In the Archbishop’s Residence at 452 Madison Ave. in Manhattan, there is on the third floor an exquisite chapel dedicated to St. John, the Apostle. The residence is, of course, attached to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the great dream and achievement of the first Archbishop of New York, the Most Reverend John J. Hughes.
As you enter the chapel, on a wall to the right you will find an ebony plaque about 18 inches high and 12 inches wide, to which is attached an elaborate silver holy water font. Above the little container for the holy water is an image of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin with the Mother of God standing on clouds and accompanied on each side by cherubs.
Beneath the image there is fitted into the plaque a papal coat of arms and above it one finds a silver plate that informs us that the font was presented to His Eminence, Terence Cardinal Cooke, during Holy Week of 1971 by His Holiness, Pope Paul VI. It was a birthday gift and was fashioned in Genoa, Italy, in 1775.
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Once each morning and once each evening, I enter the chapel to speak with the Lord and, more importantly, to wait for Him to speak with me. I put my hand into the holy water font each time and inevitably my thoughts turn to the seventh Archbishop of New York, Terence Cardinal Cooke, who lived in the Archbishop’s Residence for 26 years, first as Secretary to Francis Cardinal Spellman, and later as Cardinal Spellman’s successor.
Until I was named the ninth Archbishop of New York, I knew very little about Cardinal Cooke. I had met him and had even had dinner with him twice in New York in the late 1960s in connection with a committee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops that was concerned with matters ecumenical, and in the early 1970s I had the honor of giving him and a group of bishops from the United States and Canada a brief course on Christian marriage in Rome at the graduate house of the Pontifical North American College. In every encounter I found him to be a man of extraordinary kindness, gentleness, and – above all – humility. Especially do I recall that after our first meeting, he regularly called me "Eddie," making me feel as though we had been friends for years.
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By Dec. 19, 2006, I had of necessity become rather well informed about Cardinal Cooke. For on that day, with great pleasure, I approved and signed the documents that were to be sent to Rome to petition that Cardinal Cooke, already a "Servant of God," be beatified and one day raised to the altars as a Saint.
The room in the Catholic Center on First Avenue where the signing took place was filled to capacity with members of the Cardinal Cooke Guild gathered under the leadership of Mrs. Peter Handal (whom we all affectionately call "Pat"); with the members of the committee that had put the documents for the petition together under the leadership of Msgr. Joseph Giandurco, pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Suffern; and with staff persons from various offices in the Catholic Center, not a few of whom had worked with Cardinal Cooke some 25 and more years ago.
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From the time of my appointment as Archbishop, many who knew Cardinal Cooke well were anxious to tell me about him either from their personal experience or from treasured hearsay. The basics were what follows:
Terence J. Cooke was born in New York City on March 1, 1921. He attended St. Benedict’s Parish School in the Bronx and was prepared in the Archdiocesan seminary system for ordination by Cardinal Spellman on Dec. 1, 1945. Immediately after ordination he was assigned to earn a master’s degree in social science, which led to his joining the staff of Catholic Charities. In 1957 he became Secretary to Cardinal Spellman and thereafter Chancellor, Vicar General and finally an Auxiliary Bishop. In March of 1968, he was named Archbishop of New York and Vicar of the Military Services of the United States; and in April of 1969, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals and given as his titular church in Rome the Basilica of SS. John and Paul, which had been the titular church of Cardinal Spellman and Pope Pius XII before him.
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Throughout his 15 years as Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Cooke faced a myriad of challenges with incredible wisdom, courage and peace of soul. They included the civil rights struggle, the clamor that resulted from the Vietnam War, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the riots and confusion that ensued, the changes in Catholic liturgy and practice that were required by the Second Vatican Council, the upset that attended the publication of the Encyclical "Humanae Vitae," the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and, most seriously, the decline in the participation of the laity in the sacramental life of the Church. None of this, however, stopped him from championing the cause of the poor, caring for immigrants, sacrificing for Catholic education, protecting the unborn, implementing the reforms of the Council, and strengthening the parishes of the Archdiocese economically and, above all, spiritually. And all of this he did while suffering for most of his tenure as Archbishop from forms of cancer that required continual medical attention and begot extraordinary pain and suffering. Small wonder that those who knew him best considered him to be without question a man of uncommon sanctity.
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On the 50th anniversary of his birth into life on earth, the Successor of St. Peter gave Cardinal Cooke a holy water font decorated with an image of the Virgin Mother of God. On Oct. 6, on the 25th anniversary of his birth into life in heaven, the relatives, friends and admirers of Cardinal Cooke will gather in his beloved St. Patrick’s Cathedral to give him the gift of a Mass in his memory. Among those who will join in this "prayer of prayers" will be William Cardinal Baum, a close friend of the Cardinal; Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, a former Secretary of the Cardinal; Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien of Baltimore, another former Secretary of the Cardinal; all of the Auxiliary Bishops of the Archdiocese of New York; and a host of bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity from across the state and nation.
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Before the Mass, the ninth Archbishop of New York, who will be the principal celebrant, will spend some time in the chapel in which Cardinal Cooke passed so many hours in prayer. As I leave and enter, I will bless myself with holy water from a font which was the gift of a Pontiff and is adorned with the image of a woman whom the Cardinal loved to call "Our Lady of New York." My prayer will be addressed to the Eternal High Priest and His Mother. I will thank them for the blessing that Cardinal Cooke was for all of us and ask that another Pontiff one day soon proclaim that blessing "Blessed," not just for us but for the Church Universal. From his place in heaven, I suspect that Cardinal Cooke might try to convince "Eddie" that he is going too far. I will not, however, be dissuaded.
Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York