The Dutch were first to arrive in the beautiful Hudson Valley, and the English set sail soon after. Our region has been a destination for immigrants since the beginning of European settlement. Among those first settlers were the Irish, who traveled up the North River (now the Hudson) from New Amsterdam (New York City) all the way to Beverwyk—the original name for Albany.
As anyone who has read a William Kennedy novel knows, Albany County has always been heartily Irish. The first Irish immigrants arrived in what was still Fort Orange during the 1640s, and they continued to populate the region throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Religion was, of course, the foundation for many Irish communities, and as the populations grew, so did the number of Catholic churches.
In 1794, the Catholic community of Albany asked the Vatican for permission to buy land and build a church, which was incorporated in 1796 as St. Mary’s. It was the first Catholic church in upstate New York and only the second in the state, after St. Peter’s in lower Manhattan, which was founded 10 years earlier. In 1815, the original St. Patrick’s Cathedral—the first church in America named after the patron saint of Ireland—opened its doors on Mulberry Street in NYC.
Irish immigration exploded during the 19th century, first in the early 1800s—thanks to the boom in canal building, shipping, and other large construction projects that needed cheap labor—and then mid-century, when Ireland suffered the devastating potato blight and famine. Major infrastructure projects such as the Erie Canal, the D&H Canal and Railroad, the New York Central Railroad, and the State Capitol Building in Albany made the Capital Region an enticing destination for those looking to make a better life. Over time, immigrants were able to save enough money to buy land, build a home, raise a family, and create a community.
One such example was West Troy, now known as Watervliet. This area boomed once the Erie Canal was up and running through the center of town and connected to the Hudson River at the city’s edge. St. Patrick’s Church was established in 1840, but soon outgrew its modest brick building. The pastor, Father William Sheehan, inspired by a visit to the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Lourdes, France, started construction on his new cathedral, a neo-Gothic replica of Lourdes, on July 4, 1889. The first mass was held Christmas Day in 1891. In 2012, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany decided to close the church due to building deterioration; it was subsequently demolished in April 2013.
David Levine is the author of The Hudson Valley: The First 250 Million Years.