Magazine article The Christian Century

Old Catholic Cathedral in New York City Offers Tours of Catacombs

Magazine article The Christian Century

Old Catholic Cathedral in New York City Offers Tours of Catacombs

Article excerpt

Thomas Wilkinson removes his hat before entering the Basilica of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral in Lower Manhattan. Beneath the arching, cast-iron beams and in front of the altar, he crosses himself and turns to the group he is leading on his Catacombs by Candlelight tour.

Wilkinson explains that the baptism scene in The Godfather was filmed here; Sofia Coppola was the baby. The group exits a side door at the front of the church and descends narrow stairs to the lower level. Wilkinson distributes electric tea lights before the wooden double doors that lead to the most anticipated part of the tour. A hush overcomes the group, and Wilkinson opens the doors.

Until June, the Old Cathedral's catacombs--the city's only subterranean cemetery with recesses for tombs--were not open to the public. But now visitors can take one of three daily tours with Tommy's New York, Wilkinson's company and the Old Cathedral's exclusive tour partner. Wilkinson, 47, a lifelong Staten Islander and parishioner, tells little-known stories of the Old Cathedral, which was the center of Catholic New York before St. Patrick's Cathedral was built uptown.

"I never foresaw that a church could be a potential business partner like this," Wilkinson said. "It's an eye-opener because people get so excited about the rediscovery of pieces of history down here."

Wilkinson first met the Old Cathedral's current monsignor, Donald Sakano, at an Italian American organization's meeting in the neighborhood of the cathedral. The monsignor realized Wilkinson's tour business could fulfill a need: locals and tourists often came by the Old Cathedral asking for tours.

Wilkinson, who founded his company in 2015, now focuses exclusively on the Catacombs by Candlelight tour. He prices the tours at $35 per person and splits the proceeds evenly with the Old Cathedral.

The cornerstone of the Old Cathedral--the second-oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, after Baltimore's--was laid in 1809. From 1850 to 1879, it was the seat of the Archdiocese of New York. Some of New York's most prominent Catholics are buried there. The cathedral, still a parish church, was where film director Martin Scorsese served as an altar boy.

If the walls surrounding the Old Cathedral could talk, they would be fluent in Gaelic, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese, thanks to the immigrants who have worshiped within them. The walls might explain that they were built in the mid-1800s as protection from antiCatholic mobs.

"This church has been a silent witness to the changing times of this neighborhood," said Frank Alfieri, director of the cemetery and columbaria and head of development at the Old Cathedral. He trusts Wilkinson to tell its story: "He's done his due diligence. He's researched everything. He documents everything."

But Wilkinson also tries to make the history fun. The wisecracking tour guide mixes stories about Catholic traditions with general New York history, pop culture, and architecture facts. "It's infotainment," he said. "I've tried to take as much of the religion out of it so it can have mass appeal, no pun intended."

He guides about 15 people per tour per weekday and as many as 38 people per tour on weekends. They snake through the two graveyards, shuffle into the church, climb to the 1868 Henry Erben pipe organ in the balcony, and explore the catacombs. …

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