Standing there in front of the bank of flickering candles, we closed our eyes and silently whispered a prayer, the days and years and lifetimes leading up to that moment behind us and yet somehow within us.
Our journey to that prayer inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City began 1976 when an Italian immigrant, physician and father of three uprooted his family from New York and headed west to settle in Scottsdale, Arizona. His eldest daughter suffered from severe asthma and it was thought that the warmer, drier climate would be beneficial.
With her quick wit, mischievous smile and mysterious Italian culture (my family was dyed-in-the-wool Irish American), that daughter became one of my closest friends at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic School and later, the now-defunct Gerard Catholic High School.
And then came the teen drama: Her father decided the weather wasn’t making such difference after all. Back to New York they went, leaving us heartbroken.
In an era before cell phones, email and social media and at a time when our parents railed against running up long-distance charges on the phone bill, we fought to maintain a connection. Decades later, I still have the proof: A box of crumbling, yellowed letters from a young girl distraught by the upheaval of a second-cross-country move.
Through the years and across the miles, we kept up the friendship. I had a summer internship in Washington, D.C., in 1984 and lived for a while in my friend’s dorm room at Georgetown. We took the train to the Big Apple and she showed me around. Then, her parents bought a summer home in Scottsdale. Over the years, my friend would visit. By then, she was working in Manhattan, at the World Trade Center of all places.
She had already begun working from home when those two planes struck the towers on that terrible day in 2001, but she lost 17 colleagues in the bloodshed. I’ve been to New York twice to visit her since, but we’ve never gone to see Ground Zero. St. Patrick’s Cathedral — that’s our destination. Three times I have stood within the walls of St. Patrick’s with my friend. Three times we have prayed for our family and for each other and for peace in our broken world.
A magnificent, neo-Gothic church in Midtown Manhattan, St. Patrick’s Cathedral was built by the pennies and nickels of impoverished Irish immigrants and completed in 1878 after construction paused during the Civil War. Each year, some 5 million people pass through the immense carved doors leading into a breathtaking sanctuary. This is America’s church and the seat of the Archdiocese of New York — the first in the U.S. to be led by a cardinal. Yes, America boasts thousands of alluring churches, but somehow, St. Patrick’s symbolizes our common faith, shared roots and vibrant American history in a way that no other can.
A visit to the cathedral’s website provides a glimpse into the experiences of fellow pilgrims. A woman from Brazil said she and her boyfriend visited in 2010 and knelt in the chapel.
“He thanked God for putting me in his life. Then, he took a gold ring from his pocket and, in front of God and Our Lady, asked me to marry him! I started to cry and said ‘yes!’ It was the most beautiful and special place for a marriage proposal!”
A visitor from Colorado remembered his grandfather taking him to St. Patrick’s as a young boy. “I was so struck by the beauty of the place and the people at prayer. … The memory still touches the depths of my Catholic soul.”
Yes, you can pray anywhere — your car, your bedroom, your backyard or on the street. Yes, God will hear you in all those places. But a church like St. Patrick’s reminds us that He is present both now and forever in the Holy Eucharist and in the faithful lives of loved ones we hold dear and those we have lost and who await us on the other side of the veil.
Friends and dear ones are often separated by time and space; it renews the soul to take a step back, if only for a moment, and thank the Lord for the beauty of places like St. Patrick’s and the immense treasure of faithful friends.