John McCloskey, Shepherd of Exiles
The majority of Bishop McCloskey’s immigrant Irish flock came to America from Ireland during the harrowing Potato Famine. Being poor and uneducated, they became the object of much ridicule and scorn from the Yankee establishment. The “Know Nothing Movement” at the time was strong in its attacks on immigrants, especially Catholics. Bishop McCloskey realized that his first task was to help Catholics take their rightful place in their new country. One way for this to be done was by building a great cathedral of which all could be proud. Bishop McCloskey commissioned a young Irish architect, Patrick Charles Keely, (1816-1896) of Brooklyn, New York, to design and build Albany’s Cathedral. Keely emigrated to New York in 1842 at age 26.
Dedicated November 21, 1852
Bishop McCloskey of Albany and Bishop John Hughes of New York laid the cornerstone of the Cathedral on July 2, 1848 with over ten thousand people watching in the rain. Bishop McCloskey campaigned throughout the United States and the world for funds to build this cathedral. The Cathedral was built for $250,000 ($6.5 million in today’s dollars).
In just five years the nave and towers of the Cathedral were built by an immigrant work force, which included many volunteers. The Cathedral was dedicated by Bishop McCloskey, Archbishop John Hughes of New York, and other major church leaders, on November 21, 1852.
When the Cathedral doors opened to the public in 1852, the structure was somewhat different than it looks today. The Cathedral’s trademark spires had not yet risen above the north and south towers. The Cathedral’s western wall stood where the choir stalls now stand and the Lady Window was set over the altar. The magnificent ornate
plasterwork, faux stone walls, carved ribs, ceiling bosses, vaulting and statuary all date from the original construction.
Construction of the Cathedral Spires
The Cathedral’s graceful north and south spires were built approximately twenty-five years apart. The north tower spire was completed in 1862. The Cathedral’s south tower spire was constructed in 1888.
The Cathedral’s bells were blessed by Bishop McCloskey on November 16, 1862. They were placed in the north tower and rang for the first time on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1862. The bells were cast in West Troy (Watervliet), New York, in the legendary Meneely Bell Foundry.
Between 1891 and 1892, during the reign of Bishop Francis McNierney, the apse and adjoining sacristies were added, completing the Cathedral structure. On November 16, 1902, marking the fiftieth anniversary of
its dedication, the Cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Thomas
M. A. Burke.
The Cathedral through the 20th Century
Throughout the twentieth century until the mid 1960s, the Cathedral served as a parish church to some 3,000 households. The Cathedral served as the parish church to Governor Alfred E. Smith. His daughter Catherine was married here in 1928. The Cathedral has witnessed many historic events: the consecration of bishops, the ordination of priests and deacons, the visits of Cardinals, the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury the Right Reverend Michael Ramsey.
In the mid 1960s the construction of the Empire State Plaza reduced the parish congregation to about three hundred households, threatening the very existence of the Cathedral itself. Due to the vision and foresight of Albany’s seventh bishop, The Most Reverend William A. Scully, and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, the Cathedral was not razed. The Most Reverend Edwin B. Broderick, the eighth Bishop of Albany, was the first to propose a major restoration of the Cathedral. In 1977 the Rev. Howard J. Hubbard became the ninth Bishop of Albany. Bishop Hubbard was the first native of the Albany Diocese to become Bishop of Albany.
In 1986 the Cathedral became the site of the first ever service of forgiveness between Christians and Jews on Palm Sunday. This event is commemorated by the sculpture “Portal”, which is located outside the Cathedral just west of the sanctuary.
Restoration & Renewal
Begun in 2000 under the leadership of Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard, the Cathedral has been undergoing a major process of restoration and renewal.
Deteriorated stone on the north tower and clerestories has been replaced by new sandstone imported from England. A rolled lead roof, the only one of its kind at present in America, was installed. You might say the roof is the modern version of what was used in medieval times. The east façade, or main entrance to the cathedral, has received new granite steps in addition to richly carved sandstone portals adorning the doorways. More stone restoration is planned for the east façade, south tower, transepts and aisles.
The spacious and soaring interior of the Cathedral has been repaired and renewed to its original artistic beauty. The main interior enhancements completed in 2010 feature improved seating, lighting, and plaster repair. The crowning achievement of the interior restoration is a magnificent paint scheme, evoking the original design of Patrick Charles Keely. The restored worship space brings a fresh vitality to the Cathedral’s role as the center of Diocesan liturgy and community celebration.
On behalf of the Cathedral Parish Family, we thank you for visiting and pray that you will keep us, our Bishop and this historic edifice, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in your prayers.