A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Built Chiefly by the Pennies of the Poor

credit: Library of Congress

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. 



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Luke - I agree with your assessment of Morris's book.

One summer when I was young, our family vacation was to Washington DC.  One of the sites we visited was the national shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  As we toured it, my father told me that when he was in Catholic grade school (this would have been the 1940s), the religious sister teachers would periodically collect a penny from every student to fund the shrine's construction.  Whether that made a significant dent in the overall budget, I don't know.  I think he felt that he and his classmates had some stake in its completion, though.


It might help us to ask why is it that we came to this point when we not only accept, but applaud,  the outrageous amount of money the bishops control. In our guts we were convinced that giving to the church was the most holy and beneficial way to help others. Believe it or not this thinking came to fruition in the sixth century when acres of real estate and wealth fell into the bishop's hands. In the sixth century and onwards disturbing the lands of the bishops was tantamount to robbing the poor. Read this quote from Peter Brown:

"Let us, therefore, linger a little on the implications of the cluster of expectations that gathered around the wealth of the church and its relation to the care of the poor. What exactly did contemporaries mean when they spoke of the estates of the church as the “patrimonies of the poor”? In this, we are dealing with the construction of a model of society that carried a considerable imaginative charge, derived from very real preoccupations in society at large. These preoccupations were shared by both those who administered the wealth of the church and those who contributed to that wealth as donors. In the long run, it had palpable effects, on the ground, for the deployment of wealth by the bishops. For it soaked the routine administration of the wealth of the church with a pathos and a sense of the untouchable that was lacking in any form of lay landownership. In the first place, the notion that the wealth of the church was the wealth of the poor was mobilized to ensure that the administration of church lands was kept clean. To disperse , embezzle, or misuse these properties was to rob the innumerable, helpless persons for whom this wealth was said to be held in trust. Appeals to the rights of the poor brought to bear a heavy language of disapprobation on erring bishops and clergymen. The very last Senatus consultum of which we know was issued by the Senate of Rome in 532 .


Brown, Peter (2012-09-02). Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD (p. 507). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. 

   It was inscribed on marble plaques that were set up in the great courtyard of Saint Peter’s. It concerned church property. It warned competing candidates in an upcoming papal election that they should not mortgage the lands of the church for funds to support their election campaigns: “In such a way the properties of the poor are burdened with debt so as to pay for election promises.” 15 In the opinion of the Senate of Rome , to rob the poor in this manner was unpardonable. But the appeal to the notion of the poor as the victims par excellence of the misuse and appropriation of church wealth derived its power from yet wider concerns. In the canons of the councils of fifth- and sixth-century Gaul we can see the emergence of a distinctive discourse that linked the integrity of church property to the perpetual rights of the poor. Those who robbed the church of its lands— both those who directly appropriated church property and those who held back bequests made to the church by members of their family— were deemed to be nothing less than necatores pauperum, “murderers of the poor.” 16 They were solemnly cursed. At the council of Tours in 567 bishops and their clergy were urged to gather together so as to chant the solemn malediction of Psalm 108 in unison against such defaulters: Because he did not remember to show mercy but persecuted the poor and needy and sought to kill the broken hearted (Psalm 108 [109]: 15). 17 Everyone knew who the broken hearted were. They were not the poor gathered in the courtyard of the church but the bishop and his clergy whose rights (exercised on behalf of the poor) had been flouted."




I don't have the appropriate books on New York Catholic history handy right now (as I use public library collections), but my recollection is that fairs held inside the unfinished cathedral contributed mightily to fund raising. Three things struck me in whatever history book I was reading: 1) What was sold at the stalls was handiwork produced by women; 2) Seen in an engraving, the merchandise stalls were arranged throughout the cathedral expanse as an indoor market; something rarely seen now; 3) Parishes have fairs nowadays to raise money, but this seems to have been more like a market fair of the 19th century.

A 45 minute podcast about the history of St Patrick's Cathedral (you may have to use the satellite site):


"I think he felt that he and his classmates had some stake in its completion, though."

Considering the atrocious outcome resulting from that fund-raising,  he and his classmates may not feel so proud of their efforts.

As ugly church buildings go, it is near the top.  Mariolotry gone mad.

Agree, Jim McCrea.  A truly hideous structure.  Cold and creepy and depressing.  And the enormous gift shop downstairs?  Full of stuff so weird, so creepy and depressing.  

Given that the poor of New York gave so very much to the building of the cathedral, that implies that a beautiful church must have been very important to them .  Perhaps it was more important to them than to the rest of us -- unlike them we don't usually give  until it hurts. Shame on us.

ISTM that there is no either/or in this country in normal times about supporting the various needs of the Church.  But I'll grant you, these aren't normal times, so very big bucks on a new cathedral makes no sense.  

Isn't the problem that the laity were/are conditioned to think that building an edifice is more important than feeding and housing the poor and those who do not make a living wage????????

Man does not live by bread alone.  Poor people want beauty in their lives as much as hte rest of us, only they have a great deal less of it.  That's what being poor is -- hunger and lots of ugliness. The poor people in the ugly, deteriorating old neighborhoods and in the new concrete ghettos must long for beauty.  No wonder they appreciate beautiful churches. 

I notice that a lot of the brouhaha about closing churches often comes from people in very old neighborhoods where the affluent have moved out.  White poor people also love their beautiful churches, especially the fine old ones.  (No, I'm not saying they're beautiful *because* they're old.)

In Rome, Quebec City and many other places there are so many empty churches. Monuments to the money changers. There is plenty of beauty in God's universe. Why poor people have to support an edifice is a fallacy spinned by a monarchichal church. All those large churches did not impress the people of the French Revolution. Nor did it impress the starving Irish which had to leave that totally Catholic country in search of food. 

Cardinal Dolan, Manoney et alii perpetuate the myth of buildings over people while saying this is what the people want.  It is a lot of dreaming going nowhere. St James of Compostela is big money for its location and provides fantasy for those who go there. Meanwhile the church lingers in mediocrity. And what is his big claim to fame. Slaying the Moors.  I have sat through many speeches of clergyman boasting of their building bricks. Few on building up the church. 

The hierarchy has been quite successful in building churches. Much less in building spirit. 

The Irish not only appreciated their churches, they built them.  Nobody here is saying churches are more important than food.

I agree Ann;I'm of the  "Man does not live by bread alone" school[emphasis].It was actually a church building[Jesus, actually of course and  at work in my life ] that brought me back to the Church.I had left the church since a teen and when my father died when I was in my 30's ,the sudden shock and reality of death overwhelmed me with horror. I went out for a walk at night and for the first time I noticed my neighborhood church .I had walked by it many times and never thought about it. Now as  walked by it I was overwhelmed by it's presence.I thought how it looked just like the church  in Bklyn. my father took me to when I was a child.I thought to myself; they should burn down all the churches on earth because there obviously is no God, Death is death,so horribly the end. What a lie  these churches proclaim.That was the start however for a desire for God and a return to the Church.[Through a cowoker actually who intuited my angst and whose first words to me were; your problem is you don't believe in God.My father had been saying that to me for years]. A world without churches! Like  that Joni Mitchell song says we don't know what we have till its gone.

rose-ellen ==

Thanks for your story.  Thank the Lord you walked past the church that evening and not in a different direction.  Though I'm firmly convinced that the Lord sometimes does nudge us to do   a particular thing.

Do you have any general thoughts about whey young people are leaving the Church?  I know there are many reasons, but sometimes we old folks just aren't aware of what's going on in the minds and hearts of the young people or why some things present problems to them.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment