Article and photos by Yelena Dzhanova
As she retrieved and counted out change from the register, the cashier smiled at Tomasz Kowalczyk, a white-haired visitor from Poland, with round glasses and socks up to his knees. She handed him the change, along with his purchase, a silver necklace bearing a large cross for his granddaughter, and said, “Have a blessed day.”
The cashier works at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Gift Shop between Fifth and Madison Avenues, adjacent to the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Rockefeller Center. The cathedral has long been a New York City landmark.
The Roman Catholic cathedral strives to “remain emblematic of the ascendance of religious freedom in the New World,” according to the mission statement on its website. The church attracts more than five million visitors every year, the website states, most of whom are tourists from abroad.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral plays host to large-scale events and weddings; F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda married there in 1920. Since then, the cathedral has attracted an array of people, including those yearning to plan their own events using the cathedral as a backdrop.
Eugene Brogden, a New York native who lives on the East Side a few blocks from the cathedral, is among those who wishes that the church gave less emphasis to the gift shop.
“I’ve been coming here to pray since I was 8. My father brought me and his grandfather brought him. Now I bring my own kids. But I see masses of people every day. Ordinarily, my grandson synchronizes the quieter times on my watch so I know when to go and pray quietly,” he said. “I love that people are bustling about, but some religious element didn’t necessarily die down, but quieted, with their presence.”
The face of the church, pure white in the distance, its Gothic arches defining the building’s beautiful curvature, masks the gift shop behind it. The gift shop has its own website separate from the church’s main website, though the gift shop’s purpose, its website says, is to “sustain the social outreach, educational, and pastoral ministry of the Cathedral, and support the upkeep and maintenance of St. Patrick’s.”
Most tourists seem to enjoy browsing the shop’s religious merchandise and paraphernalia. Visitors take selfies in the gift shop next to miniature Christ figurines and pick out religious jewelry and accessories, such as dog tags with biblical quotes inscribed in them.
“The shop makes it easy for me to bring back to [my] country a piece of something beautiful and very important to me and granddaughter,” said Kowalczyk, who bought the necklace at the gift shop. Kowalczyk said he was on vacation in New York and decided to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“It’s not about the tourists,” said the cashier, who declined to give her name. “It’s really about serving as a focal point for Catholicism and the religious spirit to merge. Many guests are tourists, but the church does not turn them away. I do think that since this cathedral got famous, the store became more of a necessity because of large demand.”
The cathedral also two sets of machines that create “souvenir medals” for a small price, similar to one of those machines that asks a person to put in 51 cents to receive a penny with an iconic imprint. These coins, however, get imprinted with the face of Pope Francis.
In addition to a gift shop within the edifice, the church operates a souvenir shop a block away.
Upon entering and exiting the cathedral, visitors see two giant flat screens that flip through advertisements encouraging visitors to visit the souvenir and gift shops and take an audio tour of the church. Every few slides feature information on Mass times and the history of the church.
Other significant New York churches, including the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, also attract immense crowds. Both institutions also host major events. St. John the Divine, for example, recently held the commencement for Teachers College, Columbia University.
Kathy Lingard, who attended the commencement on May 18, said, “I think it’s tough for churches to raise funds and allocate money properly to their causes, but taking money from major entities” – such as Columbia – completely push aside the religious significance behind the institution,” she said. “It’s as if religion is secondary to money nowadays.”