The first Catholic cemetery in New York City, and in the State of New York, was around the original St. Peter’s Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. In 1785, a group of Catholics in New York acquired an 110 x 125 foot plot on the southeast corner of Barclay and Church streets. The first St. Peter’s church, a brick building of 48 x 81 feet, was erected on the site and the remainder of the property was reserved for a burial ground.
The churchyard had become inadequate by the end of the 18th century, and in 1801 St. Peter’s purchased land at the corner of Prince and Mott streets to serve as a new burial ground. Subsequent acquisitions expanded this property, which became the site of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1809. In 1836, St Peter’s began construction of a new, larger church on the same site as the old church and graveyard on Barclay Street. The graves in the churchyard were removed at that time, and were reinterred in the graveyard adjacent to St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Prince and Mott streets. Some remains were reburied under the new church building, which still stands today. According to a statement made by Vicar General William Quinn in 1883, remains that had been buried beneath the present church were disturbed during excavation work in the mid-1800s and were reburied at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
West of the Sixth Avenue is a large open space which testifies silently yet strongly to the time when all this part of the island was quiet country side and the city still was very far away. It is the Jewish graveyard—the Beth Haim, or Place of Rest . . . the Beth Haim was established here—on a lot which possessed the advantages of lying within one of the blocks of the new City Plan and therefore was safe against the opening of new streets, and which also could be reached by an already opened country road. Although long since superseded by the Beth Haim on Long Island, this graveyard still is cared for zealously—as may be seen by looking from the back windows of the big dry-goods shop on the Sixth Avenue upon its rows of seemly monuments, whereon legends in Hebrew characters tell of “Rest” and “Peace.” And, truly, looking out from the bustle and clamor of the shop upon the grassy quiet place, with its ivy-clad deadhouse and its long lines of marble gravestones whereof the whiteness has become gray as the years have gone on and on, there is a most pleasant sense of rest and peacefulness amidst this calm serenity of ancient death. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893).
When Congregation Shearith Israel was forced to close its graveyard in Greenwich Village in 1829, it established a new cemetery in an area even further away from the city center. The new burial ground had a frontage of 80.5 feet on the south side of 21st Street, about 75 feet west of 6th Avenue. It was dedicated as Beth Hayim Shelishi (the Third Cemetery) in August 1829 and the first interment took place in November of that year. A Metaher house, or chapel, (the “ivy-clad deadhouse” mentioned above) was built near the cemetery’s entrance in 1830, but has long since disappeared.
The 21st Street cemetery served as the congregation’s burial ground until 1851, when the city banned burials below 86th Street. An exception to this prohibition was made in 1855, when remains removed from Congregation Shearith Israel’s graveyard at Chatham Square were reinterred at the 21st Street cemetery. Today hemmed in by buildings, the cemetery has survived relatively intact and remains the largest of the three Shearith Israel burial grounds in Manhattan. The congregation is currently in the process of renovating and preserving the cemetery.
Among the more notable of the remnants of the time when the Greenwich region for the most part was open country are those at the southeast corner of Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue: the little triangular graveyard and the two old framed dwellings which now rest on the lines of the street and the avenue, but which primitively stood—a few feet from their present site—on the now almost obliterated Milligan’s Lane. The triangular graveyard is a remnant of the second Beth Haim, or Place of Rest, owned on this island by the Jews . . . a plot of ground with a front of about fifty feet on Milligan’s Lane, and thence extending, a little east of south, about one hundred and ten feet. In the year 1830, when Eleventh Street was opened on the lines of the City Plan . . . almost the whole of the Jewish burial-ground was swept away. The street went directly across it—leaving only the corner on its south side, and a still smaller corner on its north side. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893)
In 1804, Congregation Shearith Israel purchased land in Greenwich Village to serve as a burial place to supplement its old graveyard near Chatham Square. The new property, about 50 x 100 feet on Milligan Street,* was dedicated as Beth Haim Shenee (The Second Cemetery) in 1805. When first established, the new cemetery was used mostly as a burial place for those dying of contagious diseases and for new immigrants who had no family ties to the old graveyard. When the Chatham Square cemetery fell out of use following city ordinances in the 1820s that prohibited burials in lower Manhattan, the cemetery on Milligan Street became the Congregation’s primary burial ground. It functioned in this capacity only until 1829—in 1830, 11th Street was extended through the cemetery, leaving just a small remnant of the graveyard intact. Burials that were in the path of the street were reinterred in this portion of the cemetery, which exists today as a small trianglar plot on the south side of 11th Street, just east of the Avenue of the Americas. A few dozen headstones are still present at the site.
*According to Old Streets of New York, Milligan Street ran perpendicular to Greenwich Avenue from its present intersection with West 10th Street, through the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, to what is now the south side of 12th Street about 200 feet east of Sixth Avenue. It was obliterated when the city’s grid plan was imposed on the area.
Sources: “Greenwich Village,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893, p. 356; Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, 5:1429, 1689; Portraits Etched in Stone 123-133 (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap
This small graveyard, on St. James Place near Chatham Square in present-day Chinatown, is the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in New York City. It was used by Congregation Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America. Shearith Israel was formed in 1654 in New Amsterdam by Sephardic Jews from Brazil and was the only Jewish congregation in New York City until 1825. The Chatham Square graveyard is known as Shearith Israel’s “first cemetery,” but was actually the second burial ground used by the congregation. In 1656, city authorities granted the Jewish community “a little hook of land situate outside of this city for a burial place.” The location of this original graveyard is unknown today. The Chatham Square cemetery was founded in 1682 and was expanded in the 1700s so that it once extended from Chatham Square over what is now the upper part of Oliver Street down to Bancker Street (present-day Madison Street).
Several hundred individuals, including a number of veterans of the American Revolution, were buried at the Chatham Square cemetery before it closed in the early 19th century; the last recorded burial was in 1833. Development encroached upon the cemetery so that only a small remnant exists today. In 1823, the congregation sold an unused portion of the cemetery frontage on Chatham Square to the Tradesmen’s Bank; additional unused portions on Oliver and Madison Streets were sold in 1829. A section of the burial ground was taken by the city in 1855 when the New Bowery (today’s St. James Place) was cut through; 256 burials were removed from the graveyard at that time and reinterred in the congregation’s cemeteries on 21st Street and in Brooklyn.
About a hundred headstones and aboveground tombs can still be seen in what remains of the old graveyard, which lies above street level on the south side of St. James Place. Congregation Shearith Israel continues to maintain the cemetery, and it also has an annual Memorial Day ceremony at the site in honor of the Revolutionary War veterans buried there.
Sources: Ratzer’s 1776 Plan of the City of New York; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the city of New York 1:Pl.12; 1861 Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1861):521; The Early History of the Jews in New York75-76; The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 4:510, 514, 663; Portraits Etched in Stone (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap
Controversy erupted in 1883 when the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral announced plans to remove their cemetery at 11th Street, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, so that the land could be sold. The cemetery, which extended to 12th Street and occupied most of the block, was opened in 1833 to serve the city’s Catholic community after the burial ground around St. Patrick’s Old Cathedralreached capacity. Fifteen years later, the 11th Street Catholic Cemetery was also full and burials there ceased after the church opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848. According to an 1899 article written by Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, over 41,000 interments were made in the 11th Street cemetery between 1833 and 1848.
By the time the removal and sale was proposed in 1883, the cemetery had been in disuse for several decades. At a January 1883 meeting to consider the matter, the Trustees of St. Patrick’s advocated for removing the graves to Calvary Cemetery because, “The old cemetery has been neglected and has become a scene of desolation. The fences have been broken by boys, and stones, pieces of pottery, tin cans, and other refuse have been thrown into it, until it has reached such a condition that it has become a great source of trouble to the church to arrange for protecting its property against trespassers.”
Many lot-holders opposed disturbing the graves of their relatives, contending that the cemetery was sacred ground and that selling it would be sacrilegious. Among the opponents was attorney Arthur J. Delaney, who had several family members interred in the cemetery. Delaney obtained a temporary injunction preventing the removals, claiming that lot-holders, as purchasers of burial rights, had a perpetual interest in the ground that would be violated if the bodies were moved and the cemetery sold. The State Supreme Court dissolved the injunction shortly after its issuance, saying that payment for interment in a cemetery gives no title to the land, only the rights to be buried and remain undisturbed for as long as the cemetery continues to operate and to have one’s remains removed and properly reburied in a new burial place once the ground ceases to be used as a cemetery.
Another 25 years passed before removal of the cemetery was carried out. The church met with opposition again in 1907 when it resolved to proceed with the disinterments, but the graves were finally removed in 1909 and the remains of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 individuals were reinterred in Section 4B at Calvary Cemetery. It is not known what happened to the remains of the tens of thousands of other individuals that were said to have been interred in the 11th Street cemetery. The property at 11th Street was sold in 1912; East Side Community High School, Open Road Park, and Mary Help of Christians Church occupy the old cemetery site today.
Founded in 1688 to serve French-speaking Protestants of New Amsterdam, the congregation of the French Church of Saint Esprit had their church near the northeast corner of Nassau and Pine streets from 1704 to 1831. Their burial ground was to the rear of the church, extending north to Cedar Street. An 1830 article in the New-York Mirror described the church and graveyard:
This antiquated building, which is the oldest religious edifice now in the city, was erected in 1704 by the Huguenots, or French protestants . . . It is built in the plainest style, being constructed of stone, and plastered on the outside, with a very steep roof, and monastic looking tower . . . The building, which is 70 feet in length and 50 in breadth, has a southwest aspect, fronting on Pine street, just below Nassau street, and the tower is in the rear towards Cedar street, where a few moulding tombstones are still to be seen in the cemetery, behind the law buildings. (New-York Mirror July 17, 1830)
In February of 1831, the congregation sold the church building and property and moved to a new building at Church and Franklin Streets. The graves in the churchyard were removed, and the congregation had remains of those that had not been claimed by their families reinterred in a vault that they had purchased at the cemetery of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery. The property at Pine and Nassau streets was subsequently developed for business purposes, as Gabriel P. Disosway described in 1865:
L’Eglise du Saint Esprit, the French Protesant Church in Pine street, opposite the custom-house, was founded in the year 1704 . . . In our day it has been demolished, its dead removed, and the venerable sacred place, like many others in our busy city, is now devoted to mammon. Lawyers’ offices, custom-house brokers, a restaurant and lager-bier saloon, occupy the once hallowed spot.
Sources: Bridges’ 1807 Plan of the city of New-York; The Earliest Churches of New York and Its Vicinity (Disoway 1865), 121; The Huguenot Church of New York: A History of the French Church of Saint Esprit (John A.F. Maynard 1938) 231, 256.
In 1656, officials of New Amsterdam considered the necessity to establish a new cemetery to replace The Old Graveyard that was located on the west side of Broadway around present-day Morris Street. Exactly when the new graveyard was created is uncertain, but the 1686 Charter of the City of New York identified “the new burial place without the gate of the city” among a list of public accommodations belonging to the municipality.
This burial ground is shown on the 1695 Miller Plan of New York (above), situated on the west side of Broadway just beyond the city gates that were located on Wall Street. In 1703 the city conveyed this parcel of land to Trinity Church, which had, in 1696, purchased land adjacent to the burial ground to establish their church. The city transferred the graveyard to Trinity on the condition that it be used as the “publick Church yard and burial place of this Citty for Ever.” It is contained in what is today the northern portion of Trinity churchyard, between Wall Street and Pine Street. When there was a proposal to extend Albany Street through the northern portion of Trinity churchyard in 1847, a report opposing the extension described the burial ground.
It is nearly a century older than the other sections of the yard. It was originally a valley, about thirty feet lower at its extreme depth than the present surface, and has undergone successive fillings, as the density of interments rendered it necessary, to raise the land until it reached the present surface, so that the earth now, to a depth of several feet below the original and thence to the present time of interment, is in truth filled with human remains . . . The bodies buried there were those of many thousand persons of several generations, and of all ages, sects and conditions, including a large number of the officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary War, who died whilst in British captivity; and almost every old family that is or ever was in this city, has friends, relatives or connections lying there.
Sources: The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915) 1:Pl23); Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (City of New York 1897) 2:24-25; Charter of the City of New York, 1686, reprinted in The Memorial History of the City of New-York (Wilson 1892), 437-446; Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York 2:1134, 1180; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905) 2:221; Treatise Upon The Estate and Rights of the Corporation of the City of New York (Hoffman 1862) 2:176-177, Diag. 2; NYCityMap.