Thomas Paine and St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral – 200 years ago

Two hundred years ago, June 8,  1809 was the cornerstone laying for St. Patrick’s (Old) Cathedral near Canal Street in what was then uptown  New York City.    That same day nearby in New York City was the death of Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense.  And an interesting link between these two events.  

Jesuit Fr. Anthony Kohlmann   presided at the cornerstone ceremony. He was vicar General and administrator  in charge of the 15,000 Catholics in the city. He had  purchased the land for St. Patrick’s, so there would be a second church at  Mott  and Mulberry Street, in addition to the only other Catholic Church,  St. Peter’s on Barclay Street.  

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That same Fr. Kohlmann, in company with Fr. Benedict Fenwick, S.J. had recently paid an unsuccessful visit to the dying Thomas Paine. A woman baptized by Fenwick had told Paine that only a Catholic priest could cure him. When the two priests arrived and started talking with Paine, they asked  about his soul rather than his bodily pains.  Paine, rationalist to the end,  ordered them out of the room. According to the  account of Fr. Fenwick,  they were chased away by Paine and left, followed by blasphemies.  Soon after that,  Paine’s life ended on the same day that St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral was begun, June 8, 1809. 

Peter Schineller, S.J.

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