Portrait of William James MacNeven
Portrait of Dr. William James MacNeven

Trinity and the Obelisk Honoring a Physician at St. Paul's Chapel

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.  

Symbol of the Society of United Irishmen
Symbol of the Society of United Irishmen
penal laws
The penal laws were a series of legislation imposed onto the Roman Catholics of Ireland to oppress them in all manners; religiously, financially, politically, through education and more.

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. 

Grave of Dr. William James MacNeven
Dr. William James MacNeven's final resting place is on Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead in Queens.

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.

Vestry minutes of May 8, 1865 approving placement of the obelisk honoring Dr. William James MacNeven in the churchyard of St. Paul's Chapel
On May 8, 1865, the Vestry of Trinity Church Wall Street approved the placement of the obelisk honoring Dr. MacNeven in the churchyard of St. Paul's Chapel.

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. 

William James MacNeven Monument
The monument built in memory of Dr. William James MacNeven.
thomas addis emmet monument
The monument for Thomas Addis Emmet which MacNeven pushed to be built.

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". 





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