All posts by Mary French

St. Peter’s Cemetery, West New Brighton

Tombstones in St. Peter’s Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

St. Peter’s Cemetery is the oldest Catholic burial ground on Staten Island, founded in 1848 by its namesake parish. The first Catholic parish on Staten Island, St. Peter’s was established at New Brighton in 1839, and the congregation built their church on a plot of land overlooking the Upper New York Bay. Soon after completing their church, St. Peter’s parish bought about three acres of land on the west side of Clove Road, in West New Brighton, for burial purposes. As graves filled, St. Peter’s Cemetery expanded in 1878 with the acquisition of three additional acres and again in 1898, when the parish purchased five acres on the opposite side of Clove Road for new graves. The grounds on both sides of Clove Road were further enlarged during the 20th century to bring St. Peter’s Cemetery to a total of 25 acres of burial space, holding 50,000 graves.

At left is a detail from an 1853 map showing the original St. Peter’s Cemetery parcel on the west side of Clove Road; at right is a 1917 map depicting the enlarged St. Peter’s Cemetery, with sections on both side of the road
Father Capodanno’s grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery, May 2020 (Larry Gertner/HMdb.org)

Some prominent figures are laid to rest at St. Peter’s Cemetery, including Civil War general Patrick Henry Jones, early baseball player Matty McIntyre, champion boxer Frankie Genaro, World War II Medal of Honor recipient Joseph F. Merrell, and three Staten Island borough presidents. Most notably, there is the grave of Father Vincent Capodanno, currently a candidate for sainthood. A U.S. Navy chaplain killed during the Vietnam War, Father Capodanno was struck down by a burst of machine-gun fire while attempting to aid and assist a mortally wounded Marine corpsman during heavy fighting on September 4, 1967. In 1969 he was a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor, and in 2006 was declared a Servant of God, the first step in the canonization process. Father Capodanno’s resting place at St. Peter’s Cemetery is now a pilgrimage site for Staten Island’s Catholic community. Here believers pray at the modest granite headstone marking the Capodanno family plot, and ask for the help and protection of the fearless “grunt padre.”

A view of St. Peter’s Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of St. Peter’s Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of St. Peter’s Cemetery

Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of New York City, Borough of Richmond, Pl 26; The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,Historical Records and Studies 1; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); St. Peter’s Parish History (St. Peter, St. Paul & Assumption Parish); Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General, and Gilded Age Politician (Dunkelman 2015); “The Story of Matty McIntyre, Ty Cobb, and an Old-Time Baseball Feud,” Staten Island Advance, Jan 3, 2019; “50 Must-Dos for Boxing Fans,” Boxing News, May 23, 2019; “Obituary—Pfc. Joseph F. Merrell Jr.,” Daily News, Jul 23, 1948; “M’Cormack Pallbearers,”Brooklyn Times Union, Jul 13, 1915; “Staten Island Mourns as President Cahill is Buried,” Daily News, Jul 18, 1922; “Obituary—Cornelius A. Hall,” Daily News, Mar 10, 1953; “Obituary—Rev. Vincent Cappodano,” Daily News, Sep 16, 1967; “Remembering Father Vincent Capodanno,” Staten Island Advance, Sep 4, 2020; Father Capodanno Guild

Rapelje Cemetery, Astoria

A view of Rapelje Cemetery from 20th Street, July 2021 (Mary French)

Residents of an apartment building near the northwest corner of 20th Street and 21st Avenue in Astoria, Queens, are probably unaware that an old burial ground is preserved within the grassy courtyard of their complex. The property is part of a tract of land that once belonged to Jacob Rapelje (1714-1776), a great-grandson of Joris Jansen Rapelje, one of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam.

Jacob Rapelje House, northeast corner of Shore Blvd and 21st Ave, 1922 (NYPL)

Jacob and his wife Catherine lived with their family at what was then known as Hellgate in Newtown township, where Jacob was town supervisor for 18 years. The Rapelje home overlooked the East River, standing at what is now the northeast corner of 21st Avenue and Shore Boulevard. To the east of the house was their family burial ground, which now lies within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex. Property documents for the complex—part of a vast development built in 1948 to help relieve the postwar housing shortage—specifically exclude “the Burial Ground known as the Rapelje Cemetery” from the property and provide the precise location of the 52-foot x 63-foot parcel.

A 1965 tax map delineates the boundaries of Rapelje Cemetery

No tombstones are present at the site today, but a 1904 article in the Brooklyn Times Union describes markers that once stood there. At that time the little burial plot was “in a field some distance back from the Shore road,” on property owned by Mrs. George A. Trowbridge. About a dozen weather-beaten tombstones were clustered alongside a large rock and surrounded by a group of trees. Although the inscriptions on many of the headstones were illegible, others were remarkably clear and easily read. Among these were stones, inscribed in Dutch, marking the graves of Jacob Rapelje, who died in May 1776 at age 62, and his wife Catherine, who died two months later, aged 55 years. Nearby were the graves of their daughter Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff (1755-1787), her husband George Brinkerhoff (1738-1802), and other members of the Rapelje family.

This 1927 photo of Rapelje Cemetery shows the tombstones of Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff and her mother Catherine Rapelje (NYCMA)

Also present in 1904 were headstones marking the graves of Capt. Ichabod Sheffield (1780-1830) and his parents, Isaac and Wealthy Sheffield. Capt. Sheffield, whose tombstone recorded that he was born in Stonington, Connecticut, and “For the last thirty years has been a respected owner and shipmaster from the Port of New York,” made international news for his involvement in an incident during the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s. Sheffield was captain of the schooner Mary Ann, captured by Algerian pirates in the Straits of Gibraltar on October 26, 1807. The operations of his vessel taken over by nine pirates, including a boy, Capt. Sheffield and his crew were captive for three days when they determined to retake the Mary Ann. Following a struggle in which they threw four of their captors overboard and set four others adrift in a boat, Capt. Sheffield brought the Mary Ann safely into Naples with the boy on board with his crew. Notice of the hostilities was immediately sent to American consuls and shipmasters throughout the Mediterranean and Capt. Sheffield became well known for his bravery.

A 1919 survey identified four tombstones at the site

By 1919, when the Queens Topographic Bureau surveyed the Rapelje Cemetery, Capt. Sheffield’s tombstone had disappeared, as had Jacob Rapelje’s and most of the other headstones in the plot. Four gravemarkers were found at that time, and only one—Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff’s—was legible. All are gone now, and nothing identifies the site as a burial ground or memorializes those interred there. Currently owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the plot is nicely landscaped with trees and other plantings and protected on three sides by hedges and a wooden fence.

Another view of Rapelje Cemetery in July 2021, facing toward 20th Street (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing location of Rapelje Cemetery within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex (NYCityMap)

Sources: The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852); “Graves of Ancient Worthies on Shore Road,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jul 2, 1904; “Rapalaye Home in Astoria Recalls First L.I. Resident,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jan 22, 1928; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); The WPA Guide to New York City (Federal Writers Project 1939); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol 6 (United States Office of Naval Records 1944); Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Allen 1905); “FHA Financing for New Apartment Unit in Astoria,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 28, 1947; “First Families Enter Astoria Housing Project,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 27, 1948; Astoria Venture Corporation property agreement dated July 1, 1977;  Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church in about 1890. Part of the cemetery can be seen on the south side of the building (BHS)

In 1654, Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered that a church be built in the new settlement at Flatbush (then known as Midwout), one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The site selected for this church was that now occupied by the present Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church, at the southwest corner of Flatbush and Church avenues. This structure, completed in 1798, is the third church on the site.

To the south and west of the church building is the cemetery that contains the graves of members of the early families of Flatbush; names include Lott, Vanderbilt, Martense, Lefferts, Vanderveer, Stryker, Cortelyou, Bergen, Van Sicklen, and Suydam, among others. Nearly 500 tombstones stand in the graveyard, the oldest dating to 1754, but there are many more unmarked graves throughout the property. During the 17th and 18th century the church grounds served as the public burial place for Flatbush, and every inhabitant was entitled to be buried there irrespective of their religious background. Since no burial records were kept, the names and dates of many of those interred in the cemetery are unknown.

This detail from an 1873 map of Flatbush depicts the church and cemetery at the southwest corner of what is now Flatbush and Church Avenues. The parsonage, shown south of the church grounds on Flatbush Ave, was relocated to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds in 1920

One of the oldest legible monuments in the cemetery is the headstone of Abraham Lott (1684-1754). Abraham was a grandson of Peter Lott, a French Huguenot who emigrated from the Netherlands and was among the original Dutch settlers of Flatbush. Abraham’s brownstone gravemarker, inscribed in Dutch, has the typical arched shape used in the 18th century and displays a carving of a winged cherub at the top. 

Although Flatbush had an African burial ground located on Reformed Dutch property one block east of the church, there is evidence suggesting some local slave owners may have paid to have their servants buried within the main church cemetery. In her 1881 social history of Flatbush, Gertrude Vanderbilt describes a small fenced enclosure beyond the western boundary of the church cemetery “where lies buried a colored woman by the name of Flora,” who died in 1826 at age 104. Also in the enclosure were two other “colored persons,” who, along with Flora, were domestics in the family of Mrs. A.L. Lloyd. A 1914 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery does not mention these graves, and they are not found at the site today.

This 1923 photo, taken from East 21st Street, shows part of the cemetery to the rear of the church building (NYPL)

Around 1870, the church prohibited new graves in the cemetery because, as pastor Dr. John E. Lloyd later explained, the church grounds “were almost sown with graves and buried bodies and it would be almost impossible to dig in any part without unearthing some of the skeletons.” Burials ceased except for occasional interments in family plots. When 97-year-old Catharine Hart Wyckoff was buried here in 1889, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported it was the first interment in the old church graveyard in more than 20 years.

As Flatbush transformed from a rural village to a suburban neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, so too was the old Dutch cemetery changed. After grading and paving of Flatbush Avenue was completed in 1892, the level of the cemetery was considerably below that of the street so 400 loads of soil were spread over the graveyard, and the tombstones raised so that they stood in regular order according to the grade. During excavations for installation of cesspools around the church in 1911, graves were disturbed and reportedly plundered by the workmen doing the digging, who were accused of stealing jewelry and other personal ornaments from the graves. In 1920, about 30 graves were relocated when the parsonage—built in 1853 next to the church along Flatbush Avenue—was moved to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds, facing Kenmore Terrace. More graves may have been relocated when the church house was erected on the south side of the cemetery in 1923-1924.

Today the landmarked Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex remains at the heart of Flatbush, standing at what is now one of the busiest commercial intersections in Brooklyn. Hallowed ground for over three centuries, this historic site is protected from the frenetic activity that surrounds it by a handsome wrought-iron fence.

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in April 2016. In the background is the church house erected in 1923-24 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 25; The History of the Town of Flatbush in Kings County, Long-Island (Strong 1842); The Social History of Flatbush (Vanderbilt 1881); Inscriptions from Reformed Dutch Churchyard at Flatbush, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Frost 1914); Between Heaven and Earth: Church and Society in Pre-Revolutionary Flatbush, Long Island (Nooter 1995); “She Lived Long,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 27, 1889; “In the Religious World,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 6, 1892; “Ghouls Plunder Graves of Old Dutch Families,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 29, 1911; “Ancient Parsonage Starts on Journey,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 20, 1920; “Brooklyn Scenes. Church Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 18, 1938; Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, Expanded Landmark Site Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commision 1979); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Guide to the Lott Family Papers ARC.186 (Brooklyn Historical Society 2021)

First Presbyterian of Throggs Neck Churchyard

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows the First Presbyterian Church of Throggs Neck and its two adjoining burial grounds (marked “Cem”)

The First Presbyterian Church of Throggs Neck stands on a commanding elevation on East Tremont Avenue, slightly east of Westchester Square in the Bronx. Organized in 1855, the congregation built their church on a hilltop noted for its association with a critical Revolutionary War battle—it’s the site where British troops retreated after being repulsed by American forces as they attempted to cross Westchester Creek in October 1776. First Presbyterian has a long history of community service, and was called “the Soup Church” during the Civil War because parishioners would meet soldiers at the local train station and offer them bowls of soup so that they would not be tempted to visit nearby taverns. Following an 1875 fire that destroyed their original wooden church building, in 1877 the congregation dedicated the brick edifice that stands at the site today. Designed in the High Victorian Gothic style, it boasts a distinctive steeple that can be seen from blocks away.

First Presbyterian Church of Throggs Neck, Jan 2021 (Mary French)

In the yard adjoining the First Presbyterian Church are two sections that were set aside soon after the church’s founding as burial grounds for members of the congregation. One of these burial places is in the northwest corner of the churchyard, overlooking East Tremont Avenue; the second burial spot is to the rear of the church building, in the southwest corner of the property. In 1915, genealogist Evelyn Briggs Baldwin visited these graveyards and recorded inscriptions for 38 individuals with dates of death ranging from 1860 to 1892. Surnames on the tombstones included Duncan, Belch, Hill, Bowden, Little, Maynard, McMillan, Holt, Meyer, Bigson, Setzer, Henderson, McGeorge, Renmeller, Morganroth, Mercer, Berrian, Sprung, Collison, Porsch, Sherwood, Corkey, and Armstrong. Six of the deceased were identified as natives of Scotland.

An 1878 notice of an interment in the First Presbyterian of Throgg’s Neck Churchyard

By the early 20th century, the church had stopped selling graves in their burial grounds and few interments were made thereafter; the last known burial was in 1947. Among the 20th century interments in the churchyard is Rev. Richard Bortle Mattice (1850-1922), who served as the church’s pastor for 32 years prior to his retirement in 1920. Under Rev. Mattice’s leadership, First Presbyterian attracted attention all over the country in 1903 when they created a successful cooperative grocery store to benefit the local community, a novel endeavor at that time. Rev. Mattice is laid to rest in the burial ground in back of the church.

A view of the burial ground to the rear of the First Presbyterian Church building, Jan 2021 (Mary French)
A view of the burial ground in the northwest corner of the First Presbyterian churchyard, overlooking East Tremont Ave, Jan 2021 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of the First Presbyterian Church of Throggs Neck complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of the First Presbyterian of Throggs Neck Churchyard

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; History of Westchester County (Scharf 1886) Vol 1; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); Inscriptions at Westchester Village of the Presbyterian Church: Ft. Schuyler Road and Dudley Ave (Baldwin 1915); Throggs Neck & Pelham Bay (Twomey & McNamara 1998); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “Other Fires,” New York Times, Oct 31, 1875; “Church Dedication at Throg’s Neck,” New York Times, Apr 20, 1877; “Westchester,” The Chronicle (Mount Vernon), Feb 1, 1878; “The Church Grocery,” The American Cooperator, 2(11), Aug 1903; “Value of Church Co-Operative Store,” New York Times, Aug 9, 1903; First Presbyterian Church of Throggs Neck document file, Bronx County Historical Society; “First Presbyterian Church of Throggs Neck” (Historic Districts Council) 

Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery

A city notice of the proposed removal of Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery in 1842

Citizens of New York City readied to protect their dead in 1842 when the Hudson Insurance Company threatened to remove a cemetery near the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets in the Lower East Side and convert the property into house lots. Thousands signed a petition that was forwarded to the state legislature, asking for a prohibition of the digging up of the dead. A large group of women watched the cemetery day and night—one lady, armed with a pistol, guarded the grave of her husband and children. And when the company’s agent arrived at the burial ground with workmen carrying shovels and spades, “it was the Ladies,” the New York Herald reports, “who over-powered and over-awed this wonderful agent with his men of war, and made them quit the battlefield.”

Detail from an 1832 map showing Bethel Baptist Church at the northeast corner of Delancey and Chrystie streets. The cemetery (not depicted), adjoined the church along Chrystie St.

The scene of this excitement was the burial ground belonging to Bethel Baptist Church. The second oldest Baptist congregation in the city, Bethel Baptist organized in the year 1770 and had its first house of worship on Rose Street in downtown Manhattan. By the early 1800s the congregation had grown to more than 400 members and in 1819 their pastor, Rev. Johnson Chase, purchased eight lots of ground at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets for a new church, parsonage, and burying ground. They erected a 65×85-foot brick church on the lots along Delancey Street and used the four lots adjoining the building for the graveyard.

A circular prepared in 1844 by friends and relatives of those interred in the cemetery provides a description of the site: “The said four lots, constituting the Bethel Baptist Burying Ground, contain a square of one hundred feet of ground, fronting on Christie st. In this ground, the remains of about 5,000 human beings are supposed to have been interred since said purchase. On an average the coffins are understood and believed to be at least five deep. The lowest tier of coffins are about fourteen feet below the surface. The surface of the grave yard is now five or six feet above what it originally was, having been filled up with coffins, graves, etc.”

A notice of a meeting of friends and relatives who opposed the cemetery removal

Beset by difficulties (including claims that church trustees used the cemetery as a money-making enterprise, selling the same plots over and over), Bethel Baptist disbanded in 1840 and sold their property. Thwarted in their attempts to remove the burial ground, Hudson Insurance Company suspended their plans for the site. The abandoned cemetery became an enclosure for hogs that tore up the ground and uprooted headstones. The city took over the property in 1856 and built a public school at the site. In the 1930s, the school was demolished and the site became part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

An 1893 map shows the public school that was built on the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery site in the 1850s

Although remains from the burial ground may have been removed before the site was redeveloped for a public school and later a public park, it seems likely the cemetery was simply built over since evidence of burials has been discovered over the years. In 1891, workmen excavating beneath the basement of the public school unearthed a large quantity of human remains under the northwest corner of the building—including 25 skulls and “a miscellaneous assortment of bones of arms, legs, and thighs.”

In 1964, decades after the site had been incorporated into the park, construction workers digging for foundation piles for a new senior recreation center were astounded when bones of what appeared to be at least 200 individuals were uncovered. Several engraved silver coffin plates were also found. The plates bore the names of Elizabeth Morrell and Emma Buchler, who died in 1821, and Martha Darby, who died in 1823. The foundation walls of the former school were visible in the excavation where the skeletons were found and had apparently been sunk down through burial vaults in the old cemetery. Following the 1964 discovery, the senior center was built and still stands at the site today. The disposition of human remains encountered during construction at the site is unknown.

Map of part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park showing the Golden Age Center for senior citizens; arrow indicates approximate location of the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sources: City of New-York (Burr 1832); Robinson’s 1893 Atlas of the City of New York 4:13; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Board of Aldermen,” New York Daily Express, Nov 30, 1841, “Corporation Notice,” Evening Post, Feb 9, 1842, “Protect Your Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1842; “Protect the Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 26, 1842; “Bethel Baptist Burying Ground,” New York Tribune, Mar 22, 1842; “Disturbing the Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 31, 1842; “Legislature of New York,” Spectator, Apr 2, 1842; “Digging Up the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 13, 1842; “Removal of the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 4, 1844; [Letter to Editor], New York Herald, Apr 5, 1844; “Protect the Dead in Their Graves,” New York Express, May 27, 1844; “Little Better Than Footballs,” New York Herald, Jul 19, 1891; “Bones Under a Schoolhouse,” New York Times, Jul 19, 1891; “Lower East Side Diggers Find Graves on a Construction Site,” New York Times, Dec 18, 1964