“This is what you call a full-court press,” said Brother Edward McCarthy, a Jesuit and handyman in his 70s who has been working as a jack-of-all-trades at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan for 32 years.
Two days before Christmas Eve, Brother McCarthy was standing on the cathedral’s altar with his faced tilted toward heaven. Above him, one of the cathedral’s 60-odd chandeliers was being lowered through the air, carefully and haltingly toward his waiting arms. Christmastime is when St. Patrick’s is at its most popular — some 25,000 people are expected to attend Masses during the next 24 hours — and workers labor feverishly to make sure the cathedral looks its best. Ergo, Brother McCarthy’s painstaking task on Wednesday morning, replacing every burnt bulb in every chandelier.
At St. Patrick’s, preparations for Christmas begin in the summer, with the staff, led by the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie, figuring out how many wreaths, poinsettias and holiday garlands to order. By Christmas Eve, some 50 wreaths and 172 poinsettia plants were adorning the soaring buttresses and gilded altars. There was also the near-life size nativity scene to set up, carved in solid wood in Italy and weighing, collectively, many hundreds of pounds. Maintenance workers hauled up the pieces, bubble-wrapped and stored deep in the cathedral’s bowels for most of the year, a few days before Thanksgiving.
This is an earlier set up than most Catholic churches, but St. Patrick’s aims to get the nativity scene in place a few days before the Rockefeller Center tree is lit. Many of the hundreds of thousands of people in town for the tree’s unveiling also visit the cathedral, the monsignor said, and they are hungry for a manger. Some people are hungry for a little bit more: an usher recently intercepted someone who was trying to make off with a small wooden lamb, hidden beneath his coat.
The center of the nativity scene — the baby Jesus, the reason for the season — is brought out on Christmas Eve, though sometimes he is briefly popped into the manger beforehand so that visiting news crews can get that perfect shot. For years, the baby Jesus was placed by the cathedral’s electrician, a ritual Monsignor Ritchie changed after becoming rector nearly five years ago. Now, he does it himself, after leading a procession of children around the cathedral, the wooden Jesus cradled in his arms, at a Christmas Eve Mass. The change was applauded by many but reportedly left the electrician crestfallen.
Monsignor Ritchie described much of Christmas Eve as “the calm of the storm.”
“All has been prepared,” he wrote in an e-mail early Friday, “No last minute details because all is done.”
The staff will shift into gear just before 5:30 p.m. Mass — all 26 ushers will be working and extra laymen and choir singers have been called in — and will remain at top speed until Saturday at 6 p.m.
Father Joseph Tyrrell, the cathedral’s master of ceremonies (a job he describes as “head altar boy”) said an extra priest had also been called in, to help seasonal visitors dispel their guilty consciences. “There are a lot of tourists who haven’t been to confession in 10 or 20 years,” he said.