custom, part five

Bill Hulseman
12 min readAug 15, 2022
St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center, New York City, August 2022. Photo by the author.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral is legendary not only because of its impressive, Gothic revival structure and liturgical opulence but also because of what it represented to the generations of Irish immigrants and their descendants in New York City who faced ethnic and religious discrimination in the US during the 19th century. Despite the various forms of hardship, social exclusion, and disenfranchisement that immigrants face, some Irish communities thrived and found their kin in positions of authority. From the early days of its construction through its completion, consecration, and status among the grandest monuments of the city, St. Patrick’s embodied survival and success bolstered and proved that Irish Americans had a home, a sanctuary, and surging cultural, economic, and political power.

My friend Anne’s wedding in 2013 was, for me, a quintessential New York experience. Her ceremony was in the Lady Chapel of St Patrick’s, the smaller sanctuary behind the main altar that hosts daily masses and private ceremonies while the main nave remains a mix of pious worshippers and gawking tourists. When I saw the name of the officiant on the program, I gasped and turned to my friend Christine to ask, “That James Martin?” Martin, a friend of her family, also happens to be a rarity in the postmodern world: a celebrity priest. He’s a prominent editor and author who is very popular on the (Catholic) speaking circuit, always seeking to explore and reflect on the intersection of social justice, communication, and joy in spirituality. In the years after the wedding, he’d expand his focus on building a bridge between LGBTQ folx and the Catholic Church and be painted as a glimmer of hope by some and a danger to the Church by others. To say that I geeked out at the intersection of glorious architecture, Irish American history, and a celebrity priest is an understatement.

The reception was at a restaurant a few blocks away that Anne’s family had owned for decades but sold a few years before. In that restaurant, her grandfather had created a kind of safe space for Irish folx who didn’t feel (or just weren’t) welcome in other establishments. Even though the new owners shifted the menu to Asian-fusion, a departure from its Irish American roots, returning there felt like a homecoming for Anne’s family and a step into Irish American history for the rest of us. A glorious cathedral, an historic and…