The New York Catholic Cathedral: Correspondence



NEW YORK, January 23, 1879.

MY DEAR MR. COOK, — I think everybody who knew the late Archbishop Hughes will be surprised and pained to find him described in The Atlantic Monthly as a crafty and unscrupulous priest; craft is about the last variety of wickedness I should think of charging upon that pugnacious and transparent Irishman. We Catholics are surprised, too, — and I may say disheartened, — to fiud that the oft-exposed falsehood about the archbishop’s “ jockeying ” the city out of the land on which the new cathedral stands, by inducing the common council to sell it to him for a dollar, is repeated over your signature. I know yon would not willingly do injustice to any one, and the fact that you have been misled into making this statement shows how difficult it is to stop a he when it has once started.

The Catholics did not obtain the cathedral ground from the city, either for a dollar, or for any other price. The city sold the land to some private individual so long ago as the end of the last century, obtaining £405 for it, which I suppose must have been about the market value at that time. After passing through various hands, it was sold Under foreclosure of mortgage in 1829, and bought for $5500 by Francis Cooper, who transferred it, for the same price, to the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the trustees of St. Peter’s Church. This is the way the Catholics obtained it; and they doubtless paid full price for what, fifty years ago, was a lot of land in the country. They intended to make a burying-ground of it, but this plan was not carried out.

In 1852, under a decree of the supreme court, made in a friendly partition suit between the two churches, the half share of St. Peter’s in the property was sold at public auction, and the cathedral trustees became the purchasers, at $59,500 for the half. St. Peter’s was then bankrupt, and the money was paid to its creditors.

Thus you see that the trustees of the Cathedral Obtained this land by open purchase at fair valuation. How, then, did the story of a sale by the city for one dollar originate ? Probably from one of the following transactions : (1.) Anciently the land was chargeable with a quit-rent of four bushels of wheat ; this was commuted at the time of the last transfer (1852) by the payment of $83.32. Of course the charge had long been in desuetude, and the purpose of the commutation was only to remove a possible defect in the title. (2.) The surveys upon which the deeds of the land were based had been made before the streets were laid out, and when Fiftieth and Fifty-First streets were opened it became necessary to rectify the boundaries. For this purpose the cathedral conveyed to the city a gore on Fifty-First Street, running from a point on Fifth Avenue to a width of about four feet and a half on Fourth Avenue, and the city conveyed to the cathedral a similar gore on Fiftieth Street.

It is a mistake to say that the Catholics are “ taxed " by their church for the building of this cathedral, or that it is built wholly by the contributions of the poor. Far bo it from me to take from the poor any credit for their liberal and purely voluntary payments into the building fund; but in point of fact a large share of the expense has been borne by the rich. Before Archbishop Hughes began the work he received more than one hundred subscriptions of one thousand dollars each. Very considerable gifts have since been made by wealthy Catholics. All the windows are individual gifts. Apart from these offerings which the prosperous make out of their abundance, the funds are derived from an annual collection in all the churches. That is taken up in boxes like any other Sunday collection, in which nobody knows whether Ids neighbor gives a penny or a dollar.

Your remark that our servants are obliged to give half their wages to the church I suppose is only a figure of speech. They are not obliged to give anything to the church, and certainly they don't give a half of their earnings, nor a quarter, nor a tenth, nor any larger proportion than Protestants give to their churches.

Very truly, my dear Mr. Cook, your friend and servant, JNO. R. G. HASSARD.



NEW YORK, January 27, 1879.

MY HEAR MR. HASSARD, — Four letter of the 23d hist, makes clear the fact that I was mistaken in my statement that the late Archbishop Hughes obtained from the common council the land on which the new cathedral is built for the sum of one dollar. Not only is there no evidence whatever in support of that statement; there is the best of evidence that not one word of it is true, aud I can only hope that the present printing of your letter in the pages of the same magazine that contained my original statement may call the public attention so strongly to the facts in the case that this fiction about the cathedral site will never be repeated in any respectable quarter.

The story has been so widely believed in New York, is so seldom contradicted in conversation, is, in short, so much a matter of every-day faith, that, for my part, I no more thought it necessary to look up the authorities for the statement before I made it than I should have done had I been going to remark that Columbus discovered America. I have heard the story a hundred times. I never once heard it contradicted. Yet I am assured that the story has been publicly contradicted ; that the facts as you state them have been printed several times in our New York newspapers. A courteous writer in the New York World tells me that if I had read that newspaper of such and such a date I might have spared the public some fine writing. Well, I not only did not have the pleasure of reading the World on that day, but the receipt of your letter gave me the first intimation I had that the facts are not as I have stated them in my article in The Atlantic.

Nevertheless, the truth of the matter being thus clearly established, there remains the curious fact, not yet accounted for, that such a he should have apparently grown out of nothing, and should have got itself planted so securely that no denial seems to have force, thus far, to root it up. I will not be of their party who believe that any considerable number of people tell lies out of pure malice. There may be a few who do so, but the majority of men and women would be sorry to know that they were giving currency to a falsehood, and would stop doing wrong when once they were warned. Believing this, I have looked into the present matter for myself, to see if I could find out the likely origin of such a fable as you have exposed, and 1 think I have laid my hand on the very pulse of the machine.

Your explanation of the way in which the story of the sale of the cathedral site for the sum of one dollar may have originated does not seem to me sufficient. For it is made by you to grow out of facts that could hardly have become known to the general public, which only takes in large and simple statements. A piece of land, belonging to private parties, is put up at auction, and sold to the highest bidder, and there is an end of the transaction. The public does not concern itself with gores and gussets, and commutations of quit-rents. There must be some simpler, more every-day explanation of such a story as this about the cathedral lot, and I believe you will agree with me that it grew quite naturally out of the following facts : —

The cathedral is built on a plot of land lying between Fifty-First and Fiftieth Streets on the north and south, and between Fifth Avenue and Third Avenue on the west and cast. You have shown how the Catholics became the possessors of this tract so far back as 1829. Now at the time this purchase was made the streets in that part of the city existed only on the map of the commissioners; they were not laid out. Fifty-First Street between Fifth Avenue and Third Avenue was not completed until 1857, though it had been begun in 1853. This street therefore did not exist when, in 1846, the mayor, aldermen, and common council of New York gave to the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum Society of New York city, of which society John Hughes was president, a deed, with “a covenant for quiet enjoyment,”for certain premises described therein as bounded north and south by Fifty-Second and FiftyFirst streets, west by Fifth Avenue, and extending easterly from Fifth Avenue four hundred and twenty feet, being a tract of between two and three acres, and containing thirty-six city lots. This deed, of which a copy made by my order is now before me, is dated August 1, 1846, and is recorded in Book “ A ” of deeds in the comptroller’s office, at page 271.

Further, in the Book of Special Leases in the comptroller’s office, at page 134, is recorded a lease, of which a copy is also before me. bearing the same date as the deed just mentioned, by which the same city officers lease to the same society the premises bounded north and south by Fifty-Second and FiftyFirst streets, east by Fourth Avenue, and west by the tract described in the before-mentioned deed, the same to be held during the pleasure of the party of the first part and their successors for the yearly rent of one dollar. This second lot is two hundred feet by three hundred and seventy-five feet (200x375), and contains thirty city lots. But, as it was not held by a tenure sufficiently strong, the common council, eleven years later (October 21, 1857), ordered the comptroller to lease the plot to tho society “ so long as it shall be occupied for the use of the asylum ” at the yearly rent of one dollar. The lease, of which a copy is also before me, is dated December 31, 1857.

When, now, these facts are remembered: that for twenty-eight years, 1829-1857, after the cathedral plot was purchased, it was not separated from the orphan asylum plot by any street, but that the two made to the public eye only one continuous tract; that the purchase of the cathedral plot, being a private transaction, would be known toonly a few persons outside the Catholic congregation, whereas the transactions by which the city officials gave away thirty-six city lots for the sum of one dollar, and leased in perpetuity thirty more for a yearly payment of the same sum, created no little stir at the time, and made no mean part of the text on which Dr. Leonard Bacon, in Putnam’s Magazine for July and December, 1869, founded his fierce, but not too fierce, denunciation of the spoliation the city was undergoing, — when these facts are remembered, it will not be difficult to understand how the story of the cathedral site was set on foot, and how it has kept its hold on the public belief. The taxpayers of New York knew that they had been tricked out of a large and valuable tract of land, and they are not to be too hardly judged for having mistaken one block of land for another immediately adjacent, and not at that time separated from it by any actually existing street.

From a point of view outside of any sect or party, I cannot see any defense or excuse for the transaction I have described. The men who were at the head of the city government at the time had no right to give away or to lease in perpetuity, for the benefit of any body of men, secular or religious lands that belonged to the whole people. Nor could the bargain have been proposed and consummated except by crafty and unscrupulous men. That was a dark day for our city polities, and I am much mistaken in your character if you do not agree with me that it was a time in the history of the Catholic church in this city which its best friends must prefer not to have dragged into the light. I am, my dear sir, Very truly yours,