Burial sites in Manhattan are relatively rare. In 1852, the New York Legislature passed a law prohibiting new burials in Manhattan. Just a few years before, bodies in Manhattan had been moved en masse to cemeteries in Queens. Possible cholera epidemics from polluted water were avoided, and Manhattan lost a little of its macabre story potential. But some bodies in Little Italy survived (figuratively) the 1850s upheaval of the dead.
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, which, as of late 2010, became the only basilica in Manhattan, stands on Mulberry Street, between Prince and Houston. Its property was originally purchased in 1801 for use as a Catholic cemetery, and its construction was completed in 1815. Since then, it’s been the seat of the Archdiocese of New York, was declared a New York City landmark and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, was the scene of anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant riots, and has been the setting for the baptism scene in The Godfather Part II. (And if all that weren’t enough, 30 Rock‘s Alec Baldwin got married there just last year).
And, of course, it has been the site of many funerals. Many members of the faith were enclosed in brick and cement crypts. In the lower level of this historic landmark is a labyrinth of vaults for bodies. They belonged largely to the wealthy—to bankers, lawyers, captains of industry, merchants, and even to Civil War-era generals.
Today, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is overshadowed by the newer St. Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue. The newer church even took one of the Old Cathedral’s most notable remains; the venerable slave-turned-philanthropist Pierre Toussaint is now interred at the new Cathedral. But if you want stories, spiritual presences, or just fewer crowds on your next crypt tour, you might want to take a trip to Little Italy.
Get in touch with the author @laraelmayan.