On December 9, 1937, Pope Pius XI named the Church of St. John the Baptist as the Cathedral, or seat of the Bishop, for the new Catholic Diocese of Paterson which he established on that day. The papal designation was the culmination of the dreams and sacrifices of many people, and continues to be the focal point for the vision and hopes of many today.
St. John's story began in 1820 when Father Richard Bulger was assigned to Paterson. One of only eight priests in the New York Diocese (then covering all of New York State and Northern New Jersey), Bulger was the first priest to take up permanent residence in New Jersey. In 1821 he built the first St. John's, a frame structure erected on property donated by the Society for Useful Manufactures S.U.M. on the corner of Market and Mill Streets. Fifteen years later, under Father Patrick Duffy, a new stone church was built on a site donated by Roswell Colt on Oliver Street.
The third and current St. John's is very much the result of the vision of the church's thirteenth pastor, Very Rev. William McNulty. Coming to Paterson from Madison in 1863, Dean McNulty found an extremely inadequate church existing in a rapidly expanding city. In addition to founding a series of new parishes in the area, McNulty drew plans for a new St. John's. He purchased sixteen lots from the S.U.M. for $10,000 and on September 11, 1865. Bishop James R. Bayley laid the cornerstone for the new church before a crowd estimated at 10,000 people.
McNulty engaged P. C. Kiely, a prominent church architect who also designed the Cathedrals of Boston and Chicago, to design a new neo-Gothic church. The brownstone used for St. John's was quarried in Little Falls, brought to Paterson on the Morris Canal, and dressed on the construction site. In the manner of medeival Cathedrals, St. John's was built by "day's work," the volunteer labor by members of the parish. The church was sufficiently completed to allow its dedication on July 31, 1870.
Although in use, the church was far still from complete. In the decade after its dedication additional lots were purchased and the rectory was built in 1872. Its temporary altar was replaced in 1878 by the current wooden altar and reredos, the gift of Senator John Hinchcliffe. In 1887, the debt of the church was paid off, and Dean McNulty the Lady Chapel, the front minarets, the tower spire, and a new organ. These were completed and paid for in a space of three years, and on June 29, 1890, Bishop Winand M. Wigger consecrated St. John's.
The church is 88 feet across and 180 feet deep. The front minarets rise to a height of 120 feet, and the tower to a height of 225 feet. Stone columns, 60 feet high, support the English slate roof. Various interior alterations have been made over the years, particularly under Msgr. James T. Delehany in 1938 to accomodate the church's new status as a Cathedral. The cost of the completed church was $232,000.00
During his 59 year pastorate (1863-1922) Dean McNulty built an impressive number of churches, schools and institutions but St. John's was his dream, the seat of his Church and his life. The church's size, its grandeus, and its location "on Main and Grand" (in front of the S.U.M. Governor's Mansion in his day, and now in front of the County Courthouse) all bespeak of his vision of the place of the Church in the life of the city and its people. He prophesied that Paterson would one day have a Bishop and St. John's would be his Cathedral. He built St. John's "to provide a church large enough to afford every Catholic in the city the convenience of attending Mass and receiving the Sacraments at the same time. Structurally St. John's is no longer large enough to accomplish that feat, however the Cathedral is a genuine religious home which embraces all the Catholics of Northwest New Jersey, and many others as well.