I went to St. James Cathedral-Basilica, Downtown Brooklyn, in search of the remnants of the original tombs of Brooklyn’s first two bishops — John Loughlin and Charles E. McDonnell. I thought it would be a good All Souls Day piece for Currents, our daily news show on The NET.
I had heard that the sarcophagus that held the bodies was still visible in what used to be the crypt chapel of the Cathedral. The bodies had not been there since 1943 when they were moved to Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington. And the lower section of Brooklyn’s mother church had been done over years ago, making it into more of a space for social gatherings.
We had no idea of what we were looking for or where to find it but Msgr. John Strynkowski, rector, agreed to let us look around in the underbelly of the church.
We were led down a spiral staircase one floor below the sacristy area. Past the boiler and through a narrow corridor to a large red steel door. A bolt was opened and we were shown into a dark space which required that we squat and crawl under an air conditioning vent and heating pipes. What we came face-to-face with astounded us. Our flashlights and video camera revealed several old 19th-century style tombstones, in various stages of disrepair.
Most were too worn to be read but one clearly marked the last resting place of Ann Dinen, who died in 1877 as well as that of her mother. These were Irish immigrants who were among the first parishioners of St. James, the first Catholic parish established on Long Island.
Apparently, when the church was extended in 1903, it was built out over these bodies which were part of the original churchyard.
We crawled into shallower ground and looked deeper under the basement floor. When we could go no further, we relied on our flash units to light up certain sections. But there did not seem to be anything resembling a bishop’s grave.
I picked up a worn brown scrap of paper. It read New York Daily News, June 7, 1922. Had it been sitting in this earthen mound for 88 years waiting for me to pick it up? A headline read: “Birth Control Pure Bunk, Says Father of 33.”
Suddenly, we heard the monsignor’s voice call, “We found McDonnell.” Could it be? Had we really found the site of the bishops’ first resting place?
He ushered us out of the underground site and upstairs through the church and back down into the refinished cathedral center. There in a closet on the floor was a simple slab from the original tomb. The inscription told us that Bishop Charles E. McDonnell, Second Bishop of Brooklyn, who had been installed in this church on May 2, 1892, was entombed here on Aug. 13, 1921.
It wasn’t exactly what we had been looking for but it was close enough to have made this a successful venture. We had found a piece of the original sarcophagus which we matched up to a silhouetted photo of the place where the prelates had been buried.
On All Souls Day, we are reminded that it is a good and holy thing to pray for the dead. Our journey beneath St. James Cathedral proved that the deceased are never very far from us. It was a timely reminder that we should not forget those who have gone before us.