The Secrets of a Sacred Underground

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The outdoor cemetery at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is filled with 200-year-old gravestones. It’s part of a tour of the catacombs beneath the church.

On a warm spring day, nine people were gathered inside a cold crypt beneath the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street. “This is the size of a standard New York apartment,” the tour guide, Brandon Duncan, said to the Texas and Austrian tourists standing in the spacious room — the final resting place of a long-forgotten Civil War general.

a man standing in front of a brick building: Thomas Wilkinson partnered with St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on the tour, which has been a financial boon for the parish.

Overhead were polished Guastavino tiles, original Edison light fixtures and space for eight more bodies, marble lids propped up and ready. “It’s sort of like a hostel situation,” Mr. Duncan said, glancing up at the empty bunks. The general, Thomas Eckert, left varying degrees of inheritance to his children, who wound up bickering and perhaps decided not to spend eternity together, Mr. Duncan explained.

Eckert’s vault doesn’t get family visitors anymore, but provides the grand finale of a 90-minute candlelight catacombs tour, opening up one of New York’s most secret spaces to the public. St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral — often referred to as the other St. Patrick’s Cathedral — recently developed this and other programming to help pay for the church’s upkeep and its historic outdoor cemetery, the only active Roman Catholic cemetery in Manhattan.

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“We have a long way to go in making the grounds the way we want them,” Msgr. Donald Sakano, who took charge of the NoLIta parish a decade ago, said. “The gravestones are deteriorating as we speak, the soft stone losing inscriptions.”

a black and white photo of a building: The entrance to the catacombs.

The outdoor cemetery, filled with 200-year-old gravestones, some damaged and piled on the perimeter, is also part of the catacombs tour that is helping to enlighten tourists and New Yorkers about the sacred ground behind the blocklong brick wall on Prince Street.

Tour guides carry flashlights and large sets of keys, unlocking door after door and gate after gate to reveal the cathedral’s history, using pocket projectors to display old photos and other images on the darkened walls of the catacombs. Thomas Wilkinson, who dreamed up the tour in partnership with the church and is the name behind Tommy’s New York walking tours, said the candlelight was his idea. It gives the sensation, he said, “of what it would have been like to come down here when the catacombs first opened in 1815 when there was no electricity and you would have entered by candlelight or torch.”

a sign on a brick building: Many famous figures were buried in the crypt, including “Honest John” Kelly, Boss William Tweed’s successor at Tammany Hall.

On the tour, visitors learn that the cathedral was the largest in the United States when it was completed in 1815, and the seat of the first bishop of the Diocese of New York. Its wall was built between 1832 and 1833 to protect against marauding bands of Protestants, who were burning down Roman Catholic churches in New York City. Ironically, much of the wooden cathedral interior burned to the ground in 1866 in a fire sparked by an ember from a stove. (LED candles are now used on the subterranean tours.)

a person standing in front of a brick wall

There are no bones scattered in these catacombs, as in the more ancient ones in Paris and Rome. Visitors, holding their small LED candles, are led down the sparsely lit 120-foot-long crypt corridor with marked, sealed vaults on either side.

Five priests, two bishops and 33 families were buried here. Many of the figures were famous at the time but are now mostly forgotten: People like Archbishop John J. Hughes, known as Dagger John because of his aggressive nature and the cross he placed next to his signature, which resembled a dagger. (Hughes was disinterred after 18 years and moved to the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral uptown, which opened in 1879.)

Among the others: Countess Annie Leary, a friend of the Astors, a Catholic benefactor who helped both the Irish and Italian communities; “Honest John” Kelly, Boss William Tweed’s successor at Tammany Hall; Charles O’Connor, the lawyer who took down Tweed; and the Delmonico family, restaurateurs credited with introducing baked alaska, eggs Benedict and lobster Newburg.

Visitors are led through the upstairs cathedral as well, which Francis Ford Coppola used in the baptism scene in “The Godfather.”

“That baby was Sofia Coppola,” Mr. Duncan told the group, standing on the altar. “It was bring your daughter to work day or maybe he couldn’t find a sitter.” The small crowd laughed.

They were then taken up through the cathedral’s Erben pipe organ, the size of a New York City townhouse. While the organ was being tuned, Mr. Duncan led the crowd past its nearly 2,500 pipes, its bellows and intricate workings.

“After 150 years it doesn’t sound as clear as it used to,” he explained. “A lot of the pipes have developed soot. It wheezes and coughs. Some of the leather is torn and the wood cracked.”

a black and white photo of a church: The tour also takes visitors inside the cathedral.

The church has formed a nonprofit group to raise $2 million to restore the organ, and had Martin Scorsese, the most famous altar boy from St. Patrick’s, headline a fund-raiser last fall during which he talked about growing up in the neighborhood.

a piano keyboard: Jared Lamenzo, organist and director of music at the church, playing the organ.

“Donate one million dollars and they will name the organ after you,” Mr. Duncan told the visitors. “If you’re interested, I can put you in touch.” They laughed again.

The tours have provided much-needed income for the parish, Frank Alfieri, director of development and the cemetery, said. St. Patrick’s operates six buildings — including a rectory, a youth center, a former convent, the Shrine Church of the Most Precious Blood and the former Russian Catholic St. Michael’s — and is constantly besieged with roof repairs, plumbing issues and cemetery upkeep.

a wooden bench: A foot pedal on the organ.

“The church struggles to pay the bills here,” Mr. Alfieri said. But the money has not been the only benefit of the tour, which has been around a year and a half. “It’s become a source of understanding the church and what it’s meant to this neighborhood for the past two centuries,” he said. “We have opened up these exclusive spaces that have never been open to the public.”

Heather Walker, who was with a group of women from Fort Worth, Tex., said they had picked the tour because it was quirky and not your run-of-the-mill walking tour. “I loved the history of it and how he brought it all together,” she said. “It wasn’t just a hole in the ground.”

The only tour in the city that bears a resemblance to this one is the annual Halloween crypt crawl at St. John the Divine, a space that’s used mostly for storage but includes the tombs of two bishops and a church dean.

Mr. Wilkinson, who oversees three to four tours a day, seven days a week at St. Patrick’s, became so enamored with the church that he’s now a parishioner. The tours are such a success that he is developing other programming, including an audience-participation re-creation of one of the first over-the-top weddings in America, The Diamond Wedding, which was held at the cathedral in 1859. A copy of the elaborate Victorian wedding gown will be designed and sewn.

The cathedral’s Erben pipe organ is  the size of a New York City townhouse. Visitors are shown its nearly 2,500 pipes, its bellows and intricate workings.

“Think ‘Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding’ but more high-end,” Mr. Alfieri said. Mr. Wilkinson is also developing a tour called Pull Out All the Stops, focusing on the musical history of the church, including an organ recital.

In addition to the tours, the cathedral is bringing the catacombs into the 21st century (and raising extra income) by selling cremation niches for those looking for a final resting place. To date, 352 niches have been filled, but hundreds more are being built and sold on a first-come-first-served basis. Niches in the underground catacombs sell for $10,000 to $15,000.

A full family crypt, the last of its kind in the cathedral, is available for $7 million — the cost of a two-bedroom apartment on Elizabeth Street by current real estate standards. But the crypt can be broken up, with individual coffin burial starting at $850,000. (By comparison, General Eckert’s entire crypt cost $83,000 back in 1904. Today that would be the equivalent of more than $2 million.)

“People from the neighborhood look over the wall longingly,” Monsignor Sakano said. “It’s almost like you want to stay in the neighborhood with your eternal affordable housing.”

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Catacombs of New York: An Historic Underground Tour

Tours are offered daily at the Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in NoLIta; tommysnewyork.com/catacombs.

Catacombs of New York: An Historic Underground TourTours are daily at the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan; tommysnewyork.com/catacombs.

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