The American Catholic Almanac, co-written by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, is a daily reader of American Catholics who changed the United States. It tells of Catholics who stepped foot on this soil long before the American founding, through the early years of the nation, and to the present day, visiting all kinds of people and places in between. Saints and sinners appear alongside heroes, children, politicians, athletes, and artists who all have one thing in common: their Catholic faith. To be released on September 30. Pre-order now to get your copy!
Every Thursday in September leading up to The American Catholic Almanac’s release, we will post a sneak preview of that day’s entry! Today, we tell the history of Old St. Peter’s Catholic Church in New York City.
For over 225 years, Old St. Peter’s Catholic Church in New York City has held a backstage pass to American history.
In the 1770s, New York Catholics still worshipped in secret— usually in a German family’s house on Wall Street. The end of the American Revolution, however, brought religious freedom, and in 1786, they built St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Barclay Street. It was the first Catholic church in the state.
Almost immediately, the problem of trusteeism reared its head. In 1787, parish trustees fired their first pastor— the holy Irish Franciscan, Father Charles Whelan— because they didn’t like his preaching. To replace him, they hired the more eloquent (but less holy)
Father Andrew Nugent. Trustees quickly changed their minds, but Nugent proved difficult to remove. So much so, that when Father John Carroll, then provisional Superior of America’s priests, visited St. Peter’s, a disgruntled Father Nugent crashed his Mass and shouted Carroll out of the sanctuary.
In 1805, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton became a Catholic at St. Peter’s.
In 1806, anti- Catholics rioted at St. Peter’s. And in 1810, the baby that grew up to become New York’s first cardinal, John McCloskey, was baptized at St. Peter’s. By 1836, however, the first St. Peter’s had become too small. So, parishioners took it down and built a second St. Peter’s. As the twentieth century began, St. Peter’s said goodbye to the families moving away from the once rural neighborhood and hello to an influx of commuters.
Sixty years later, the parish witnessed the rise of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers across the street. And on September 11, 2001, it watched those towers fall.
That day, for two hours, the body of the fallen chaplain Father Mychal Judge, lay in the church’s sanctuary. Later, for almost two months, the parish served as a staging ground for rescue and recovery operations.
In honor of all the history Old St. Peter’s has witnessed, the United States, New York State, and New York City governments have all declared the church a historic landmark.