In the back garden of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, are several vaults, all that remains of the church’s small original graveyard. One of these is the tomb of Irish-born philanthropist Cornelius Heeney (1754-1848) who donated the land, at Court and Congress Streets, where St. Paul’s was built in 1838. Though his name is unfamiliar today, Heeney made incalculable contributions to the growth of the Catholic Church in New York and was once considered the city’s greatest philanthropist.
After immigrating to America in 1784, Cornelius Heeney made a fortune selling furs in New York City and at one time was partnered with John Jacob Astor in the fur trade. Heeney devoted his wealth to charitable causes. He was a founding trustee of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street in Manhattan— New York City’s oldest Roman Catholic congregation—and gave money to build St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mott Street. With the soapmaker Andrew Morris, he donated the property that became the site of the present St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. He was instrumental in establishing a branch of the Sisters of Charity in New York City and in 1820 he became the patron and guardian of a fatherless 10-year-old boy from Brooklyn, John McCloskey, who later became New York’s second archbishop and the first cardinal in the United States. Heeney also was one of the first Catholics to hold public office in New York, serving in the state legislature from 1818 to 1822.
After the Great Fire of 1835 destroyed his mercantile establishment in Manhattan, Heeney chose not to rebuild and instead retired to his house and 17-acre farm in Brooklyn, where he continued his philanthropic work. He donated part of his Brooklyn estate for St. Paul’s—the second Catholic church in Brooklyn—and for an orphanage and industrial school that adjoined it. In 1845 he formed the Brooklyn Benevolent Society to which he left a bequest enabling it to distribute more than $2 million to the poor and homeless of Brooklyn. When Heeney died, aged 94, in 1848, his funeral was held at St. Paul’s and afterward his remains were committed to their last resting place at the rear of the church.
A pathway along the side of St. Paul’s leads to the small yard with Heeney’s burial place and his monument that is set into the rear wall of the church. Beneath the garden is essentially one subterranean vault with subdivided walls creating separate tombs. In addition to Heeney’s tomb, among the others is that of the family of noted horticulturist André Parmentier. Parmentier came from Belgium to Brooklyn in 1824, where he established a botanical garden and was a founder and trustee of St. James, Brooklyn’s first Catholic church. He died in 1830.
Parmentier’s widow and two daughters spent most of their time and income on works of charity; when Heeney laid out the vaults at the back of St. Paul’s, he insisted on donating one to the family. The remains of André Parmentier, his widow, daughters, and son-in-law are in this tomb. The last interment was Rosine Parmentier, who died in 1908, aged 79. Several Sisters of Charity that died between the 1840s and 1880s are in other vaults in the tiny garden burial ground behind St. Paul’s.
Sources: Map of the City of Brooklyn (Colton 1949); Robinson’s 1886 Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 3; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “A Village Churchyard,” Historical Records and Studies 7 (Meehan 1914); Cobble Hill Historic District Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1969); An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn (Morrone 2001) Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); “A Card to the Benevolent Philanthropists of Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Evening Star Jan 11, 1842; “Died,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, May 13, 1848; “Obituary,” Brooklyn Standard Union Feb 2, 1908; “Last Body to be Interred in Church Vault,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 5, 1908; “Parmentier Home on Bridge Street Once Center of Great Charity Work,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 6 1918; “Heeney’s Charities Keep Memory Alive,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle,Apr 6, 1931; “New Rectory in St. Paul’s Parish,” The Tablet, Mar 11, 1939; “Do You Know the Way to Philanthropist Cornelius Heeney’s Cobble Hill Grave? Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 28, 2018