A physician who battled smallpox, cholera, and the British colonial empire is honored in the churchyard of Trinity Church Wall Street's St. Paul's Chapel.
Dr. William James MacNeven was not a member of Trinity, he was Roman Catholic. He was an Irish Nationalist, dedicated to the struggle against the British, who established Trinity Church.
So why is there an obelisk in his memory overlooking Broadway just north of the entrance to St. Paul's Chapel?
Born March 21st, 1763, in Aughrim, County Galway, MacNeven received his training as a physician on the European continent, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. He returned to Ireland, then a part of the British empire, just in time to join the Society of United Irishmen, a group dedicated to overturning the laws which had penalized the practice of Catholicism since the Reformation. Those political activities against the British got MacNeven arrested and imprisoned and, four years later, exiled from Ireland. He arrived in New York City in 1805.
Dr. MacNeven taught at what is now the medical school of Columbia University and later helped establish the medical school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. While serving as Supervisor of Hospitals in New York City, Dr. MacNeven marshalled the health resources of the city against outbreaks of both cholera and smallpox.
He remained an active leader in the Roman Catholic community and joined societies to help and guide arriving Irish immigrants. MacNeven died in 1841 and is buried on the family farm of his wife in Queens near the shore of Bowery Bay.
Now, about that obelisk.
Dr. MacNeven was a contemporary of another Irish-born political activist, Thomas Addis Emmet, who became a prominent lawyer in New York. When Emmet died, MacNeven helped to raise funds to honor the attorney with a obelisk at St. Paul's, south of the chapel's Broadway entrance. Two decades after Dr. MacNeven's death, his friends and admirers sent a letter to the rector of Trinity Church in 1865 requesting to place a 35-foot granite monument honoring MacNeven north of the chapel door.
Trinity's Vestry approved the request and for the last century and a half, the front porch of St. Paul's Chapel has been flanked by obelisks honoring proud sons of Ireland. Dr. MacNeven's monument, includes the words: "Who in the cause of his native land sacrificed the bright prospects of his youth and passed years in poverty and exile till in America he found a country which he loved as truly as he did the land of his birth".