Dean William McNulty

by Alfred Cappio
PCHS Publication – Volume 1971 – Number 4


Dean William McNulty


Following the “potato famine” years of 1848 and 1849, many Irishmen immigrated to the United States in the hope of finding a better life here.  One of these immigrants was William McNulty, born at Ballysannon in 1829.  Desiring to enter the priesthood, young McNulty came here in 1850 to register at St. John’s College, Fordham.  Upon graduation in June 1853, he sought advice from Father Bayley, then secretary to Archbishop Hughes of New York, who suggested he attend the Divinity School at Mount St. Joseph, Emmetsburg, Maryland.  On August 6, 1857, the same Father Bayley, now the first Bishop of Newark, ordained him a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Newark, and immediately assigned him to the staff of Seton Hall College, then at Madison, N.J., as Vice-President, Professor and Prefect of Discipline.

In 1859, when the college moved to South Orange, the young priest remained in Madison as Chaplain of the Novitiate of the Sisters of Charity.  During the next four years, besides serving as chaplain, he conducted missionary services at Mendham and Basking Ridge where he organized and began the erection of the Churches of St. James, Basking Ridge, and St. Joseph’s, Mendham.  In the years ahead, he would build other churches and would become known as “Father of Churches in New Jersey.”

Father McNulty was transferred to St. John’s Church, Paterson, on October 23, 1863.  In addition to his pastoral duties, he carried on a missionary program in Bergen County that resulted in the organization and erection of St. Luke’s Church, HoHoKus in 1864.  When his own congregation grew too large for the church then located on Oliver Street, he began working for a new St. John’s to be built on Main and Grand Streets.  Less than two years after his arrival in Paterson, land for the new structure was bought, and its cornerstone was laid September 10, 1865.  He quickly raised $10,000 in less than two months, and with the use of parishioners who dug the foundation in their free time without pay, the building began to take shape.  Father McNulty spent his days supervising the construction, and his evenings collecting money to meet the bills for labor and materials.  Finally on July 31, 1870, Bishop Bayley dedicated the new edifice.  The Church was finally consecrated on June 29, 1890, after the spire and a chapel had been added to the original building, and the mortgage completely paid.

Paterson was growing rapidly, and Father “Mac” as he was now affectionately called, moved to meet the religious needs of the newcomers to the city, organizing additional parishes and building still more churches.  St. Joseph’s was organized in 1869; St. Agnes’ in 1870; and St. Mary’s in 1871.  The same year, a Dominican convent was also built.  For the foreign-speaking groups, he helped organize Out Lady of Victories in 1882; St. Michaels in 1903; and St. Ann’s in 1919.

Father “Mac” never forgot his own parish.  In spite of the heavy financial load imposed by the new church, he organized the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery and St. Agnes’ Institute, a girls’ school in 1869.  In 1872, he added a rectory to St. John’s.  New school buildings were erected in 1889 and 1893.  Convents for orders of teaching sisters were built in 1890 and 1896.  A home for the Christian Brothers was put up in 1894, the same year Entre Nous Lyceum was organized.  St. Frances’ Home for Working Girls became a reality in 1897.  The Little Sisters of the Poor came to the city and their Home for the Indigent Poor and Aged was opened in 1906.  At the celebration of his golden jubilee in August 6, 1906, Father McNulty was presented with a purse of $24,000 which he used to build the Mount St. Joseph Home for Boys.

Using an old building that had been a home for boys, Father “Mac” organized St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1867.  One year later, he moved the hospital to its present location on Main Street, erecting the first of the buildings which make up the present plant of the hospital.

Ecclesiastical honors came his way.  His Bishops made him Vicar Forein, or Rural Dean of Passaic County, and Irremovable Rector of St. John’s Church.  The Pope made him a Papal Chamberlain.  Bishop O’Connor once told how the Dean has refused to be made a domestic prelate.

When Dean McNulty came to Paterson, he was 34 years old and the city had a population of less than 23,000.  When he died at 93, after 59 years here, the city’s population was over 140,000.  At 92, when St. John’s celebrated its 100th anniversary, June 5, 1921, the Dean was still very active and well preserved both mentally and physically.  He conducted morning and evening services at the church, visited the schools twice each day, and when required, paid visits to the sick of the parish.

As the Dean grew older, he became a tradition in Paterson and was as much a part of the city as the buildings he had built.  Legends sprung up around him, legends that are still being related today – how the saloon keepers along Grand Street feared him more than they did the police,  how he collected pay envelopes before the money would be spent for drink, how he fed this family or sent that boy through college, and how he stopped the “May Day Riot” on Garret Mountain in 1880.

When the Dean died on June 18, 1922, the entire city mourned.  Today he lies in front of his beloved church, beneath a bronze monument which depicts him in his favorite roll of advising a youngster.