The crypts of Bishops McNeirny and Conroy.
The crypts of Bishops McNeirny and Conroy.

The phone rang in my office.

“Meet me at the crypt at 10 a.m., Friday,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

The voice was that of Tom Prindle, outgoing director of stewardship and development for the Diocese of Albany, who also gives tours of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Prindle, with his distinctive tone that always seems to remind me of Garrison Keillor, is a wealth of knowledge about the Catholic Church in Albany, the city and its many characters, good and bad.

“The crypt” is in the front of the Cathedral underneath the massive Gothic structure and houses the remains of six bishops with space for two more. It was something that I had always wanted to see since becoming the editor of The Evangelist. And Prindle finally made it happen.

On this breezy and cold Friday afternoon in October, my colleagues and I would get the chance to enter the bowels of the Cathedral and see a space not too many parishioners have seen. But first, Prindle gave us the grand tour of the glorious structure. We talked about Bishop John McCloskey, the first bishop of the Diocese, “Dagger” John Hughes and the Know Nothing movement and Bishop Thomas Burke (“We will meet him momentarily,” Prindle said matter-of-factly), who gifted the Cathedral “The Last Judgment” stained glass window in the south transept, the Stations of the Cross, awarded a gold medal at the Paris Exposition of 1897, the Chancel Stalls, and the oak pulpit, just to name a few.

Prindle talked about the acres of black walnut pews (“you will never find black walnut anywhere in the States”), which used to have doors on them. If parishioners didn’t keep up with their offerings, he added, they were locked out of their own pew.

And then there were the captains of industry like Anthony Brady, whose “mausoleum at St. Agnes Cemetery I would be happy to live in,” Prindle added; John Augustine McCall, the first president of New York Life and Peter Cagger, who founded St. Agnes Cemetery, and soon after was buried in it.

As we walked toward the back of the Cathedral, in between talking about stained glass windows, Prindle mused “imagine heating this structure, it’s like heating a dirigible.” He also adroitly told to us, as we were facing a side altar, to turn around toward the pews where we could see the statue of St. Veronica holding the veil with the likeness of Jesus Christ on it. The striking statue, which we all would have easily missed, is near where the new confessional has been placed. 

We continued past the altar, the chancel stalls and turned right into a room which led, on the right to the bishop’s sacristy, and straight ahead to a doorway that faced three doors. The third door led to the crypt. We made our way down nine stairs and were now underneath the Cathedral. It’s quiet and cold, filled with a warren of tunnels that go every which way and lead, in theory, to the entrance of the Cathedral on Eagle Street. There is all manner of piping, brickwork and steel beams. The concrete floor turns to dirt with bright white lights blinding the eye. Prindle said that Bishop Burke’s golden jubilee shield from 1914, which is in the back right of the Cathedral now, was one of the many artifacts found amongst the tunnels.

“In the restoration, many artifacts were found in there that belonged to the original workmen … you name it, all kinds of stuff,” Prindle said. “So it was a real archeological treasure and I am sure that was only been tapped in there. I also like to show that to people, especially from our parishes. Yes, it’s all dazzling up above but this is dazzling unto itself because, to me, it’s very meaningful to see that because this is where it all began.”

Coming out of the tunnels, we turn left and approach a brown doorway, which Prindle opens, to reveal two wrought-iron gates. The heavy gates are opened and we go into the crypt. It is a simple, humble space with the names of each bishop and their photos in front of each tomb, three on one side, three on the other. Two small vases hold flowers above each bishop’s crypt, which adds a slight funereal scent to the solemn space. The bricks are painted over white. 

The crypt houses the remains of Bishops Francis J. McNierney, John J. Conroy, Thomas A. Burke, Thomas F. Cusack, Edmund F. Gibbons and William A. Scully (Prindle always makes sure to add ‘Aloysius’ when saying Bishop Scully’s full name). Bishop John McCloskey (St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City), Auxiliary Bishop Edward J. Maginn (St. Mary’s Cemetery, South Glens Falls) and Bishop Edwin B. Broderick (Gates of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne) are not interned in the crypt.

On one wall rests a piece of white marble from the original altar with a cross and framed picture on top with the words, “Eternal Rest Grant to Them O Lord … And Let Perpetual Light Shine Upon Them … May they Rest in Peace. Amen.” On the ceiling of the  crypt are two blue, “bomb-bay doors” which open and allowed — after the marble flooring above was taken up — a bishop’s coffin to be lowered from above into the crypt. Prindle added there was an old story concerning the funeral of Bishop Scully.

“Legend has it when Bishop Scully died, his coffin wouldn’t fit through the opening in the floor,” he said. “Presumably after everybody left — I would hope — he was removed, taken down here and the coffin was disassembled and reassembled.”
It was the proverbial ‘if this Cathedral could talk story …’

After spending time in the crypt, I was left thinking that this wasn’t the particularly regal spot I would have expected; that I was underwhelmed. But maybe I was missing the point. These were common men who took on the extraordinary task of building up the Church and leading the people of God in Albany. They were as attached to the Cathedral more than anyone else and built this magnificent structure to glorify God not for their own glory.
Suddenly it seemed that these six bishops were right where they belonged.