by: Michele DeBella
Just steps away from Columbia University is another Upper Manhattan gem. The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine spans an entire avenue block from Amsterdam Ave. to Morningside Ave., and is considered one of the largest cathedrals in the world. But this is no dark, stuffy place of worship. After admiring its daunting Gothic façade and the incredible beauty and scale on the inside ($10 fee if you want to explore the cathedral in depth), visitors can wander among the gardens and monuments, catch a musical performance, or attend one of the many popular events that take place year-round.
A Brief History of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
More than 125 years after the cornerstone was laid, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine remains an unfinished structure. Two World Wars interrupted its construction and to make matters worse, a fire in 2001 caused severe damage to the gift shop and other parts of the building. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this Episcopal Cathedral is one of the world’s largest. The first services were held in 1899, seven years after the cornerstone was laid, but it wasn’t until 1941, just one week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the entire cathedral was opened for services.
The cathedral, together with gardens, monuments, and several smaller buildings make up the 11 acres known as The Close. Here, the public is free to wander the gardens and meet the resident peacocks. If Jim, Harry, and Phil (the aforementioned peacocks) aren’t being terribly vocal on your visit, then what will stand out the most will likely be the whimsical curves of the Peace Fountain.
The bronze sculpture was designed to depict the age-old battle between good and evil, and the opposing forces of nature, which you’ll see represented in many forms: a lion and a lamb, the Archangel Michael after battling Satan, lots of giraffes, and the sun and the moon. The fountain, whose swirling motion at the base represents the double-helix of DNA, is quite an eyeful and a delightful curiosity. It also provides a wonderful contrast to the massive Gothic structure of the unfinished cathedral behind it.
Music At the Cathedral
The cathedral’s professional choir performs during services on Sundays, and also on special occasions throughout the year. Saint John the Divine also hosts a number of concert series, giving visitors the chance to hear various types of music in the wonderful acoustics the space provides. Performers play recitals on the Great Organ, the largest of the six organs, every Sunday, and there are also many beloved annual traditions such as the Cathedral Christmas Concert and the New Year’s Eve Concert for Peace, which was founded by Leonard Bernstein. Check the website for descriptions of the many musical offerings throughout the year.
Tours of Saint John the Divine
The Cathedral offers several tour options to help you get the most out of your visit. Join the Highlights Tour for an overview of the history and architecture, or the Vertical Tour, where visitors can climb to the top of the cathedral’s interior, and also gain access to the roof for views of the city. The Spotlight Tour would be the tour to take for anyone interested in the intricate designs on the stained glass windows, as well as those carved into the massive stonework throughout the cathedral. Check the website for tour times and prices.
If your time in New York City is limited and you would like to explore St. John the Divine, as well as the other wonderful landmarks in Morningside Heights, including Columbia University, Riverside Church, and Grant’s Tomb, then check out our private guided walking tour called “Uptown Explorer”.
The cathedral hosts many events which draw in locals and tourists. Every fall, the Feast of St. Francis features dance and musical performances and includes the annual blessing of the animals, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals. Bicyclists can show up in the spring to have their bikes sprinkled with holy water during the Blessing of the Bicycles. The annual Crafts at the Cathedral has been going on for more than 20 years. This festival of handcrafted goods harkens back to medieval Europe, when merchants gathered in grand cathedrals to sell their wares to the public. Medieval poetry lovers will appreciate the annual reading of The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, and every October, the Halloween Crypt Crawl takes visitors into the cathedral’s crypt while they learn about the holiday’s origins.
One explanation Saint John’s gives for its unfinished state is that they are using any extra funds for the social programs they’re so passionate about. These programs include a Sunday Soup Kitchen that serves breakfast and lunch, an annual health fair which is open to the community, and free health screenings and mammograms. A clothing donation program helps anyone in need of clothes, and also gives out professional attire to people returning to the workforce.
Sightseeing Hours are Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Admission: Adults: $10; Students/Seniors: $8.