Category Archives: Manhattan

Bedford Street Methodist Church Graveyard and Vaults

This vintage photo of Bedford and Morton streets in Greenwich Village shows part of the Bedford Street Methodist Church at the southeast corner, just before it was demolished in 1914 (NYPL)

The first Methodist congregation in Greenwich Village was founded in 1805 and in 1810 erected a meeting house at the southeast corner of Bedford and Morton streets. This structure—a frame building with shingled sides—was enlarged in 1830, then replaced in 1840 by a red-brick church. The Bedford Street Methodist church became one of the largest and most prosperous congregations in the city, its membership ranging in size from 800 to 1,200 for most of the 19th century. Known as “a hot furnace of religious activity” for its evangelism, the Bedford Street Church congregation included the middle classes of old Greenwich Village as well as wealthy local families such as the McLeans, Brushes, DeGroots, Bakers, and Halls.

This detail from an 1854 map shows the Bedford Street Methodist Church at the southeast corner of Bedford and Morton streets in Greenwich Village. The empty lot next to the church along Morton Street is the former church grounds; by that time remains from the cemetery had been exhumed and removed to vaults beneath the church.

The original meeting house faced Bedford Street and behind it stretched a graveyard where approximately 3,000 bodies were buried until the new church was built in 1840. At that time, a system of burial vaults was constructed beneath the church and the cemetery plot along Morton Street was sold. Before the purchaser was allowed to take possession of the cemetery property, the ground was “carefully dug over by employees of the church, who gathered up every human relic and deposited it in the vaults,” according to one account. The vaults beneath the church continued to be used for new interments until about 1865.

Monument at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens marking the plot where remains exhumed from the Bedford Street Methodist Church graveyard and vaults were reburied (Chris Bendall)

The Bedford Street Methodist Church building stood over the bones of several thousand of the “best and truest people of Greenwich Village” until title to the church property passed to the city in 1913 for the southward extension of Seventh Avenue. Before the demolition of the building in January of 1914, remains from the burial vaults beneath the church were moved to a plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens. The homeless Bedford Street Methodist congregation merged with the Metropolitan Methodist Temple on Seventh Avenue and 13th Street, which was later renamed the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church.

Excavations for the Seventh Avenue subway line in 1916 uncovered remains that had been left behind in the old burial ground and vaults at the Bedford Street Methodist Church site. In a report entitled “The Catacombs of Seventh Avenue,” an engineer for the Bureau of Subway Construction detailed the discoveries and described the “huge underground tomb” still present where the church once stood. Constructed of brick and stone, it included 20 separate vaults and two lengthy passages that led to the individual burial chambers. The remains of about 50 people were found at the site and taken to Mount Olivet Cemetery for reburial.

For more than a century the Bedford Street Methodist Church stood at the heart of Greenwich Village. Today Seventh Avenue cuts through the former church site, and passengers on the 1 train ride through what was once the burial place of the Village’s earliest Methodist congregation.

A 2018 aerial view of the southeast corner of the Bedford and Morton Streets, the former site of the Bedford Street Methodist Church and its burial places. Arrow denotes approximate location. (NYCThen&Now)
Location of the Beford Street Methodist Church reburial plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery (Mount Olivet Cemetery Map, with notation by Chris Bendall, Nov 2022)

Sources: Perris’ 1854 Maps of the City of New York, Vol 5 Pl 59; Annals of New York Methodism (Seaman 1892); The American Metropolis, from Knickerbocker Days to the Present Time, Vol 3 (Moss 1897); Nooks & Corners of Old New York (Hemstreet 1899); From Abyssianian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Dunlap 2004); “A Tour Around New York,” Evening Post, Mar 4, 1887; “To Dig Up Bodies Long Buried,” The Sun, Sep 23 1913; “Historic Church to Go,” New York Times, Oct 3, 1913; “Old Graves Block Street,”  New York Tribune, Oct 24, 1913; “Old Church to Go,” New York Times, Nov 13, 1913; Laws of the State of New York Passed at the 137th Session of the Legislature, Begun January 7th 1914 and ended March 27th, 1914, Vol. I, Ch. 138 (New York 1914); “Wrecking of Bedford Street M.E. Church Removes a Historic Shrine,” New York  Press, Dec 18 1913; “Ancient Cemeteries Dug Up in Subways,” New York Times, June 11 1916; Chris Bendall, personal communication, Nov 19, 2022

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)

John Street Methodist Church Graveyard and Vaults

A 19th-century depiction of the Methodist Church erected on John Street in 1768 (NYPL)

“The church first, and then my family” was the motto of New York City merchant William Lupton, one of the founding members of the John Street Methodist Church. The first Methodist church in America, the John Street Church was erected in 1768 at 44 John Street in Lower Manhattan and rebuilt in 1818 and 1841. Considered the cradle of American Methodism, the John Street Church still stands today. It has an active congregation and a museum that tells the story of this historically and religiously significant property.

John Street Methodist Church and adjoining graveyard in 1807

The lot connected with John Street Church was the first place Methodists used for a burial ground in New York, and they had burial vaults under the original church building. But by the early 1800s, the congregation had acquired lots in a Methodist cemetery further uptown and stopped burying their dead at John Street. In 1817, when the congregation tore down their first chapel to build a new house of worship on the same site, they disturbed bodies buried there. Some of the bones were gathered together and reburied under one end of the new church and some were removed to other burial grounds.

Obituary of William Lupton, interred at John Street Methodist Church in 1796

William Lupton’s remains were among those removed and reburied during construction of the new church in 1817. Lupton had a private vault under the church where he was interred in 1796 when he died at age 69.  One of the wealthiest of the original trustees, Lupton was an Englishman who came to America in 1753 as a quartermaster in the British Army and served in the French and Indian War. Married twice—first to Joanna Schuyler and, after her death, to Elizabeth Roosevelt—he had eleven children. Lupton and his family lived next door to the John Street Church for some time. Legend has it, when a fire broke out in the neighborhood Lupton instructed the firemen to save the church before his home, thus proving him faithful to his motto.

Construction projects at the church in the 1880s and again in the 1940s uncovered the bones of more early Methodists; these were reburied beneath the basement of the present church building. More recently, in 1986 construction workers found fragments of human bones during work on the foundation wall of the church, and these also were reburied under the basement. Archaeologist Sherene Baugher, who led excavations at the church when the bones were found in 1986, observes that “the basement of the church has become a burial ground and, in a sense, a sacred site.”

John Street Methodist Church, July 2020 (John Street Church)

2018 aerial view of the John Street Methodist Church, overshadowed by surrounding office towers (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Bridges’ 1807 Plan of the city of New-York; “Died,” Daily Advertiser, Apr 11, 1796; Lost Chapters Recovered from the Early History of American Methodism (Wakeley 1858); “The General Conference,” The Methodist, Jun 4, 1864; Annals of New York Methodism (Seaman 1892); John Street Methodist Church: An Archaeological Investigation (LPC 1991); “The John Street Methodist Church: An Archaeological Excavation with Native American Cooperation,” Historical Archaeology 43(1); From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Dunlap 2004); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010)

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)

German Catholic Cemetery, 124th Street

An 1869 notice in the New York Herald announces the removal of remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street

Even as New York’s Catholic population grew from no more than 200 at the end of the Revolutionary era to 400,000 by the mid-19th century, there was but one official cemetery for Manhattan’s Catholics, each closing in turn as it reached capacity. The first was around St. Peter’s in Barclay street, the second at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the third on 11th Street, and, in 1848,  Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Parishes throughout Manhattan were expected to bury their dead in the authorized cemetery and were prohibited by the diocese (archdiocese after 1850) from establishing graveyards adjacent to their churches or elsewhere.

But Manhattan’s early German Catholics were eager to have their own burial places, separate from the Irish that dominated the designated cemetery for the diocese/archdiocese. Several German Catholic parishes established cemeteries, or attempted to do so, and were censured for their defiance and their burial grounds closed. One of these was the Church of St. John the Baptist on 30th Street, whose trustees opened a cemetery on property they acquired in 1848.  State Senator Erastus Brooks provides an account of this cemetery in an 1855 editorial letter:

On 123d and 124th streets, there is a burial ground covering eight lots, belonging to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on 30th street. The owners were Germans. They built a church and selected a suitable place for the burial of their dead. For some time, without restraint from the Archbishop or others, they were permitted to inter the members of their congregation in these grounds, which were sacred both to the memory of the dead and to their friends. The Archbishop interposed, and prohibited the use of the grounds for this purpose.

The congregation, in a spirit of German independence, continued to bury their dead there, notwithstanding the prohibition of the Archbishop. It was then announced by authority from the pulpit, that burial services would not be permitted there any longer. Still the congregation persisted in exercising their rights as men, and in discharging their duty to the dead. For a time the dead were buried without the usual funeral ceremonies or services. The Archbishop in the exercise of his highhanded power, then took the Priest from the congregation, and, as a consequence, the Church had to be closed, and was closed for some time.

The German Catholic Cemetery depicted on an 1851 map of upper Manhattan. Although it appears here that the cemetery extended over entire block, other sources indicate it was confined to the center of the block, in the area denoted by arrow

An 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows this German Catholic Cemetery and implies that it extended the entire block bounded by 123rd and 124th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards). However, other documentary evidence and historical accounts indicate the cemetery was confined to a parcel at the middle of the block (indicated by arrow on the map detail above). No evidence has been found of the number nor names of those interred there.

As noted in Senator Brooks’ letter, the archdiocese interdicted St. John the Baptist for their cemetery, as well as for other disagreements with church authorities, and the parish was consistently troubled until it was reorganized under the control of Capuchin Franciscan friars in 1871. In 1869, the remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street were removed to Calvary Cemetery. The property was subsequently sold to help fund a new church building for the resurrected St. John the Baptist parish; this building still stands at West 30th Street. Apartment buildings are at the former site of the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street.

2018 aerial view of the German Catholic Cemetery site today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); “Catholic Cemetery and Catholic Burials,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, Aug 23, 1851; The Controversy Between Senator Brooks and † John, Archbishop of New York…(Tisdale 1855); “Special Notices,” New York Herald, April 4, 1869; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Dolan 1975); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Ennis Francis Houses 1A Documentary Report (Geismar 2010)