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.
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.
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)
In 1852, Rev. Thomas McClure Peters acquired seven acres of farmland in Newtown, Queens, to establish a new cemetery that would provide graves and dignified burials for the poor. Rev. Peters, the rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, had devoted himself to mission work in the city’s almshouses, prisons, and hospitals, and among its poorest and most disenfranchised communities. He developed an understanding of the needs of these communities and believed it was possible to run a cemetery on business principles and at the same time furnish the poorer classes of the city with burials at a price within their means. Once he had the cemetery laid out and functioning successfully, Rev. Peters turned it over to the corporation of St. Michael’s Church, which owns and manages it to this day.
St. Michael’s Cemetery gradually added more land over the years to reach its present size of roughly 88 acres in the area bounded by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway in East Elmhurst, Queens. Various churches and charitable institutions acquired sections within the cemetery, public grounds were set aside for free and low-cost burials, and private lots were purchased by individuals and families. St. Michael’s Cemetery still serves a diverse constituency and is the final resting place of roughly 175,000 people from all classes, religions, and ethnicities.
The older family plots at St. Michael’s are predominately German and the dark gray markers here are frequently ornamented with statues depicting angels, lamenting females, and other classical imagery. Also here is a life-sized statue of a Doughboy adorning the gravestone of 24-year-old Cpl. Robert L. Kellner, who was killed on the battlefield of the Argonne Forest, France, in 1918. Later sections have markers with Italian and Greek-lettered names, while more recent monuments carry Chinese and Korean inscriptions. The cemetery’s crematorium, opened in 2005, accommodates the needs of the city’s large Hindu population.
The burial place of St. Michael’s most renowned resident—African American composer and pianist Scott Joplin—is found amid the modest markers and unmarked graves in the cemetery’s public grounds. Dubbed the “King of Ragtime,” Joplin experienced a brief period of fame at the turn of the 20th century, but his career was cut short by mental health issues and he died in poverty in 1917 at age 49. His family was too poor to provide a stone or marker for his grave, and Joplin faded into obscurity as his music waned in popularity.
In 1973, the Academy Award-winning film The Sting stimulated a revival of ragtime and renewed interest in Joplin when his 1902 composition “The Entertainer” was used as the film’s theme music, topping the musical charts for months. The following year, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) installed a bronze plaque at Joplin’s unmarked grave at St. Michael’s. In 2004, St. Michael’s began holding annual ragtime concerts on its grounds in Joplin’s honor, and in 2017 added a memorial bench at the gravesite to commemorate the centennial of his death.
During the 1970s, St. Michael’s fell into disrepair because of budget cuts and a lack of maintenance and experienced a period of intense vandalism and neglect through the 1980s. Intruders toppled hundreds of tombstones throughout the cemetery and weeds and underbrush completely enveloped the monuments in some sections. At one point, the lack of adequate fencing allowed motorbikes and even cars to drive among gravesites in the cemetery’s southern corner. But a large-scale renovation in the early 1990s restored the historic cemetery to its past beauty, and today it is well maintained and continually expanding through the construction of community mausoleums.
Another modern addition at St. Michael’s is a collection of memorials devoted to the city’s first responders who lost their lives on 9/11 and before. The most striking of these is the Christopher Santora memorial, honoring 76 firefighters who lived or worked in Queens that died on September 11, 2001. The memorial’s centerpiece is a black marble slab bearing an etched image of Santora, the youngest firefighter to die at the World Trade Center on 9/11. These memorials to the city’s service members are a continuation of St. Michael’s mission to create places to remember and celebrate lives.
Sources: Annals of St. Michael’s: Being the History of St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, New York for One Hundred Years 1807-1907 (Peters 1907); St. Michael’s Cemetery – About; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989); King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, 2nd ed (Berlin 2016); “Our Cities of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 28, 1895; “Costello & Legend are Buried,” Daily News, Feb 22, 1973; “A True Note at Composer’s Grave,” Daily News, Oct 7, 1974; “Requiem for the Cemetery?” Daily News, Nov 8, 1974; “Queens Vandals Topple Markers on 300 Graves,” New York Times, Apr 5, 1980; “Seek to Stop Cemetery’s Decline,” Daily News, Jan 11, 1983; “700 Stones Overturned at Cemetery,” New York Times, Aug 10, 1991; “E. Elmhurst Biz Plots for the Future,” QNS.com, May 19, 2004; “Memorial to Firefighers Who Died on 9/11 Is Dedicated,” Queens Gazette, Sep 16, 2004; “New Final Home Underway in Boro,” Queens Tribune, Jun 10, 2010 “Queens Cemetery’s Attempts to Expand on Park Land in Limbo, Daily News, Aug 15, 2013; “Visit to a Historic Cemetery,” CSJB Newsletter, Spring 2013; “Three-Story, 18,800-Square-Foot Mausoleum Coming To St. Michael’s Cemetery, Woodside,” New York Yimby, June 29, 2016; “Joplin Tribute Draws Hundreds of Admirers,” Queens Chronicle, May 23, 2019
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
In October 1838, the Bishop of New York sent Rev. Michael Curran to Jamaica, Queens, to establish a parish for the town’s growing Irish Catholic population. Many of the area’s large farms employed Irish laborers, and construction of the Long Island Railroad along Jamaica Avenue in the 1830s brought an increasing number of Irish workers to Jamaica. Property was secured on the west side of Washington Street (now 160th Street), near South Street, and here a small frame church was erected and dedicated to Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. This humble little structure, 80 feet long by 25 feet wide, accommodated the 200 Catholics who came from miles around to hear Mass each Sunday. Vacant land adjoining the church was employed as a parish burial ground.
St. Monica’s parish grew rapidly and before long their tiny wooden church was no longer adequate. In 1856 the congregation moved to a new brick building at 94-20 160th Street, a short distance north of their original church and adjoining cemetery. The old church building was used for a time as a meeting hall and eventually sold and demolished. St. Monica’s parish continued at their new location until 1973 when the church closed and the City of New York took over the building and surrounding blocks as part of the York College Urban Renewal Project. Since 2009 the former church has housed the York College Child and Family Center.
St. Monica’s Cemetery is intact today at the southwest corner of 160th Street and Liberty Avenue, in the middle of the York College Campus. About one acre in size, it is maintained by Catholic Cemeteries Diocese of Brooklyn.Some 3,000 local Catholics have been laid to rest here, and tombstones now standing date from about 1840 to the early 2000s. Names on the tombstones reflect the changing demographics of the area—earlier burials are largely Irish, while more recent markers represent Italian families who settled in the area in the 20th century.
St. Monica’s Cemetery is noteworthy in local history as the spot where “the most beloved dog in Jamaica” took up residence. In 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the unnamed stray who was known to the neighborhood for years:
And now upon a grave, apparently neglected, with a small, obliterated wooden cross, he makes his bed. We observed him the other afternoon lying atop the little grave as though mourning someone he had known when a tiny pup or someone dear to his ancestors. A pathetic picture he makes, indeed. Neighbors say the nameless dog howls bitterly late at night and sometimes during the day, and that efforts to keep him off the burial ground have been vain . . . Out of sheer pity the kindly folks on the block have declined to interfere with the strange dog’s actions. They sympathize with him by bringing him food, and even shut their ears to his nightly howls. And already the kiddies on the block have saved their pennies so that someday when the faithful and homeless dog passes away he will be given a resting place.
Sources: Jamaica (Walling 1859); Sanborn’s 1897 Insurance Maps of Jamaica, Queens Co., Pl 10; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); The Catholic Church in the United States of America(Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “Andrew McCormick’s Funeral,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 26, 1887; “St. Monica’s Church Celebrates Half Century’s History,” Brooklyn Times Union, Oct 13, 1906; “St. Monica’s, Jamaica,” The Tablet, Jun 18, 1910; “Cemetery His Estate, Lonely Grave Top His Choice of Boudoir,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 9, 1923; York College Child Care Center – St. Monica’s Church
In 1947, Evergreens Cemetery sold a 20-acre notch of the northern part of their grounds to Knollwood Park Cemetery corporation, which opened the first new Jewish cemetery in New York City since 1915. Whereas their earlier counterparts sold much of their land to Jewish burial societies and other communal organizations, Knollwood Park publicized their modern cemetery as “New York City’s only Jewish burial estate dedicated exclusively to private family plots.”Their early advertisements emphasize that they sold “no land to societies, lodges, and organizations”—thus avoiding the over-crowding of graves and monuments seen in many communal plots, as well as the neglect common in older Jewish cemeteries as many plot-owning organizations went defunct in the 20th century.
Situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border, Knollwood Park Cemetery now has over 17,000 interments and is the last Jewish cemetery developed in the city’s five boroughs. Most of the cemetery is divided into plots with a family stone marking the plot and flat markers for individuals. In 2008, Knollwood Park was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located in nearby Glendale, Queens, and today is operated as a division of Mount Carmel.
Sources:“Knollwood Park Cemetery” [Advertisement], New York Post, Mar 15, 1950; “To Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Daily News, May 3, 1950; “News for Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Post, Jun 12, 1956; Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 (Rousmanier 2008); “Knollwood Park Cemetery Burial Data Now Online,” Museum of Family History, Apr 27, 2010; OpenStreetMap