Thursday, October 13, 2011
Renovation may uncover missing cornerstone at St. Patrick's cathedral in New York
The stone was left open for offerings from the public. It was sealed exactly two years later, on Aug. 15, 1860.
Much has been learned about the cornerstone, except for two salient details: Where it is and when it went missing.
“It’s the great mystery of the cathedral,” said Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie, St. Patrick’s rector.
The cathedral was conceived by Archbishop Hughes, who presciently anticipated the development of Midtown Manhattan, as more than merely a replacement for the old St. Patrick’s downtown on Mott Street. In “The History of the Archdiocese of New York,” Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley wrote that the new cathedral was “meant to be a statement in stone of the Catholic presence in a city that was then the capital of Protestant America.”
Many cornerstones are prominently marked with the date construction began. Some identify the builder or architect. Most are in plain sight, appropriately enough, at a corner of the building. Not so at St. Patrick’s.
“I have no idea where it is,” Msgr. Ritchie said.
Actually, there is a vague idea.
“We know it was at 50th Street and Fifth Avenue, but exactly where nobody knows,” said Thomas G. Young, the author of several books about the cathedral.
“It was in none of the plans we found,” he said. “I once found a photograph when the building was 8 or 12 feet high and there was a block missing. I often wondered if that was an opening that led to the cornerstone below it, but it was probably too high.”
Scaffolding has already been erected around the cathedral, though whether the cornerstone will be rediscovered during the renovations is uncertain. “We’re still in the early stages of planning the restoration, and it’s very early to determine exactly how the time frame and other particulars will look,” said Kate Monaghan, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.
The cornerstone-laying ceremony on a glorious August day in 1858 was an affirmation of the city’s evolving demography. “No religious pageant of equal pomp could have been experienced on this continent before,” Mr. Young wrote, “and the effect on the people was stunning.”
A wooden canopy covered the spot where the cornerstone was to be laid. Archbishop Hughes spoke from a flag-bedecked platform nearby. Those among the largely Irish-immigrant crowd who were close enough to hear his lengthy remarks were delighted to learn that the new cathedral would be named for St. Patrick, the apostle of Ireland.
After ritually blessing the cornerstone, Archbishop Hughes placed it in the foundation. It contained a parchment litany in Latin of ecclesiastical and government officialdom and a celebratory news report on the recent laying of the first Atlantic cable, heralding instantaneous communication with the continent from which so many of New York’s immigrant Catholics hailed.
The cavity in the cornerstone was left unsealed temporarily to accommodate offerings from ordinary citizens, but it is unclear whether they constituted financial contributions or sentimental relics.
The cathedral’s foundation was built with Maine granite. The marble walls were quarried in Westchester County. While the original plans called for steps at Fifth Avenue (there are seven now at the East 50th Street corner), it is also unclear whether any alteration of the street elevation after 1858 might have obscured the cornerstone. The cathedral was finally consecrated in 1879.
According to one account, the cornerstone was not marked and the walls were built above it, perhaps suggesting it is below grade. Other versions of that theory abound.
One theory is that the cornerstone might have been dislodged or moved later during construction of the Lady Chapel at the cathedral’s eastern exposure. A detailed historical guide published in 1931 suggests the craggy foundation cornerstone was “not the kind of granite that yields easily, if at all, to the sculptor’s chisel.” There must have been some temporary reason for omitting the inscription, since it is claimed the surface could be smoothed.
“Either at that time, or afterward,” the guidebook’s author continued, “an almost invisible square was clipped off the lower east end of the stone above and that one is sometimes taken for the foundation stone. Wonders me: who made this cut, and why?”
The day after the 1858 ceremony, The New York Times reported that “the archbishop sprinkled the stone with holy water, and with a knife marked on each side of it the sign of the cross.”
In 1860, Archbishop Hughes announced that construction would be delayed because donations had been depleted, and the delays continued because of the Civil War.
He wrote that the names of 73 donors in addition to 103 original donors would be deposited in the cornerstone “and the wall built over it to the average height of the other portions of the structure,” which was then about 10 feet.
Then he added mysteriously: “Of course, on the list of subscribers that is to remain outside of the cornerstone, the names only of those who shall have paid can be inscribed.”
As for the other donors’ names, Archbishop Hughes said, “though unseen by men, they will ever be under the eyes and inspection of God, and may turn up for honor and mercy on the Day of Judgment.”
For whatever motivation, he envisioned that unlike traditional time capsules, this one would never be discovered. For 151 years, he has been correct.
“The noble impulse that actuated the primary patrons of the new cathedral,” he wrote, “are entitled to the respect of being incorporated and recorded in the cornerstone, which, in all probability, will never be disturbed by human agency.”
at 7:57 PM