Profiles of priests who served New York in the 1800s have been prepared by Msgr. John T. Doherty, a retired priest of the archdiocese, and will run on a monthly basis in Catholic New York until the conclusion of the Bicentennial celebration next April.
The City of New York, at the time of the founding of the Diocese in 1808, was brimming with activity. On everyone's mind were the great changes that would come when the Erie Canal connected the city with the vast developments taking place in the nation. This happened in 1825 when New York City was linked to the agricultural heart of the growing nation and to its commercial, manufacturing and industrial development.
For most of the quarter-million residents of the city, life was spent below 14th Street. And life was hard. The vast European and Irish immigration wave was about to intensify. Religious tensions were severe. Poverty was overwhelming, and in its wake unbelievable health and sanitary conditions. Those whose income profited by the new economy began to move north to the section of the city beyond Houston Street.
The Diocese of New York was growing and the challenges to the clergy increasing as their vision moved far beyond what would be present-day pastoral duties.
Father Michael Curran was born in Ireland but came to the pastoral ministry in the United States in Philadelphia. He was called to New York and his first mission was to organize a parish in Harlem. It is hard to imagine that he was given responsibility not only for the Harlem foundation, but for a large portion of Westchester and about two-thirds of what is now the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre.
St. Paul's in Harlem was completed and dedicated by Bishop John Dubois in 1835. Father Curran's friend was the Rev. J. R. Bayley, pastor of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Harlem, who would one day, as a Catholic, become the Archbishop of Baltimore.
We have long forgotten the violence done to the people of New York by the recurring plagues that visited the City, especially typhus ("ship's disease'') and cholera. The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 was a statewide emergency. Father Curran's zeal during this epidemic was recorded in the records of the time as special centers for treatment were set up on Ward's Island and at the Quarantine in Staten Island. He died in 1856.
With this tribute to Father Curran we bring to a close our yearlong acknowledgement of the selfless, sometimes daring ministry of the priests who established the missions, founded the parishes and built the buildings in the 1800s that were to become our patrimony in the 20th and 21st centuries. As we noted at the outset, they accomplished this without roads or telephones, without cars or widespread rapid transit, without radios or adequate health facilities. Even in an age of short life expectancy they built our heritage with their strong faith and their willingness to give themselves to the Gospel of Jesus.
We pray for them and we thank them for making it possible for us to stand on their shoulders, better to see the future of God's Kingdom.
This final installment concludes Catholic New York's yearlong series on the priests who served New York in the 1800s. CNY acknowledges a deep debt of gratitude to Msgr. John Doherty, a retired priest of the archdiocese who researched and wrote the entire series about the lives of 13 priests who served in the early years of a Diocese, now Archdiocese, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary on April 8.