The Secrets of a Sacred Underground


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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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