Built Chiefly by the Pennies of the Poor
Luke Hill January 3, 2014 - 3:58pm
If Pope Francis' words really are causing Cardinal Dolan, billionaire businessman Ken Langone, and others at the heart of the fundraising campaign to restore St. Patrick's Cathedral to lose out on "major gifts" by wealthy would-be benefactors, they can take some measure of comfort from the cathedral's original construction.
In his terrific 1997 book, American Catholic, Charles R. Morris uses the dedication of the still-unfinished cathedral on May 25, 1879 as his starting point for understanding the history of the US Catholic Church.
"The brute fact was that the Catholics of New York could not afford the cathedral that Renwick had designed...." (p. 17)
"(Archbishop) Hughes' cost estimate, unfortunately, was at least three or four times too small, and he also greatly overestimated how much money he could raise from the wealthy...." (p. 17)
When Hughes' successor, Archbishop McCloskey restarted construction after the Civil War, "there was no place to turn to for the $2 million or so still required, except to working-class Catholics". (p. 18)
At that magnificent opening Mass, Bishop Patrick Ryan of St. Louis highlighted this history in his homily:
"And what shall I say to you---the children of toil---who...glory in what has been said, as if in reproach, 'that the great Cathedral of New York was built chiefly by the pennies of the poor.' The pennies of the poor! . . . It is appropriate that the poor whom (Christ) so honored should aid in the building of His house which is also their home. We accept, then, the imagined reproach as an honor, and we ask in turn where in this great city have the thousands of bondholders erected a temple like this temple, built up and adorned by the 'pennies of the poor.'" (p. 20 - 21, emphasis added)
Apparently no wealthy US Catholics in 1879 thought to warn Bishop Ryan that "you get more with honey than with vinegar".
About the Author
Luke Hill is a writer and community organizer in Boston. He blogs at dotCommonweal and MassCommons.