St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Harlem

Classified ad published in 1830, offering plots for sale in the burial grounds of St. Andrew’s Churchyard in Harlem

In the fall of 1829, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church of Harlem began running a series of classified ads in a New York City newspaper offering plots for sale in the grounds surrounding their church. The new congregation was in the process of constructing the church on a parcel comprising 18 lots on Fourth Avenue (today’s Park Avenue), 127th and 128th Streets, and was eager to use the large churchyard as a source of revenue. They had the grounds surveyed and arranged into plots of suitable dimensions for building burial vaults or for laying out gravesites. Their ads invited interested parties to avail themselves “of this opportunity to secure an undisturbed burial place, in all probability for more than a century to come.”  Less than 50 years later, St. Andrew’s would renege on this sales promise when they began removing bodies from their cemetery. By the turn of the century, St. Andrew’s Churchyard burial grounds were completely obliterated.

An 1851 map depicts St. Andrew’s Church and Churchyard at Fourth Ave (Park Ave), 127th Street and 128th Street in Harlem

St. Andrew’s was the first Episcopal church in Harlem, completed on June 7, 1830. The frame building, 42 x 64 feet, occupied a “beautiful site, commanding an extensive and delightful view of Harlem and East Rivers, with the adjacent country.” In 1831 St. Andrew’s had 40 pew holders, including several members of the illustrious Morris family of the Bronx. But when the Morrisses opened St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in 1841, many of the wealthiest and most influential members of St. Andrew’s parish withdrew to St. Ann’s, and St. Andrew’s experienced a long period of hardship until Harlem’s increasing population brought more members to the parish. St. Andrew’s was in a period of regrowth in 1871 when a fire destroyed their building.

A page from St. Andrew’s parish record books lists some of the burials in their churchyard in 1851 and 1852

Between 1832 and 1871, when the church burned down, St. Andrew’s interred over 400 people in the vaults and graves in their churchyard. When the congregation planned to build a new, larger church after the fire, they proposed to use part of the property that was occupied with these vaults and graves, necessitating the removal of burials to plots at Woodlawn Cemetery and elsewhere. In an 1872 parish history, the rector of St. Andrew’s, Dr. George B. Draper, comments on the resistance the church experienced from those who did not want their loved ones removed from the churchyard. “Difficulty, opposition, and delay encountered us on every hand, at every step,” he states. “We were determined to do nothing, unless we could do it fairly, kindly, reverently, with the consent and with every regard for the wishes and feelings of surviving friends. I think we succeeded, but we went through worse than fire.”

Detail from an 1879 map showing the new St. Andrew’s Church building covering part of the original burial grounds

The new St. Andrew’s Church was completed in December 1873 and stood at the original site—along with what was left of the defunct church burial ground—until 1890 when the building was taken down stone-by-stone and rebuilt at its current location at Fifth Avenue and 127th Street. Between 1889 and 1891, the rest of the remains at St. Andrew’s Churchyard were exhumed and reburied at Woodlawn or other cemeteries. Today the site of the original St. Andrew’s Church and burial ground is covered with a parking lot, an auto repair shop, the Harlem Islamic Cultural Center, and part of the AK Houses apartment complex.

A 2018 aerial view; red lines indicate approximate boundaries of the former St. Andrew’s burial grounds (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); Bromley’s 1879 Atlas of the Entire City of New York, Pl 28; Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970 (Ancestry.com); Bodies in Transit Registers VIII & X, Municipal Archives, City of New York; A Chapter in the History of St. Andrew’s Church, New York (Draper 1872); History of St. Andrew’s Church (Harlem) in Two Chapters A.D. 1829-1889 (Draper & Dayton 1889); “Vault Lots for Sale by St. Andrew’s Church, Harlaem,” New-York American, Oct 30, 1829; “Lots for Sale by St. Andrew’s Church Harlaem,” New-York American, Jul 8, 1830; “Lots for Sale by St. Andrews Church,” New-York American, Feb 24,1831; “Died,” Evening Post, Feb 14, 1832; “St. Andrew’s Church,” New York Times, Dec 1, 1873; “A New Episcopal Church,” The World, Dec 1, 1873; “St. Andrew’s Church, Harlem,” New York Herald, Dec 1, 1873; “Removal of St. Andrew’s Dead,” New York Times, Sep 22, 1888; “St. Andrew’s to Move,” New York Herald, Dec 16, 1888; East Harlem Rezoning Project Archaeological Phase 1A for Potential Development Site V and Projected Development Site 4 Block 1775 Manhattan (Geismar 2017)

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One thought on “St. Andrew’s Churchyard, Harlem”

  1. Thank you, Mary, for this short history of St Andrew’s Church and cemetery.

    These are powerful stories. Especially so when reference the current use of the land making the history all the more impactful through juxtaposition.

    John Barnes
    West Hartford

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