visiting Catholics to special Masses, be they for Labor Day or Columbus Day or Black History Month with these simple words: “This is your Cathedral.”
That’s not just a familiar phrase. It rings true, beginning with the vision expressed by then-Archbishop John Hughes in the 19th century. In fact, his plans were derided, and the project was known as Hughes’ Folly, until a funny thing happened. St. Patrick’s got built, thanks to renowned architect James Renwick Jr., and to the nickels and dimes donated by New York’s Catholics, many of them poor immigrants. It was dedicated this month in 1879.
In normal times, I am a frequent visitor, to attend some of the Masses mentioned above and others such as the ordinations of priests and deacons, Holy Week liturgies or an appearance by a visiting pontiff such as when Pope Francis led vespers there in September 2015, right after the cathedral restoration was finished. What an absolutely thrilling evening that was.
It shouldn’t shock you to hear that for nearly two months there have been no crowds at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Masses are still being offered, as you know. However, few are in the sanctuary with the celebrants and the pews are empty.
That is an unusual site at St. Patrick’s, but these are unusual times, where the safety and welfare of parishioners during the coronavirus crisis demand we stay home and watch Mass on TV or via livestreaming online.
Pushing forward without the cathedral’s magnificent doors open and without the full docket of daily Masses has been “a little disconcerting,” said Msgr. Robert Ritchie, the rector of St. Patrick’s since 2006.
When looking out from the altar at Mass, Msgr. Ritchie said, “You’re used to seeing people’s faces in front of you.” There have been recent days when he admits to feeling a bit discouraged.
There are opportunities to watch Mass from the cathedral each day, Monday to Friday, at 7 a.m. via livestreaming with a rotation of celebrants including Cardinal Dolan, Msgr. Ritchie and Msgr. Joseph LaMorte, vicar general of the archdiocese, among others. Other Masses are offered on Saturdays at 8 a.m. and Sundays at 10:15 a.m. and 4 p.m. (in Spanish).
Livestreaming Masses from St. Patrick’s has been a reality for years. The numbers have spiked, with some 160,000 watching on Palm Sunday and 250,000 on Easter Sunday. The following two Sundays, 26,000 and 42,000, were impressive, too. Then there was significant viewership from WPIX (Ch. 11) on Palm Sunday and Easter, and the Catholic Faith Network all year long.
One of his responsibilities as rector is paying the bills, and Msgr. Ritchie said how grateful he was for the support of Catholics and others in New York and all across the country. “People have been so generous,” he said, from those giving a “widow’s mite” to billionaires, and many in between. When I called, Msgr. Ritchie said he was glancing at a note from a writer who spoke about how much he loves St. Patrick’s, one of many such positive missives he’s recently received.
Msgr. Ritchie said the cathedral has been operating with a “skeleton staff” and he has encouraged most of his lay employees to “stay home and stay safe.” Two employees contracted the coronavirus, but have recovered.
The five priests serving the cathedral—Msgr. Ritchie, Father Andrew King, Father Donald Haggerty, Father Arthur Golino and Father Edward Dougherty, M.M.—are also taking precautions against congregating, he said.