By the 1840s, the enormous increase in New York’s Catholic population had exhausted all available space in existing Catholic cemeteries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. To meet the necessity, the Archdiocese of New York opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848 as a new burial ground for Manhattan’s Catholics and, a year later, established Holy Cross Cemetery to serve the Catholic community of the city of Brooklyn. Since 1822, when the first Catholic church in Brooklyn was founded, Brooklyn’s Catholics had been buried in parish churchyards or in the Catholic section of Wallabout Cemetery, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. Holy Cross Cemetery began with the purchase of 17 acres in the town of Flatbush in Kings County and had 6,000 interments in its first year of operation. After years of expansion, it now entails 96 acres of land and is the final resting place of over 500,000 people.
Unlike Calvary Cemetery, which is set among the rolling hills along the Brooklyn-Queens border, the landscape of Holy Cross Cemetery is “a surface as level from one end to another as an Illinois prairie,” as it was aptly described by Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles in 1870. Situated today in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the cemetery is a roughly rectangular expanse bordered by Brooklyn and Schenectady Avenues and Snyder Avenue and Cortelyou Road. The grounds are plainly spread out and divided into broad fields of tombstones and greenery. There are many fine, statuseque monuments, but more modest markers are the rule. The main entrance at Brooklyn and Tilden Avenues leads to a small chapel that was built in 1855 and is still used today. The chapel was part of the improvements made when Holy Cross came under the control of Bishop John Loughlin after the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853. Some of the pioneer priests of the diocese are interred in catacombs beneath the chapel, and nearby are the graves of some of Brooklyn’s oldest Catholic families.
Well-known figures can be found at Holy Cross—businessman James (Diamond Jim) Brady, Dodgers great Gil Hodges, and bank robber Willie Sutton among them—but the graves of the lesser known are what give this cemetery its character. The earliest section of the cemetery is rich in mid-19th-century Irish-Catholic markers. Hundreds of tombstones here display traditional Hibernian motifs and record the history of immigrants who fled famine in Ireland and made Brooklyn their home. Later sections are dominated by gravestones of the Italian and Hispanic families who followed.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; Holy Cross Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Silinonte 1992); Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 54; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 72; The Eagle & Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle… (Howard & Jervis 1893), Vol 1, 360; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633-634, “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2, 1867; “Vandal Topples 63 Headstones and Statues at Historic Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Feb 13, 2018; NYCityMap