Favorite St. Patrick’s Cathedral fact: when the cornerstone was laid, in 1858, the church was so far outside the “city” that it was ridiculed as “Hughes’s Folly.” If I ever have access to a time machine, my first stops will be to various points in New York’s past; I’d like to see the time when Midtown was nothing but wilderness and no one thought the city would ever extend so far north.
Now, of course, St. Patrick’s is the epitome of an urban church, sandwiched between Rockefeller Center and Madison Avenue, surrounded by luxury shopping. (The Manhattan flagship location of Burberry is a block away.) Unlike downtown Trinity Church — only a decade or two older than St. Patrick’s — which sticks out like a 19th century oasis among the modern buildings, the imposing, almost ostentatious cathedral seems to fit right in with its surroundings and the Midtown crowds.
Unsurprisingly for a church with a ~150-year history and many wealthy patrons, St. Patrick’s is stuffed with ornate art, from stained glass windows to elaborate altars lining the north and south walls to sculptures, such as a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà (according to my tour guide, 3 times the size of the original, necessitating some changes in the figures’ arrangements). There are altars dedicated to a number of saints, including one with an unorthodox aesthetic commemorating Elizabeth Seton, an early American saint (and a New Yorker).
St. Patrick’s is open to visitors every day, including public masses. They also offer guided tours on most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (check the schedule), or by appointment for larger groups. If you can time your visit for a guided tour, I recommend it, since guides can take you into the high altar and the crypt — both otherwise closed to visitors.
So — worth a visit? If you’re Catholic and the cathedral is personally, religiously meaningful to you, definitely. If you’re going more for the history or art, there’s certainly plenty of both to be had. For a short-term trip to New York, though, I don’t think this is a necessity on your schedule.
Location: 5th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets
Nearest Public Transit: E/M at 5 Av/53 St; 6 at 51 St; B/D/F/M at 47-50 Sts – Rockefeller Ctr
Estimated Timespan: Tour takes approximately 1 hour
Cost: Free ($5 suggested donation)