All posts by Mary French

Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, 89th Street

Removal notice for Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery that appeared in the New York Herald in 1875

In 1849, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Manhattan purchased land on 89th Street to serve as a burial place to supplement its earlier graveyard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The five lots acquired for $900 in 1849 were situated on the north side of 89th Street, near present-day Madison Avenue. By 1875, when the congregation decided to transfer the remains to new plots in Cypress Hills Cemetery, approximately 100 bodies were interred in Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery.

Though not identified as a cemetery, this 1871 map shows the five lots (delineated in red) Shaar Hashomayim acquired in 1849 for use as a burial ground

Shaar Hashomayim was one of several Jewish congregations that exhumed remains from their old burial grounds in the late 1800s, an act that was denounced by the Jewish public and press. The editors of The Jewish Messenger took Shaar Hashomayim to task when the congregation began removing their 89th Street cemetery, asserting that “there is absolutely no reason for this desecration. The old cemetery could, with very little expense, have been put in such a condition as to continue an object of grateful reverence. Had the members of Shaar Hashomayim retained any of the old Jewish feeling, they would have hesitated before disturbing the remains of their parents and other relatives.” The editorial goes on to claim that the only motive for emptying the cemeteries was to sell the land at a profit, and pleads with congregations not “to follow their example of contempt for the departed.” Today, an apartment building stands at the site of Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on 89th St (NYCThen&Now)

Sources:  Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 525, p214-216, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “Shaar Hashomayim,” New York Herald, Nov 21, 1875; “Special Notices—Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, New York Herald, Nov 22, 1875; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019)

Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, Williamsburg

The Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1868

In 1860, one of New York City’s Jewish newspapers published the following announcement: 

To the Jewish Congregations in this City – A Burial ground in Williamsburgh, L.I., belonging to one of the Congregations of this city, is to be sold for assessment arrearages. As it is the resting place of a number of departed Israelites, immediate efforts should be made to avert the threatened sale.

The burial ground in question occupied a lot on South Third Street, between Tenth and Eleventh streets (today’s Keap and Hooper streets) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was owned by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim (Gates of Heaven), a group of German Jews that broke off from Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, first meeting for worship in a building on Attorney Street and later having a synagogue on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side. Five days after Shaar Hashomayim was incorporated on June 24th, 1839, the congregation purchased the 120 x 25 foot lot in Williamsburg from Abraham Remsen for $400 and subsequently used it as a cemetery. Unpaid assessment notices for the property—denoted as “Jews’ Burying Ground”—appear in Brooklyn newspapers throughout the 1860s, but this issue must have been resolved as Shaar Hashomayim retained ownership of the property.

An 1868 insurance map shows the location of the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery between Tenth (Keap) and Eleventh (Hooper) streets

In 1874, The Jewish Messenger described the “old Hebrew burying ground” on South Third Street, which “has been used by the juveniles of the neighborhood for the past few years as a playground. They have shamefully defaced some of the gravestones, and even carried away several. It is now over 20 years since a burial has been made there, and it seems strange that no one apparently having an interest in this ground ever visits or makes any repairs.” By the 1880s, the cemetery had become “a wilderness of weeds” and “a dumping ground for refuse and filth,” according to reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

An excerpt from the deed for the 1839 purchase of the property by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim

The disposition of remains from the South Third Street cemetery is unclear, but it’s likely Shaar Hashomayim removed them to burial plots acquired at Cypress Hills Cemetery for remains exhumed in 1875 from another cemetery the congregation owned at 89th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. In 1889 Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sold their former burial ground in Williamsburg to Westcott Express Company and the property was redeveloped; today a boutique condominium building is on the site. In 1898 Shaar Hashomayim merged with another Manhattan congregation, Ahawath Chesed; the combined congregation subsequently renamed itself Central Synagogue and continues today at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Higginson’s 1868 Insurance Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 82; Brooklyn Land Conveyance Abstracts, Section 8 Block 2424 (Center for Brooklyn History); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 148 p125-126, Vol 298 p262-264, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “To the Jewish Congregations in this City,” The Jewish Messenger, Jun 1, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Tenth Street Opening,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jun 6, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Assessment Notice,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 5, 1864; “Local Items,” The Jewish Messenger, Jul 31, 1874; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “The Aldermen,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 28, 1887; “Cong. Shaar Hashomajim,” The Jewish Messenger, Sep 20, 1889; The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996), Central Synagogue—Our History

Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

View of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)

The consecration of the new Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, Long Island, by the Right Rev. Rev. Dr. Loughlin, Bishop of Brooklyn, on Sunday, 12th inst., is perhaps one of the most solemn and interesting rites we have had occasion for some time to record. The ceremonies commenced by a procession of St. Michael’s Catholic Schools of the village, and the St. Vincent of Paul and St. Michael’s Benevolent Societies attached to the parish, from the convent grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The girls in white, with blue sashes, and the boys in white pants and blue jackets, made a most attractive appearance in marching to the cemetery, nearly two miles distant. (Metropolitan Record July 25, 1863)

Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery was founded in 1862 when the trustees of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church of Flushing—the oldest Catholic parish in Queens—acquired six acres of land on the south side of North Hempstead Turnpike (today’s Booth Memorial Avenue). Originally established as a parish burial ground, the cemetery grew to 55 acres that were open to Catholics throughout Queens and Brooklyn. Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery still serves the Catholic community of the diocese, handling about 1,000 interments per year in in-ground burials and above-ground community mausoleums.

An 1891 map shows Mount St. Mary’s original six acres on the south side of North Hempstead Turnpike (today’s Booth Memorial Ave)

Among the estimated 80,000 people laid to rest at Mount St. Mary’s are several U.S. congressmen; mafioso Louis DiBono; punk rockers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan; and Bishop Edmund J. Reilly, a native of College Point, Queens, who served as auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn from 1955 to 1958. Victims of great tragedy are here as well. Six members of the Polish Catholic Fliss family—father, mother, and four children—were interred at Mount St. Mary’s after a fire consumed their home on Alley Pond Road in Bayside, Queens, on March 24, 1930. (See the heartbreakingly similar story of the Sanders family in my Mount Lebanon post).  More recently, retired NYPD officer Cesar Borja was buried at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery on January 27, 2007. Once seen as a symbol of September 11 rescue workers’ health problems, Borja died from a lung ailment he believed was caused by his service at the World Trade Center site.

The Fliss family arrives for burial at Mount St. Mary’s on March 26, 1930. Eleven-year-old Stanley Fliss, the sole survivor of the fire causing the death of his parents and four siblings, is at left, with head bowed (Daily News)
Old tombstones in the original section at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, May 2011 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

Sources: Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 29; “A Brief History of Mount St. Mary Cemetery in Flushing, New York,” The Promise 11(1), May 2009; Mount St. Mary Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer, Oct 28, 1862; “Consecration of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, L.I.,” Metropolitan Record, July 25 1863; “St. Michael’s Cemetery Question,” Newtown Register, June 29, 1899; “Cemetery Desecrated,” Brooklyn Times Union, Apr 22, 1904;  “Boy Escaping Fire, Sees 6 Kin Buried,” Brooklyn Times Union, Mar 27, 1930; “His Saddest Day,” Daily News, Mar 30, 1930; “Weeks After a Death, Twists in Some 9/11 Details, New York Times, Feb. 13, 2007; The 9/11 Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Atkins 2011)

Watt-Pinkney Family Burial Ground

An 1849 map shows Archibald Watt’s Harlem estate

On a June day in 1910, an undertaker and his assistants labored in the drizzling rain to remove coffins from the Watt-Pinkney estate that covered an entire city block between 139th street and 140th streets and 6th and 7th avenues (today’s Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard) in Harlem. Complete with magnificent trees, flower and vegetable gardens, two barns, and a row of chicken houses, this single-block enclave was a vestige of a vast farm purchased by Archibald Watt in 1826.

Born in Scotland, Archibald Watt came to New York in 1820 and made his fortune as a merchant and land speculator. In 1827, he married Mrs. Mary Pinkney, a widow whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family. Archibald became stepfather to Mary’s two daughters—17-year-old Mary Goodwin Pinkney and two-year-old Antoinette Pinkney. Archibald and Mary would go on to have two additional children, Thomas and Grace Watt.

Watt-Pinkney mansion at 139th Street near 7th Ave, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

Archibald’s stepdaughter Mary G. Pinkney became his confidant and business secretary and was deeply involved in his real estate deals. When he was hard-pressed for ready cash during a financial downturn in 1843, it was Miss Pinkney who came to his rescue with a $40,000 inheritance left to her by her father. In return, Archibald willed her his Harlem estate “in consideration of love and affection.” Until her death at age 98, Mary Pinkney made her primary residence at the old family manor house near the corner of 139th Street and 7th Avenue and took great pride in the grounds. Dubbed “the wealthiest spinster in the world” when she died in 1908, her real estate holdings in upper Manhattan were worth an estimated $50 million.

The 14-month old daughter of Thomas Watt, Mary Pinkney Watt’s 1858 burial record notes her place of interment as “Vault in her grandfather Archibald Watt’s garden”

Mary Pinkney’s will included a clause directing that “the mortal remains of the members of my family that lie buried in the private burial grounds situate in the plot between 139th street and 140th streets and between Sixth and Seventh avenues shall be removed to the plot now owned by me at Woodlawn Cemetery.” Six of Mary Pinkney’s family members were laid to rest on the estate—her half-sister Grace Watt, who died at age seven in 1839; her sister Antoinette Pinkney, died 1841, aged 16; her 14-month-old niece Mary Pinkney Watt, who died in 1858; her stepfather Archibald Watt, died 1867, age 77; her half-brother Thomas Watt, died 1876 at age 48; and her 94-year-old mother, Mary Goodwin Pinkney Watt, the final interment, in 1883.

In each case, the coffins were enclosed in brick masonry and sealed at the top but left without a tombstone or any other exterior markings. Although the location of the burial vaults is described as “under the grape arbor” on the property, precisely where this was within the block is not known today. When the vaults were opened in 1910, the coffins were found to be in excellent condition, with the nameplates still readable. They were removed and put in zinc boxes for reburial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The Watt-Pinkney manor house and grounds were sold in 1925;  the house was subsequently demolished and the land redeveloped.

View of Watt-Pinkney farm, ca. 1900. The mansion can be seen in the background (MCNY)
This 1909 map shows the Watt-Pinkney mansion on north side of 139th street near 7th Ave and the grounds and outbuildings that occupied the remainder of the block.
A 2018 aerial view of the former Watt-Pinkney block in Harlem, where the family burial ground was located (NYCThen&Now)
The Watt-Pinkney plot at Woodlawn Cemetery, Sept 2021 (Mary French)

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Sanborn’s 1909 Insurance Maps of the City of New York,  Vol 11, Pl 33; New York, U.S., Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970 (Ancestry.com); “Died,” Evening Post, Jul 23, 1839; “Died,” Log Cabin, Nov 13, 1841; “Died,” New York Daily Tribune,  Jun 1, 1858; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 2, 1867; “Died,” New York Herald, Nov 12, 1876; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1883; “Estate of Millions, Miss Pinkney’s Care,” New York Times, May 4 1902; “Obituary—Miss Mary G. Pinkney,” New York Tribune, Dec 9, 1908; “Miss Pinkney Buried,” The Sun, Dec 11, 1908; “$50,000,000 Pinkney Estate Goes to a Man and Two Women,” Evening World, Dec 15, 1908; “Pinkney Estate Cut in Four,” The Sun, Dec 16, 1908; “City Overspreads Old Watt Cemetery,” New York Times, Jun 17, 1910; “Historic Estate in Auction Market,” New York Times, May 7 1911; “Harlem to Lose Ancient Landmark,” New York Times, Nov 29 1925; Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, Vol 2 (Macbean 1925)

Presentation Sisters Cemetery

Presentation Sisters Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

A long driveway off Arthur Kill Road in Greenridge leads to the small cemetery belonging to the Sisters of the Presentation of Staten Island, an order of Roman Catholic nuns that has its origins in the Irish city of Cork. Hemmed in today by residential development, the hilltop burial ground once offered views of sloping hillsides and ridges dotted with fields, orchards, and barnyards. This bucolic environment is what led the Presentation Sisters, assigned to teaching positions at St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan, to open a retreat on what had been the Frost farm in the western part of Staten Island. Shortly after opening their 80-acre retreat in 1884, the nuns began hosting needy children from their Manhattan parish; within a few years, the retreat had evolved into St. Michael’s Home for destitute children. In 1921, St Michael’s Home and Convent housed 33 Presentation Sisters and 400 children.

This snippet from a 1917 map shows the St. Michael’s Home complex and the Presentation Sisters Cemetery (arrow)

The Presentation Sisters left St. Michael’s Home in the 1940s, relocating their convent to another area of Staten Island and relinquishing operation of the children’s home to the Sisters of Mercy. Over the years, the Presentation Sisters worked at local churches, taught at local schools, and became an indelible part of Staten Island’s Catholic community. In the 1960s, nearly 120 nuns were members of the order. As of 2020, the Staten Island Presentation Sisters congregation had only eight members at their present convent, built in 2010 on Woodrow Road in Annadale. 

St. Michael’s Home was closed by the Archdiocese of New York in 1978. At the time of closing, the substantial complex held 12 buildings—including a chapel, gymnasium, administration building, and dormitories—and the burial ground where the Presentation Sisters have interred members of their community for over 100 years. Most of the St. Michael’s Home complex was demolished and much of the property sold, except for about six acres reserved for St. John Neumann Church, a new parish that operated on the grounds until its 2017 closure.

Presentation Sisters Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

Approximately 80 nuns are buried in the Presentation Sisters Cemetery, which is a short distance behind the St. John Neumann church building. Enclosed by a wrought-iron fence and gate bearing the words “My Jesus Mercy,” the tidy cemetery has rows of uniform headstones marking the nuns’ graves, the earliest dating to 1886. In the southern section of the cemetery is a monument inscribed “In Memory of the Children of St. Michael’s Home Buried on this Sacred Ground,” which marks a plot where about two dozen youngsters from the home, who died without relatives to claim them, are interred. Several other individuals associated with St. Michael’s Home are also interred in the cemetery.

The Presentation Sisters Cemetery is still active; the most recent burial is Sister Margaret Mary Quinn. Born in Manhattan, Sister Margaret Mary entered the Presentation Sisters of Staten Island in 1946. For 32 years, she served at St. Teresa parish and school in West New Brighton, where she was instrumental in starting a preschool program and food pantry. Sister Margaret Mary died at the Woodrow Road convent in August 2020 at age 90.

Two 2018 aerial views show the Presentation Sisters Cemetery in its modern surroundings, and in closer detail. St. John Neumann Church and its expansive front lawn can be seen directly northwest of the burial ground (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of the Presentation Sisters Cemetery

Sources: Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Richmond, Staten Island, Pl 43; The Official Catholic Directory 1921; Staten Island and Its People, Vol. 2 (Davis & Leng 1930); Phase 1 Archaeological Sensitivity Evaluation, Arden Heights Watershed, South Richmond Drainage Plans, Staten Island, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 2001); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); “Many at Funeral of Father Byrnes,” Perth Amboy Evening News, Mar 6, 1908; “Elks to Honor Late Chaplain,” Perth Amboy Evening News, May 26, 1909; “Few in Number, Rich in Land, an Order Sells Some Holdings,” New York Times, Apr 17, 2005; “St. John Neumann Church to Close,” Staten Island Advance, May 1, 2017; “Sister Margaret Mary Quinn,” Catholic New York, Sep 24, 2020; Staten Island Presentation Sisters Congregational Story