Popular catacomb tours at New York cathedral offer lessons in city's Catholic history

NEW YORK (OSV News) -- "Catacombs by Candlelight" perhaps conjures images of a subterranean tour in Rome led by a guide wearing a headlamp. In New York, it's the name of a revenue-generating history lesson told while exploring the cemetery and burial vaults of one of the city's oldest Catholic churches. At the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, the tour's tone is respectful and the candles are battery-operated LED models.

Frank Alfieri, the basilica's director of cemetery and columbaria, said the tours were established in 2017 to communicate and monetize the historical significance of the property, which has been an active mainstay of the lower Manhattan area for more than 200 years.

The parish is bordered by Mulberry, Prince and Mott Streets in a gentrified area dubbed Nolita (for "North of Little Italy"). The land on which it stands was originally a farm purchased in 1801 for use as a cemetery by St. Peter's Church, the city's first Catholic parish, still located about one mile southwest on Barclay Street. When it opened in 1815, St. Patrick's served as New York's first cathedral until the new St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue was dedicated in 1879. In 2010, the Old Cathedral was named a basilica.

The Catacombs by Candlelight tours are operated by Thomas Wilkinson, principal of Tommy's Tours. He and his 12 employees conduct eight 80-minute tours five days a week for groups as large as 40. On the other days, they accommodate special group requests from historians and parish, school and fraternal organizations.

Wilkinson said approximately half of the participants are foreign visitors, and its American participants include both New Yorkers and out-of-towners.

"This church is still pretty much unknown by many native New Yorkers, but the tours scaled up very quickly, and this is now a popular destination on par with other larger attractions in the city," he said.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, guide Leo Goodman unlocked a door in a brick wall to usher his group into the cemetery. He pointed out the oldest legible headstone, dating from 1803.

He stopped at the site of the original grave of Haitian-born sainthood candidate Pierre Toussaint, who came to New York as an enslaved man. Toussaint became a successful hairdresser and devoted himself to helping the poor and sick. He was a 66-year parishioner of St. Peter's Church and a donor to the building fund for Old St. Patrick's.

Toussaint's body was moved to the more familiar St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in 1989 when the cause for his canonization was advanced. He was declared venerable in 1996.

Goodman backed up to a reinforced wall of the cemetery that was built in 1834 to protect the church and the graveyard from destruction by nativist Protestant gangs. Amid another wave of anti-Catholic riots in 1844, while a torchlight parade prepared to march on the church, then-Bishop John J. Hughes marshaled thousands of Irish immigrants to defend the cathedral. He stationed sharpshooters on the wall and warned the New York mayor of fiery consequences if Catholics were harmed. The violence was averted, and Bishop Hughes' nickname "Dagger John" was secured.

Before descending to the catacombs, tourists got a chance to see the three wooly sheep who are seasonally employed to control the grass in the cemetery and, not coincidentally, attract the attention of passersby.

The catacombs were developed before the church was built above them, and Wilkinson surmised they may have generated the funds needed to begin the construction. They consist of 37 hermetically sealed family and group vaults arrayed along three 120-foot corridors. Most of the vaults have marble facades and bear the now-unfamiliar names of prominent 19th-century New York Catholics of Irish, German, French and Spanish heritage.

Wilkerson said the vaults' walls are 30 inches thick and each may contain the mortal remains of as many as 15 people. Complete records are not available, and vaults have not been disturbed to confirm specific occupancy. A single ornate mausoleum was built for Gen. Thomas Eckert, a confidant of Abraham Lincoln and later an executive at Western Union. Eckert's crypt is open to view and features imported ceiling tiles and original Edison light fixtures.

The catacombs were included in a restoration of the church that was completed in 2015. At that time, lighting, air circulation and walkways were improved. Niches for inurnment of cremated remains were added adjacent to the vaults. Similar aboveground niches were installed in the cemetery. Alfieri said some 500 of the 600 new niches have been sold.

Tours end in the soaring body of the church, where the influence of successive generations of Irish, Italian, Chinese and Hispanic immigrants is seen in art work and devotional details.

Tickets range from $30-37. According to Alfieri, the tours generate more than $25,000 a month for the programs and upkeep of the parish. They also are a form of evangelization.

"The tours have a historical and landmark perspective and we're not reciting Scripture, but on a peripheral and very subliminal level, there is evangelization," Alfieri said. "Any time you can get somebody into a church, there is a possibility you can evangelize, even nonverbally. A church gives you a small glimpse of heaven."

Grace Pfeifle booked the tour because her sister Tess was visiting from Washington, she said. Self-described Irish Catholics, they said they were impressed with the engaging presentation of historical details, including the spirited defense of the cathedral by Irish clergy and laymen.

Emdree Anne Lacasse and Remy Lemelin, Catholics from Quebec, toured with family members. They said they appreciated the rich history of Catholics in New York and the seamless way in which the guide linked past and present.

Lemelin had anticipated the experience might be akin to visiting dank catacombs in Paris and Rome established in response to an epidemic. He said he was not disappointed at all to find clean dry walkways through the well-ventilated crypt.

And he was delighted by the cemetery sheep.

- - - Beth Griffin writes for OSV News from New York.