Polish National Catholic Cemetery

A view of the Polish National Catholic Cemetery, Apr 2017 (Mary French)

The Polish National Catholic Cemetery on Willowbrook Road in the Graniteville section of Staten Island is the parish cemetery of Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church of Bayonne, New Jersey. Other than its location, this cemetery’s Staten Island/New York City associations are limited—most of those laid to rest here lived and worked in New Jersey—but it is of interest due to its connection to an important period in Polish American history.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Polish National Church, Bayonne, New Jersey, ca 1914 (Bayonne Public Library)

During the late 19th century, many Polish immigrants were unhappy with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States for several reasons, including an absence of a bishop of Polish birth or descent, lack of services in the Polish language, and disputes over ownership of church properties. These resentments smoldered into open revolt in many parishes, mainly in the Eastern states, and led to the founding of the Polish National Catholic Church in 1897. This independent Catholic denomination, headquartered in Scranton, Pennsylvania, comprised about 20,000 Poles who left the Roman Catholic Church. 

The Polish National Catholic Cemetery on Willowbrook Road was established during this time of conflict. In 1898, Bayonne Poles founded the Roman Catholic parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; shortly after it was incorporated, a schism in the parish resulted in a group breaking off to incorporate as St. Mary Carmelite Roman Catholic Polish Church. A dramatic struggle over church property ensued between the two corporations, including several church raids and a lawsuit that was decided in favor of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel delegation. In the aftermath, St. Mary Carmelite  became a parish of the Polish National Catholic Church and reorganized under the name Sacred Heart of Jesus.

This snippet from a 1907 map shows the Polish National Catholic Cemetery—identified here as St. Mary’s R.C. Church property—on Willowbrook Road

On March 14, 1902, the parish—still incorporated at that time as St. Mary Carmelite Roman Catholic Polish Church—paid $1,200 for the tract of land on Willowbrook Road for “its successors and assigns forever for cemetery purposes.”  Today the half-acre burial ground is enclosed by a chain-link fence that separates it from Lake Cemetery and Rehoboth Pentecostal Church on its north side and a housing development on its south side. The well-kept site is still an active parish cemetery of Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church.

The Polish National Catholic Cemetery and surrounding properties in 1951
2012 aerial view of the Polish National Catholic Church Cemetery

View more photos of Polish National Catholic Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1907 Atlas of the Borough of Richmond Pl 6; 1951 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Staten Island (Borough Of Richmond), Richmond County, New York; Richmond County Conveyances, Liber 289, p469-470, Richmond County Clerks Office; Bayonne Old and New (Sinclair 1940); Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Mead 1995); “Polish National Catholic Church,” Encyclopedia Britannica; “Church in Court,” The Jersey City News, Nov 19, 1901; “Parishioners Raid Church,” Passaic Daily News, Oct 23, 1903; “Louis Kubizna,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), Nov 23, 1926; “Joseph Jaworoski,” The News (Paterson, New Jersey), May 19 1954; “Michael Archdeacon,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), Nov 18, 1968; “Stanley Senkoski,” The Central New Jersey Home News, Feb 7, 1974; “Adolph S. Mager,” Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghampton NY), Nov 28, 1992; “Julia Obarowski,” Asbury Park Press, Apr 4, 2002; “Helen Bilinski,” The Jersey Journal, Nov 15, 2010; “Florence Vila,” The Jersey Journal , Dec 21, 2017; “Our Memorial Day Observance,” Heart of Jesus PNCC, June 2011

Methodist Cemetery, Jamaica

Detail from an 1859 map of Jamaica, showing the Methodist Cemetery on New York Ave (present-day Guy R. Brewer Blvd)

An overgrown lot behind a chain-link fence at the corner of Guy R. Brewer Boulevard and Liberty Avenue in Jamaica, Queens, is a burial ground for some of the area’s earliest settlers. Although it is surrounded by York College, the cemetery is owned by the First United Methodist Church of Jamaica. This congregation is located today on Highland Avenue but traces its beginnings to the town’s original Methodist church, erected in 1811 on what is now 151st Street near Archer Avenue. By 1844, Jamaica’s First Methodist Church membership had increased to 100 and the congregation erected a new building on Jamaica Avenue and Guy R. Brewer Boulevard. 

In 1850, four church members donated the lot at Guy R. Brewer Boulevard and Liberty Avenue to the First Methodist Church to use as a cemetery. The 125ft x 125ft site was already in use as a burial ground for the family and friends of Obadiah P. and Susan Leech (two of the four donors of the property) and the donation agreement reserved several sections for their future use. First Methodist Church moved bodies from its old burial ground, in the churchyard next to their original building on 151st Street, to the new Methodist Cemetery and continued burials here into the early 1900s. The last known burial in the Methodist Cemetery was in 1933.

A 1907 map shows the Methodist Cemetery; south of the cemetery is Jamaica Hospital, which was constructed in 1898 and demolished in the mid-1900s.

Many of the people buried in the Methodist Cemetery were prominent figures in historic Jamaica, including town officials, merchants, and Civil War veterans. One of the family plots contains the remains of John Dunn (d. 1827), a founding trustee of the First Methodist Church of Jamaica, his wife Deborah (who died in 1816 and is the oldest known burial in the cemetery), and their children and grandchildren. 

Obituary of Jane P. Holland, interred at the Methodist Cemetery in 1920

Over a dozen members of the Holland family are interred at the Methodist Cemetery, including Michael P. Holland (d.1859) and Fannie Holland (d. 1893), who are important in Queens history as pioneer settlers of Rockaway Beach. After owning a tobacco business and hotel in Jamaica, in 1857 Michael and Fannie Holland invested $350 to purchase 65 acres of land from today’s Beach 90 to Beach 95 Street in Rockaway, including a small hotel that would begin operating as the Holland Hotel. Michael Holland died shortly after they got their Rockaway venture going, leaving Fannie Holland to run the hotel and raise nine children alone. Over the next 50 years, the Hollands’ original investment grew to over $1 million and the family’s influence in the new community at Rockaway Beach continued for generations. Fannie Holland’s legacy includes founding the First Congregational Church of Rockaway Beach.

Part of the Methodist Cemetery can be seen in this 1948 photo of a house that once stood adjacent to the cemetery on its north side (QPL)

In the 1870s, the First Methodist Church congregation moved to a new building on Jamaica Avenue and 165th St; they would relocate again in the 1920s before settling at their current location in 1949. It was around this time that their cemetery went into decline and by the 1990s it had become a dumping ground and haven for drug addicts. Although it was cleaned up and fenced off for protection in the early 2000s, the historic Methodist Cemetery of Jamaica remains overgrown, unmaintained, and inaccessible.

Tombstones are barely visible through the overgrowth at the Methodist Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A view of the Methodist Cemetery enclosure along Guy R. Brewer Blvd, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of the Methodist Cemetery at Gury R. Brewer Blvd and Liberty Ave, Jamaica, Queens (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Jamaica (Walling 1859); Hyde’s 1907 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol 1 Pl 10; Inscriptions from the Methodist Cemetery at Jamaica, New York (Frost 1911); Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties (Eardeley 1916); The Methodist Cemetery of Jamaica, New York: A Brief History (Walski n.d. – Manuscript on file, Queens Library Archives); “Miss Jane B. Holland,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 18, 1920; “Firemen Fight Blaze in Cemetery Grass,” Long Island Daily Press, Jun 19, 1936; “A Grave Situation: Cemetery Turns in Drug Haven,” Newsday July 16, 1992; “Cemetery Maintenance Re-examined in Queens,” Queens Chronicle, Feb 9, 1995; “Where the Living Haunt the Dead,” Daily News, May 5, 1995; “Settler Burial Ground Falls Victim to Neglect,” New York Times, Sep 24 1995; “Cleanup at Historic Cemetery,” Daily News, March 14, 1997; “Mystery Cemetery Cleanup Has People Puzzled in Jamaica,” Queens Chronicle, Aug 16, 2001; Draft Environmental Impact State for the Queens Family Court and Family Court Agencies Facility, Jamaica, Queens Co. Appendix A: Phase IA Archaeological Assessment (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 1997); Rockaway Beach (Carter 2012); “Finding Fannie Holland,” Oy Vey Rockaway, Jan 25, 2012; Susan Walski, personal communication, 16 Mar 2022

Prison Ship Martyrs Tombs

Map of Wallabout Bay from 1776 to 1783 illustrating British prison ships and three areas along the shore where prisoner graves were purported to be found (arrows)

During the American Revolution, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and civilians perished aboard British prison ships anchored near New York City. Captured during the Battle of Brooklyn or in other military engagements fought in what is now the city, Americans were crowded aboard rotting British ships moored in Wallabout Bay, a shallow cove on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Here they endured appalling conditions and died in vast numbers, their bodies then hastily buried on nearby beaches. The actual death toll cannot be reconstructed from surviving records, but it is estimated as many as 12,000 Americans perished aboard the British prison ships during the seven years of the Revolution—almost twice the number believed to have been killed in action during the war. 

Detail from an 1869 map showing the first Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb in the triangular lot on Hudson Ave, adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard

After the war ended, human remains littered the sandy shores of Wallabout Bay, washed out of the shallow gravesites of those who had become known as the prison ship martyrs. Many bones appeared on property owned by John Jackson, a politician and member of the Tammany Society. Jackson donated a piece of land from his estate for a tomb and memorial site for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. On this small triangular lot, situated on what is now Hudson Avenue, between York and Front Streets and adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Tammany Society built a burial vault where they interred, in 1808, 13 coffins filled with the remains of the prison ship dead that had been collected from the beaches of Wallabout Bay.

Lithograph depicting the original Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb on Hudson Ave, after it was improved by Benjamin Romaine in the 1830s (NYPL)

Although the 1808 interment was accompanied by great fanfare and public excitement, plans to erect a suitable memorial at the vault never materialized, and the tomb was soon forgotten and allowed to deteriorate. In 1828, Benjamin Romaine—a Tammany leader who had himself been a Revolutionary War prisoner—acquired the site. He erected an ante-chamber over the vault, added decorations and inscriptions, and, in hopes of preventing future desecration, appropriated the tomb as a burial place for himself and his family. However, following Romaine’s 1844 death, the prison ship martyrs tomb again fell into disrepair and obscurity.

Around this same time, nearby Fort Greene (originally Fort Putnam, constructed in 1776), was turned into a public park and in 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (designers of Central and Prospect Parks) were engaged to redesign the park and create a new tomb for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. In 1873 workmen quietly transferred the coffins from the original prison ship martyrs crypt to the new tomb built into the middle of a series of terraces created in the northwest part of the park. Facing the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street, the crypt was surrounded by a granite mausoleum, 10 feet high, 30 feet long, and 15 feet wide and embellished with pillars and fretwork. Though the mausoleum still lacked a monument memorializing the prison ship dead, these patriots were no longer forgotten, as services at the “tomb of the martyrs” in Fort Greene Park became part of Brooklyn’s Memorial Day ceremonies for the remainder of the 19th century.

An early 1900s view of the terrace at Fort Greene Park, with the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb in the middle (arrow) (NYPL)

In 1905 the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt and transform the terrace into a wide granite stairway leading to a plaza on top of the hill. At the center of the plaza would be a 149-foot Doric column honoring the prison ship martyrs, designed by esteemed architect Stanford White. On November 14, 1908, some  40,000 people stood in a storm of sleet and snow in Fort Greene Park as the folds of a massive American flag, more than 200 feet long, fell slowly away from the towering granite shaft during the monument’s dedication ceremony.

The redesigned tomb and grand staircase, with the newly-unveiled monument above, 1909 (NYHS)

At the center of the grand staircase below the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is the entrance to the crypt where the patriots are entombed. Beyond a bronze door, a short passageway leads to a room lined with 22 bluestone caskets that hold the remains of the prison ship martyrs collected in the early 1800s along Wallabout Bay as well as bones unearthed in later years. Although the crypt is occasionally opened for historic tours, it is generally closed to the public. Speaking at the opening of the new Visitors Center at Fort Greene Park in 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough called the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb one of the most sacred Revolutionary War sites in the country and, like Arlington National Cemetery, a place that every American should visit.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and Tomb, March 2022 (Mary French)
A view of the interior of the crypt, ca. 2006, shows some of the bluestone caskets that hold the remains of prison ship martyrs (NYC Parks Dept)
2018 aerial view of Fort Greene Park, arrows denote the monument and the entrance to the crypt (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb and Monument

Sources: Johnson’s Diagram of the Wallabout Bay &c. from 1776 to 1783; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh, Vol 1 (Stiles 1867);  [Yesterday at the Wallabout], Public Advertiser, Apr 7, 1808; “Arrangement for the Grand and Solemn Funeral Procession,” American Citizen, May 24, 1808; “Tomb of the Patriot Prisoners,” Long Island Star, Jul 8, 1839; “Martyrs’ Monument, Brooklyn Union, Apr 11, 1873; “The Prison-Ship Martyrs,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1873; “Revolutionary Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 18, 1873; “Not Forgotten!” Brooklyn Times Union, May 30, 1887; “Where History Lies Entombed,” Brooklyn Citizen, Feb 27, 1898; “Centenary of First Tomb of Prison Ship Martyrs,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 16, 1907; “Nation Honors Martyred Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 15, 1908; “Resurrecting Patriots, and Their Park,” New York Times, Sep 23, 1995; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); 1776 (McCullough 2005); Martyrs Monument/Monument Lot, Block 44, Lot 14, Brooklyn: Memo Report on Archaeological Investigations (Geismar 2003); Fort Greene Park Archaeological Assessment (Geismar 2005); Archaeological Documentary Study: Rose Plaza on the River (AKRF 2007); Phase IA Cultural Resources Investigation for Admiral’s Row Section, Former Brooklyn Navy Yard (Panamerican Consultants, Inc. 2008); Prison Ship Martyrs Monument/Fort Greene Park Visitor Center historical panels, New York City Parks & Recreation 

Stockbridge Indian Burial Ground

Stockbridge Indian Monument at Van Cortlandt Park, Sept 2010 (Mary French)

A small, grassy clearing at the northeastern corner of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx is the burial place of Chief Daniel Nimham and about 17 of his fellow members of the Stockbridge Indian Company who died while fighting with the Patriots during the Revolutionary War. Daniel Nimham was the last sachem of the Wappinger confederacy of Indians of the lower Hudson River Valley. Made head of his tribe in 1740, Nimham came to prominence for his efforts to recover tribal homelands and for his service to the English during the French and Indian Wars. 

1778 sketch by Capt Johann von Ewald, a Hessian officer who fought for Britain during the Revolution, depicting a member of the Stockbridge Indian Company

By the 1750s, Nimham and his clan had joined with allied Mohican groups at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. At the start of the American Revolution, members of the Stockbridge tribes pledged their loyalty to the American cause. Daniel Nimham was given a military commission as a captain in the Continental Army and his son Abraham Nimham was put in charge of the Stockbridge Indian Company. In April of 1778, the Nimhams and the Stockbridge militia unit joined Washington’s army at White Plains.

In the summer of 1778, the Nimhams and their detachment of some 60 Indians found themselves skirmishing with British and Hessian troops alongside American militia units operating on the Bronx border. On August 31, 1778, the detachment was outflanked and surrounded by a formation of British rangers and Hessian jaegers during fighting along a ridge in today’s Van Cortlandt Park. Outnumbered five to one, Daniel, Abraham, and at least 15 other Stockbridge men were killed. The Nimhams and the other slaughtered Indians were buried in a common grave near the battle site.

This Sept 3, 1778 article from the Royal American Gazette, a Tory newspaper published in British-occupied New York, reports the death of Chief Nimham, his son, and other Stockbridge Indians earlier that week

In 1906 the Bronx Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a monument to Chief Nimham and his men. Consisting of a stone cairn and a plaque, the monument is near the intersection of Van Cortlandt Park East and Oneida  Avenue; the burial ground is in the field behind the monument. The plaque is inscribed “August 31, 1778.  Upon this Field Chief Nimham and Seventeen Stockbridge Indians, as Allies of the Patriots, Gave their Lives for Liberty.” The Daughters of the American Revolution, Sons of the American Revolution, and other groups frequently honor Daniel Nimham and the other fallen Stockbridge warriors with ceremonies at the monument. In 2005, veterans from the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians held a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial, with the United States Military Academy West Point providing the Honor Guard for the event.

Section of Van Cortlandt Park Alliance map showing location of the Stockbridge Indian monument
A view of Stockbridge Indian memorial and burial ground, Sept 2010 (Mary French)
A panel from the “Native New York” exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in  NYC depicts present-day Stockbridge-Munsee veterans visiting the burial ground

Sources: “New-York, September 3,” Royal American Gazette, Sep 3, 1778; “Old Historic Cemeteries,” Daily Argus (Mount Vernon, NY), Jan 9, 1905; Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Vol 2 (Hodge 1910); The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); “The Indian Field Massacre,” Bronx County Historical Society Journal Vol XIV(2)(Fall 1977); “The Nimhams of the Colonial Hudson Valley, 1667-1783,” The Hudson River Valley Regional Review 9(2) (September 1992); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “A Trip for the Ages,” Mohican News, November 15, 2005; “Remembering the Sacrifice of a True Patriot,” DAR Blog, Sep 8, 2021; “Why We Serve—Origins of Native American Military Service” (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian); “Native New York,” (Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian)

St. Thomas’ Churchyard

An 1826 drawing of the first St. Thomas Church at Broadway and Houston Streets (St. Thomas Church )

St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue is one of America’s most beautiful places of worship, renowned for its glorious liturgical music and stunning architecture. Situated at the heart of Midtown since 1868, this Episcopal parish has its roots in the lower part of Manhattan. In 1823, a group from the city’s three largest Episcopal parishes—all located at the overcrowded southern tip of Manhattan—met to discuss the need for new church further uptown, where residents were migrating. In January of 1825, St. Thomas Church was incorporated and that July ground was broken for their church building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Houston Street, a location then at the edge of the settled city.

Detail from an 1852 map showing St. Thomas Church at Broadway and Houston. Burial vaults were located in the churchyard behind the building.

To raise money for their first house of worship, the vestry of St. Thomas decided to utilize open ground behind the church for burial vaults. Here they built 58 vaults, each 9×11 feet, that were sold for $250 each. At least 36 of the vaults were purchased by families of St. Thomas. Among those who acquired a family vault was William Backhouse Astor, a member of St. Thomas’ original vestry. William B. Astor’s father John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in the country at that time, was interred in William’s private vault in St. Thomas’ churchyard when he died in 1848.

The first St. Thomas Church was consecrated in 1826. Designed in the Gothic style, it had octagonal towers that rose over the countryside like a castle. After it was destroyed in an 1851 fire, a second church was built on the same site. But by that time, the once-fashionable neighborhood at Broadway and Houston Street had changed dramatically, the church shared the street with bawdy dance halls, saloons, and hotels, and many of its members had moved on. In the 1860s, the congregation made plans to relocate even farther uptown, acquiring land at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street for a new church.

An 1824 notice for burial vaults for sale at St. Thomas churchyard

Removal of the burial vaults in the churchyard posed a difficulty in the sale of St. Thomas’ church  property at Broadway and Houston. When the vestry originally sold the vault lots at the rear of the church, the deeds protected the rights of the vault owners for the duration of the church’s corporation. Consequently, the property as a whole could not be sold unless the vault owners agreed to surrender their rights or to sell the land back to the corporation. Many vault holders did agree to transfer the remains of their family members to other places; the remains of the Astors, for example, were removed to Trinity Cemetery. But some refused to give their consent and over a hundred bodies were still interred in the vaults at the time the property was to be sold.

Notice of John Jacob Astor’s funeral and interment in his son’s burial vault in St. Thomas Churchyard in 1848

After several years of legal wrangling, in 1868 a settlement was reached wherein the vestry was compelled to pay $48,550 to the owners of the 28 vaults that were still occupied and the remains were subsequently removed. On October 14, 1868, the cornerstone of the new St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue was laid. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1905 and replaced by the present sanctuary, a French Gothic Revival masterpiece completed in 1916. The site of the parish’s first church building and burial vaults at Broadway and Houston is now occupied by the Cable Building, built in 1892.

A modern map shows the Cable Building at the site of the original St. Thomas Church and burial vaults (NYCityMap)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; “Private Vaults,” Evening Post, Apr 7, 1824;  “Funeral of John Jacob Astor,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 1, 1848;  “Difficulties in St. Thomas’s Church,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 20, 1860; “Removal of St. Thomas’ Church,” New York Times, July 31, 1860; “Sale and Removal  of St. Thomas’s Church,” New York Daily Tribune, July 28, 1860; “Sale of St. Thomas’ Church, in Broadway,” New York Times, Aug 2, 1865; “Sale of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church; The World, Aug 2, 1865; “Two More Landmarks Gone,” Evening Post, Jun 11, 1866; Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Wright 2001); From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Dunlap 2004); All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities (Bunyan 1999); The Gate of Heaven: The Story of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Our Town Films 1999)

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