The catacombs under the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral are among the few catacombs in all of the United States. The history of the catacombs, along with the church that sits over them, is entwined with the early history of Catholics in New York.
Despite often being overlooked for its larger and more elaborate successor church uptown, the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a historical landmark itself. Here Bishop John Hughes, known as “Dagger John” for his sharp tongue and street fighting skills, protected the Catholic community from a mob of Protestants with a show of force of armed parishioners. The Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral would be a refuge for newly arrived immigrants, starting with the Irish and then later the Italians, Hispanics, and Asians.
As Catholics became more established in New York City, many became successful in business, politics, and cultural influence. These new Catholic elites would later be entombed in the catacombs within the cathedral’s crypts and columbariums. Notable occupants of the catacombs include Congressman John Kelly, who was an adviser to Abraham Lincoln; the Delmonico family, who founded the oldest surviving restaurant in New York; General Thomas Eckert, a Civil War veteran and a major figure in promoting the telegraph industry; and socialite and philanthropist Countess Annie Leary.
The catacombs display fine examples of 19th-century art and innovation. Original Thomas Edison light fixtures can be seen in Eckert’s family vault. Also inside the Eckert family vault are examples of tilework by noted engineer and builder Rafael Guastavino, who also provided tilework to other New York landmarks such as the City Hall station, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Ellis Island.
The catacombs were, for more than 200 years, rarely seen by anyone other than clergy, workers, and family of the entombed. But in February of 2017, the basilica decided to open the catacombs to the public. There are now candlelight tours, in which visitors may walk the dark halls of the catacombs and learn more about the rich history of Catholic New York.
Know Before You Go
Candlelight tours are provided through an exclusive deal with Tommy's New York. You can book a reservation by visiting their website. Old St. Patrick's Cathedral is still an active church and masses and other rituals may be conducted during tours. Likewise, the deceased are still laid to rest in the catacombs. Funerals, memorials, and loved ones paying respects can still be witnessed.