175th Anniversary Mass Homily

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words from the sonnet “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus are uniquely identified with the Statue of Liberty and are inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue.  Since 1886 the lamp of Lady Liberty has been greeting thousands of immigrants who have come to the United States to seek freedom as part of their American Dream.

However, here in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Basilica, the Sanctuary Lamp representing  the Eucharistic presence of Christ among us, has been welcoming pilgrims and immigrants yearning to be free for some two hundred years and this magnificent church has been the refuge for the tired and the poor of every language, nation  and culture. St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is a church of the people. This church nurtured the Irish, Germans, French, and Italian communities as they arrived in this new world.  This magnificent church was the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of New York until 1879 when the new Cathedral on 50th St. and Fifth Avenue was dedicated.  This Basilica was the first church in America named for our patron, St. Patrick.

On December 5th 2010 Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral officially became a basilica of the Catholic Church by order of Pope Benedict. The basilica designation means that the Pope recognize it as a church of special spiritual, historical and architectural significance, and as his own parish church in New York.

Churches are built to remind us who we truly are. They stand across our landscape as pointers to the truth that life is best lived in the conscious presence of a loving God. They help us, in the business of our lives, to retain our focus on God and to learn that God never takes his loving focus away from us. We gather in church to be reminded and strengthened in our most profound identity. As St Paul tells us in 1 Cor. ‘You belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God’.   This is the saving truth of who we really are and where our well-being is to be found. But we come to church not simply to pray, and to be heard, but also to be built into something new. Here we are in the words of St. Paul to the Ephesians ‘being built into a house where God lives, in the Spirit’.   We are never visitors in a church. We are not even its owners. But we are part of what it is, what it stands for: its bricks and mortar in our flesh, its beauty and form in our virtue, its praise and liturgy in our lives.

We gather here today, after two hundred years of worship on this site to celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and we are here not just to give thanks for what we know God has done for us in the past, but also and especially to give thanks for the new life God gives us now in the present, and which we know God offers us from this moment, throughout our lives and in generations to come. The God we worship through Jesus Christ is the timeless and eternal God whose one unchanging gift is the gift of constantly changing and growing new life as we move ever closer to God in lives of love and service to God and one another.

In his First Letter St. Peter tells us: “Come and let yourselves be built, as living stones, into a spiritual temple; become a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  All of us gathered here today are that new temple, the community of believers, and the house of prayer for all people. We are built up by faith, as living stones, into the new temple. We are the temple in which God dwells, and where God and humankind are to be reconciled. We are the living stones of the new temple and in the Eucharist we share in Christ’s offering of himself to God on our behalf and through our lives in the world we are to share what we have received from him by living sacrificially among our neighbors.

The 175 year history of the Ancient Order of Hibernians is intimately connected to the history of Old St. Patrick’s Basilica. If it were not for the Irish and the Ancient Order of Hibernians the other historical events of this church may not have been possible. In the 1830’s there was a great deal of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment. The need to defend the Cathedral against mob violence was not uncommon. The “Know Nothing Party” organized Protestants to march against the Cathedral. Mobs and vigilante groups shouting anti-Catholic epitaphs threatened the Cathedral and vowed to burn the Cathedral to the ground. At this point Archbishop Hughes enlisted the Irish and in particular the Ancient Order of Hibernians to surround the walls of the Cathedral and safeguard the church. At this time Archbishop Hughes wrote to the New York Mayor and told him: “Should one Catholic come to harm, or should one business be molested, we shall turn this city into a second Moscow.”   Although the AOH was able to save the Cathedral, they were not able to prevent the anti-papist mob who stoned the beautiful stained glass windows of both the church and the Bishop’s residence.  For 175 years the Ancient Order of Hibernians has continued to defend the church and its priests during times of both turbulence and peace.

Just as all of us who make up the Body of Christ give life to the bricks, stone, wood and steel of a church, likewise, the Order of Hibernians is more than just the AOH logo on a division building or the AOH emblem on the top of stationery. Just as we are the living and breathing members of the Church so we must give life to our Hibernian virtues of Friendship, Unity, and Christian Charity. As members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians when we perform the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy in our everyday lives, we are Christ to others.

We are Christ when we protect the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until the time when our heavenly Father summons us to the Eternal Kingdom. We are Christ to the world when we provide clothing for the homeless, provide meals for the hungry, and work at food banks so that poor families may have some nourishing meals. We are Christ when we support the various Hibernian Charities not only by our material donations but the gift of ourselves.  We are Christ when we fight for fair immigration laws not only for the Irish immigrants but for every immigrant who legally wishes to pursue freedom and the American dream. We are Christ when we support seminarians and novices through project St. Patrick and enable these men and women to pursue their vocations. We are Christ when we provide scholarship funds for deserving students who wish to pursue their academic dreams. We are Christ when we continue to fight for a free and independent Ireland so that perhaps by the centennial of the Easter Rising in 2016 we will have a united free and independent Ireland.

So let us remember that what we come here today to celebrate is not some nostalgic snap shot of the past “good old days,” but to give thanks to God for the new life that Christ gives to us now here in the present.

As Hibernians we are alive, we are grateful for the glorious years of our past, but we must continue to be active in the present and be dynamically committed to the future because years from now we need future Hibernians to look back on us with the same awe with which we have looked back at 175 years of faithful and committed people. Thanks be to God for our parents, grandparents and great grandparents for preserving and bringing our Catholic faith from the Emerald Isle. Thanks be to God for the United States for making possible to practice our Catholic faith in freedom, and thanks be to all of you my Hibernian Brothers and Sisters for being part of this history.

During the next five years may all of us work and pray especially for the unification of Ireland by 2016. In the year 2036 the Ancient Order of Hibernians will gather once again to celebrate the 200 years of its founding, with God’s help may that bicentennial celebration also include the 20th Anniversary of a United Ireland where there is One Island, One Nation with Freedom and Justice for all.



Pope Benedict chooses historic St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral as New York City’s first basilica

The original St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City was then, as the new one now, the center of religious life for members of the Archdiocese of New York and the seat of the Archbishop. The oldest Roman Catholic Church building in New York City, it played vital social and political roles in the lives of young immigrants, helping them adapt to their new home

Now known as Old St Patrick’s, the cathedral on Prince and Mott streets had served the Irish immigrant population since 1809. Land for a new cathedral was purchased in 1852 and construction started in 1859. Before the new cathedral could be completed, St Patrick’s was ravaged by fire in 1866. The cathedral was restored and rededicated by John Cardinal McClosky in 1868

Mangin was designing the cathedral while his most prominent work, New York City Hall was being constructed. Though more Gothically ecclesiastical, one can see echoes of Mangin’s City Hall design in the cathedral.

On June 8, 1809 the cornerstone of the original St. Patrick’s “Old” Cathedral‚ was laid. On May 14, 1815, it was dedicated and the New York Gazette described it as “a grand and beautiful church, which may justly be considered one of the greatest ornaments of our city….”

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was New York’s first Cathedral, at the start of this Country, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in America named for the Patron Saint of Ireland. St. Patrick’s has dignity and character in its stark simplicity. The side walls are 75 feet high, the inner vault is 85 feet high. The church measures over 120 feet long and 80 feet in width. the huge marble altar near the western wall, surrounded by ornately hand-carved, gold leaf reredos, containing some of the finest religious statuary in the United States.

On the very same grounds you will find New York City’s only Russian Catholic Church – St. Michael’s – still celebrating its ancient liturgies every week. The complex includes six buildings, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places – including St. Patrick’s school, which served as a Revolutionary War hospital and was called “Dead House” Later it was transformed into an orphanage where America’s first Saint, Mother Elizabeth Seton, established her order- the Sisters of Charity. The building was gifted to the church by Cornelius Heeney, an early 19th century philanthropist who loved children. An 18th century graveyard surrounds St. Patrick’s. The Rectory is located in the Bishop’s former residence at 263 Mulberry Street, not far from the church.

At the other end of St. Pat’s is the choir loft and the historic 1868 Henry Erben pipe organ. Henry Erben was the most well known organ builder not in New York City and America, in general.

Underneath the church there is a labyrinth of mortuary vaults and the cemetery outside contains old graves and tombstones. Buried here is the Venerable Pierre Toussaint, a Black New Yorker, born a slave in Haiti, whose elevation to sainthood is now under study in Rome.
St. Patrick’s is also the original burial site of Bishop Hughes – “Dagger John” and New York’s first Bishops. Founders of the Emigrant Savings Bank have family plots in the crypt; Andrew Carrigan, Peter Hargous and others. Also interred here are Dominic Lynch, first President of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and a ratifier of the Constitution. Countess Annie Leary, the first woman in America to be made a Papal Countess, also rests below the cathedral.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral has been the site of many important events in American history. In1835, Bishop John Hughes was forced to assemble the parishioners to defend the Cathedral against anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant mob violence that threatened the Cathedral. Chanting epitaphs such as “Paddies of the Pope…” these vigilantes were determined to “burn her to the ground.” The need to defend the Cathedral against mob-violence wasn’t uncommon. The “Know Nothing Party” organized Protestants to march on St. Patrick’s. Hughes wrote to New York Mayor James Harper saying “Should one Catholic come to harm, or should one Catholic business be molested, we shall turn this city into a second Moscow.”

Archbishop Hughes’ decision to arm the Ancient Order of Hibernians and position them on the walls surrounding the Cathedral, prevented these attempts, but the anti-papist mob did stone the beautiful stained glass windows of both the church and the Bishop’s residence. Hibernian Hall was located across the street from St. Patrick’s in the 1800s continued to defend the church and its priests during times of both turbulence and peace.

Not all of the Cathedral’s history was troubled. St. John Neuman was ordained to the priesthood at St. Patrick’s. Archbishop Hughes was the first priest elevated to the Episcopate in St. Patrick’s and on Tuesday, April 27th, 1875, Archbishop John McCloskey received the zucchetto rosso, the red-skull cap, in St. Patrick’s, Pope Pius IX having made him the very first American Cardinal. Attending the auspicious occasion were future U.S. President Chester Arthur, Mayor William H. Wickham, and other leaders of the day.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln invited Archbishop Hughes to represent America as his envoy to France, Spain and England, hoping to dissuade them from aiding and abetting the Southern Confederacy.

Shortly after President Lincoln called for troops, the “Fighting 69th” Regiment, lead by Colonel Michael Corcoran, Thomas Francis Meagher and former Congressman, U.S. Attorney and Abolitionist – Captain John McKeon, headed off to what would be the Battle of Bull Run – and they were the only Union regiment that did not flee. The New York Irish Brigade, mainly men of the parish, fought heroically for the Union and the abolition slavery. Many of those soldiers lie in the cemeteries surrounding St. Patrick’s.

Seventy-five-percent of the Irish Brigade died in battle. War’s end left with many widows and orphans. A few years later, with the emigration of the Italians to America the neighborhood changed from Irish to Italian, giving the neighborhood its new name – Little Italy. The Italian community soon made St. Patrick’s theirs and have contributed some of the finest stained-glass work in North America to the church, as well as many vocations.

On May 25, 1879 The Old Cathedral role as the seat of the Archdiocese of New York ended and it became a parish church. This change resulted from building of our present day Cathedral of St. Patrick on 50th Street and Fifth Avenue.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is a church of the people, generations after generations, built modern day America. This church nurtured the Irish, Germans, French, and Italian communities as they arrived in this new world. Italian-Americans and Dominicans comprise today’s parish . The Chinese community is served at the church on Broome Street – Most Holy Crucifix, established in 1925.

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is in “The Heart of Old New York”, Little Italy – on the edge of the Bowery and SoHo, just north of Chinatown. St. Pat’s parish is robust, regularly celebrating liturgies in English, Spanish and Chinese.

Serving this community for almost 200 years, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral looks forward to serving for many years to come.


In a letter to Cardinal Select Wuerl from our National Chaplain Father Tom O’Donnell

Your Excellency,

It is with great joy that the National Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America congratulates you on your elevation by Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI to the Sacred College of Cardinals. Your election as a Cardinal is of special significance to the AOH since you are a member of Division Nine in Allegheny County Pennsylvania.

In addition to the congratulations of the AOH National Board, we bring you fraternal greetings from all of your Hibernian Brothers in Allegheny County.  The AOH Brothers will always remember your celebration of the Eucharist for us at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Masses and Communion Breakfasts as well as your marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parades no matter what the weather conditions were.

On a personal note, I feel a sense of pride in the fact that for eighteen years I was the pastor of St. Wendelin Church where you were baptized on December 8, 1940.

Your Eminence, you can be assured of the prayers and best wishes of all the members of the AOH as well as all of you friends in Pittsburgh that Holy Spirit will continue to be with you and guide you in your new duties and responsibilities as a Prince of the Church.

Fraternally in Unity, Fraternity and Christian Charity,

Rev. Thomas M. O’Donnell

AOH National Chaplain