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The New York Catholic church loved by Italian-American directors



V. M. Traverso - published on 04/04/18

Old Saint Patrick's features prominently in the films of Coppola and Scorsese

The Basilica of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, commonly referred to as Old Saint Patrick’s, was built between 1809 and 1815 at 260–264 Mulberry Street, in a part of Manhattan that is today referred to as Nolita (North of Little Italy).

For a long time, the parish was the domain of NewYork’s impoverished Irish community. Believers belonging to other immigrant groups, such as the Italians, were allowed to attend services in a separate area located in the basement of the building.

But by 1880, partially thanks to the many marriages sealed between the two communities, Italians eventually outnumbered the Irish becoming the largest community at Old Saint Patrick’s. The church, which today serves a diverse community  including Hispanics, Asians and groups of various other origins, has became one of the most important hubs for Italian-American culture.

And that’s why it features so prominently in the work of many Italian-American directors. In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola chose it as the location for the “baptism scene” in The Godfather in which Michael Corleone, serving as the godfather of his sister’s baby, swears that he will “renounce Satan and all his works” as a meticulously organized massacre that he ordered takes place around town.

Martin Scorsese, who grew up a few blocks down the road from Old Saint Patrick’s, in Little Italy, which he famously described as being  “like a village in Sicily,” featured the church in two of his most celebrated movies set in NewYork City.

One of the first scenes of Mean Streets (1972) sees a young Harvey Keitel playing the mob-affiliated character Charlie kneeling  in front of the main altar of Old Saint Patrick.

The church also features in one of the night-time scene in Gangs of NewYork (2002) where Archbishop Hughes tries to defend the Catholic parish from the attacks of an angry mob armed with torches and pitchforks.

A few months ago, the Oscar-winning director gave yet more proof of his attachment to his childhood parish by joining the $2 million fundraising campaign to restore its 150-year-old pipe organ, designed by world-renowned organ builder Henry Erben in 1868 and assembled by a team of highly skilled American and European craftsmen.

“The Erben organ’s beauty of tone and form, created by immigrant craftsmen, inspires us still. We must preserve it because it is a musical work of art that tells us about our history, about where we’ve been,” Scorsese said in a statement. “We cannot understand the future or the present, unless we have knowledge of the past. Listening to the transcendent sound of this 19th-century American masterpiece will take us where we need to be.”

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