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)

St. Joseph’s Cemetery

A view of monuments in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

Each spring and fall, about 150 people from the parish of St. Joseph-St. Thomas participate in clean-up operations at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in the Rossville section of Staten Island. Including members of the Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, parish sports teams, and other groups, the crew clears graves of underbrush and ivy, pours fresh dirt on old graves that have sunken in, and spreads grass seeds to fight erosion. Putting belief into action, the people of St. Joseph-St. Thomas volunteer their time and energy to maintain a safe and respectful burial place where family and friends can visit the graves of their loved ones.

This snippet from an 1874 map shows St. Joseph’s Church on Washington St (now Poplar Ave) and their parish cemetery one block away on Glen Ave (now Barry St)

In keeping their cemetery in good condition, the people of St. Joseph-St. Thomas are also preserving the legacy of their parish. St. Joseph’s Church was founded in 1848, by Father Mark Murphy, pastor of St. Peter’s Church (the first Catholic church on Staten Island), when he celebrated Mass for 58 Catholics in a house on Rossville Avenue as a mission of St. Peter’s. In 1851, a small chapel dedicated to St. Joseph was completed on what is now Poplar Avenue. In 1855, St. Joseph’s became an official parish—the third oldest of Staten Island’s parishes after St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s. In 1862, St. Joseph’s purchased land for a cemetery about one block away from their church, on the south side of today’s Barry Street. Now comprising 2.5 acres, St. Joseph’s Cemetery is the final resting place of over 1,000 Catholics, including many veterans of the American Civil War, Spanish-American War, First World War, Second World War, Korean War, and Vietnam era.

A 1903 newspaper clipping about the death of Thomas R. Murphy, who is interred at St. Joseph’s Cemetery

In 1959, the parish of St. Joseph merged with St. Thomas the Apostle in Pleasant Plains to become the parish of St. Joseph-St. Thomas. Both St. Joseph and St. Thomas continue to offer services and their combined parish is one of the largest and most active on Staten Island. And burials are still made at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, which is operated by the parish and cared for by its community. Cardinal John O’Connor commented on the community’s dynamism at the parish’s 150th anniversary celebration in 1998. “This is truly a living parish,” he said. “It is so important that what you leave to those who will follow you is at least equal to what you have received from those who went before.”

These two Hungarian markers at St. Joseph’s Cemetery may mark the graves of immigrants who worked in brickyards that operated in the nearby Kreischerville section (now Charleston) of Staten Island during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Mary French)
2018 aerial view showing St. Joseph’s Church and parish cemetery in Rossville (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of St. Joseph Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1874 Atlas of Staten Island, Sec 23; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); “Killed at the Crossing,” Richmond County Advance, Dec 12, 1903; “‘150 Years New,’” Catholic New York, Jul 2, 1998; Denis P. McGowan, comment on “The Ruins of Rossville,” Forgotten New York, Nov. 15, 2015

Moore-Jackson Cemetery

Tombstones in the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in 1925 (NYPL)

Throughout the five boroughs, New Yorkers are actively protecting the forgotten and neglected burial places of their neighborhoods. Some are silent guardians tending to these old plots with little fanfare, while others are vocal advocates striving for preservation. Most have no familial or cultural ties to those interred in the graveyards they caretake and defend but feel called to save these historic sites and honor their departed local forerunners.

For more than 25 years, Ceil Pontecorvo almost single-handedly maintained the Moore-Jackson Cemetery next door to her apartment building on 54th Street in Woodside, Queens. Noticing that the old graveyard had become a neglected dumping ground, she determined that the people buried there “deserve better than this” and began planting flowers and shrubbery, picking up weeds and garbage, and was among those who lobbied the city to landmark the Colonial-era site, which they won in 1997.

At left is a map detail showing location of the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in Woodside, Queens (mid-block between 31st St and 32nd St, the site extends from 51st to 54th St). At right is a 1919 survey showing location of graves at the site.

The Moore-Jackson Cemetery was established by 1733 on the farm of Samuel Moore and Charity Hallett Moore, just north of their homestead on Bowery Bay Road (present-day 51st Street) at the outskirts of the colonial village of Newtown. The Moores were early English settlers of Newtown, played a prominent role in the development of Queens, and intermarried with such leading families as the Rikers, Berriens, Blackwells, and Rapelyes. Among those interred in the cemetery is Nathaniel Moore (d. 1802), the owner of the land during the American Revolution. A staunch loyalist, Nathaniel Moore housed a division of the British Army following its victory at the Battle of Long Island and some say the British capture of Manhattan was planned in the Moore home. A great-granddaughter of Nathaniel’s married into the Jackson family, from which the cemetery and nearby Jackson Heights get their names.

A view of the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in 1927 (NYCMA)

The cemetery remained in active use until at least 1868 and contained at least 51 graves which were marked with fieldstone, brownstone, and marble gravestones. By the early 20th century, most of the Moore descendants had moved away, and the burial ground fell into periods of neglect and rediscovery. In 1998, the last surviving heir of Nathaniel Moore transferred ownership of the site to the Queens Historical Society.

Today, about a dozen headstones still stand at the Moore-Jackson Cemetery and only a few have legible inscriptions. Most of the gravestones are clustered near the side of the property bordering 54th Street and although that section was well kept by Ms. Pontecorvo and others, the rest of the half-acre property, which extends to 51st Street, remained “a jungle” for decades. In 2017, several Woodside residents came together to clean up the overgrown lot and received permission from the Queens Historical Society to create a community garden on part of the property. The cemetery has now entered a new phase of neighborhood guardianship. While the burial area near 54th Street is preserved, the remainder of the site is a vibrant community garden that provides fresh food, green space, and programs for local residents.

A view of tombstones at the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in October 2010. The gravestone in the foreground, commemorating Augustine Moore, is the oldest legible marker at the site today (Mary French)
The aerial view at left shows the Moore-Jackson Cemetery in 2018; at right is a more recent view depicting the raised planting beds and other features of the new community garden at the property (NYCThen&Now/Google)

Sources: Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); Woodside: A Historical Perspective, 1652-1994 (Gregory, 1994); Moore-Jackson Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1997); Moore-Jackson Cemetery Phase IA Archaeological Assessment Report (Bergoffen 1999); “A Long-Orphaned Family Plot,” New York Times, Jan 19, 1997; “A Hidden Cemetery of an Earlier Era Becomes More Visible,” New York Times, Jul 2, 2000; “Volunteers Want Help Revitalizing Colonial-Era Cemetery in Woodside,” DNAinfo, Oct 11 2017; “Historic Woodside Site Revamped Into Community Garden,” Astoria Post , Jan 14, 2022; Moore-Jackson Cemetery and Community Garden