Who is this man we celebrate today? In the 4th century, Maewyn Succat was born in Britain to a family with Roman citizenship. At just sixteen years old, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders who attacked his family’s home. He was imprisoned in Ireland for six years before he escaped and returned to his home country. When this boy grew up and became a priest, he took the name “Patrick” which had the Latin root from “pater” meaning “father”.
After years of studying the Faith, he was ordained a deacon in 418 and a bishop in 432. It was then that he felt it was his mission to return to the place of his captivity in order to share the Gospel. The years he spent in slavery there had provided him with an understanding of Irish culture which helped him to communicate the Faith in a very relatable way. For example, he used the symbol of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity.
He died about thirty years after his return to Ireland. At the time of his death, he had converted almost the entire island to Christianity, increasing the number of churches, monasteries, and Christian schools. In 2011 the Irish bishop’s conference remembered him as the “pioneer in an inhospitable climate”.
The St. Patrick’s Day Tradition
Irish immigrants to America brought their Irish tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day with the first recorded parade, not taking place in Ireland, but New York City, in 1762.
With the increase of immigrants in the 19th century, this celebration was popularized. Today, it brings in about two million observers, and that doesn’t include the one-hundred and fifty thousand parade participants!
History of the Parade
This celebration, in honor of both Ireland and the Archdiocese of New York’s patron Saint, was organized by Irish expats and Irish soldiers who were stationed in New York colonies but serving in the British army. Fun fact: this parade took place fourteen years earlier than the signing of the Declaration of Independence!
At the time when the parade began, the wearing of the color green was banned in Ireland. This was not so in the United States of America, so those in the parade showed off their freedom by wearing the color green and honoring their culture with song and dance. After the War of 1812, the parade responsibilities were taken over by the Irish fraternal and beneficial societies.
You may have heard of “The Fighting Irish.” It is the name that the 69th Regiment (a National Guard Army unit) earned during the American Civil War. This 69th Regiment started to lead the parade in 1851 and have continued to do so to today. Following them in the parade lineup are a number of Irish societies including schools and colleges.
Around 1851 the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) became the official parade sponsor. The AOH is the oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal Organization in America and there are over 46,000 members in the United States, Canada, and Ireland. It’s goals are to support the reunification of Ireland and to support the Church’s mission, as well as Irish culture.
Overcoming, Just Like St. Patrick
In the 1990’s the parade was attacked for being too “traditional”. After 150 years of the parade being organized by the AOH, the control of the parade was transferred in 1993 to a separate, independent committee due to a controversy over religious beliefs.
This controversy, however, did not have to do with redirecting the route of the parade.
From the beginning, it’s custom has been to march past St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The only difference today is that this brings the marchers up 5th avenue, whereas the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral (now the Basilica of Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral) is located on Mulberry Street.
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St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral
This was the Diocese’ of New York first cathedral church and was created by Pope Pius VII in 1808. It was designed by Joseph Francois Mangin, the same man who designed New York City Hall. When the cathedral was completed in 1815, it was the largest Catholic church in the United States.
In 1866, the interior was destroyed by a fire and it was rebuilt two years later, with the date of reopening being St. Patrick’s Day.
Just eleven years later, the Old Cathedral was replaced by the new Cathedral of St. Patrick on 5th Avenue. This old cathedral though, was not forgotten. On March 17, 2010 Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI elevated the old cathedral to a basilica.
St. Patrick’s “New” Cathedral
While this Cathedral is no longer the largest Catholic Church in the United States (this honor goes to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C.), it is the largest Gothic Roman Catholic Cathedral in the country. The church covers an entire city block and it can seat 2,400 people.
The new cathedral was built by Archbishop John Hughes who announced at a ceremony in Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he wanted “to erect a Cathedral in the City of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence, and wealth as a religious community, and at all events, worthy as a public architectural monument, of the present and prospective crowns of this metropolis of the American continent.”
The church stands across the street from the Rockefeller Center and today is considered one of the most apparent symbols of Roman Catholicism both in New York City and the United States. I think this would make St. Patrick proud, as he wrote in one of his letters:
I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.
With the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City being celebrated over fifteen hundred years after his death, I’d say he is still very much a faithful witness.
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Susanna Parent is a regular contributor to the BIS blog and a freelance writer. While a Wisconsin native, she now begins her mornings brewing French press coffee in the home she shares with her husband and daughter in charming old Saint Paul. When the sun sets, you’ll find her with friends enjoying a glass of red wine, preferably outside underneath twinkly lights. When not exploring all that the Twin Cities has to offer, she is indulging her wanderlust spirit with her family and writing about it later on her blog Fiat and a Lily.