By Jessica Easthope
Time stands still on Mulberry and Prince Streets.
There’s a hidden secret inside the church. Many don’t know there’s an Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which means they definitely don’t know about what lies beneath.
“The tradition started during the Roman Empire when Catholics couldn’t afford burials so Catholic property owners decided to burrow tunnels under their very own properties, and then this tradition carried out all throughout Europe,” explained Tommy Wilkinson, the Tour Director of Tommy’s New York.
Catacombs, the crypts under the now Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, were first built in 1815. Historical figures lie in coffins hermetically sealed within the walls. The details of their lives and deaths are now sealed in Tommy’s mind.
“In this country they’re very reverend places of burial, you’ll usually find trustees and benefactors, so the early families that literally supported the Church,” Wilkinson said.
The catacombs are where Wilkinson spends his days — walking back and forth, giving tours above and below seven days a week.
“This is really an untapped gem that I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share with the world,” said Tommy.
His tours help sustain the church financially.
“Every parish has to stand on its own legs and find ways to support itself, and what’s unique about the basilica here is it has six properties to maintain, all of them double landmarked, and I don’t think we’re truly at risk because of all the special things that make this church historic,” he said, ‘and definitely the tours have become a very important part of sustaining the church.”
Tommy’s keys unlock a lot of doors, each one opens a new opportunity to connect with the lost history of New York City and the Catholic Church.
“There’s also an evangelizing process,” he noted. “People reconnecting with their faith, people wanting to delve more into their Catholicism, people wanting to become parishioners. I don’t know how many weddings and funerals being scheduled here resulted from the tour, but for me it’s a high honor to have been blessed with the opportunity.”
He experienced that same reconnection: he once strayed from the Church, but deep within the catacombs, he found faith again.
“I became a parishioner the very day I signed the contract,” he recalled. “Being a Catholic myself and just recognizing the importance of what I’ve been given here. It was more than just luck. I felt a tremendous burden of responsibility as well and this has re-anchored me in my faith. This means everything to me that I’ve been given the opportunity to build a business around having the keys to the kingdom here.”
Bishops, priests, politicians and even the man who introduced Italian opera to the United States are all buried down in the catacombs, and the best part is you could be buried with them.
“It’s the only active Catholic cemetery here in Manhattan, so imagine you can choose a niche right down here in the catacombs where you’re going to become a part of history and to me that’s fascinating,” said Tommy.
Surrounded by the walls of the final resting place, each person feels something different during the 90 minute experience. But when all the lights go out, history comes alive.