Category Archives: Staten Island

Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery

Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery in 1907

In 1893, the Richmond County Advance published the obituary of 70-year-old John Keys, “a colored man of Elm Street, Port Richmond,” encapsulating his epic life story in the following summary: 

Mr. Keys was born a slave in Virginia, and ran away from a hard master, and hid himself in the Dismal Swamp, where he dwelt for a year, food being supplied to him by friends from outside. Learning that his master had sold him to a better man, he came out of the Swamp and entered again into bondage. He went with his new master to Arkansas. Afterward with Mitchell Allen, now of West Brighton, and other colored people, he came to New York to take passage to Liberia. A resident of West Brighton seeing him in the city, suggested Staten Island as a better place to live in than Liberia, and so quite a number of them came to the Island. Mr. Keys was an intelligent man, quite a good carpenter and mason, and was much employed by Capt. Anderson of Port Richmond in jobs about the various buildings which he erected.

The obituary also notes that Keys was interred “in the cemetery in Cherry Lane,” the main burial ground for African Americans on the north shore of Staten Island from the 1850s through the early 20th century. This cemetery, which was situated near the intersection of present-day Forest Avenue (formerly Cherry Lane) and Livermore Avenue, can be traced back to 1850 when the Second Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Church acquired the land. Here they erected a house of worship and established a burial ground for their members. But, lacking a strong membership, the congregation’s small church building soon fell into disrepair and had been destroyed by the time Staten Island historian William T. Davis visited the site in the late 1880s.

An 1859 map shows the Second Asbury AME Church, denoted simply as “African Ch.,” on Cherry Lane

After the church was gone, the property was still used as a cemetery for the local black community. A painted board and broken headstone were the only monuments Davis found during his visit, and he observed that most of the graves were marked by stakes. The board, placed near the road, was inscribed with the names of Aaron Bush, who died in 1889 at age 46, and Augustin Jones, who died in 1873, aged 33. In concluding his description of the site, Davis prophetically remarked: “The existence of these graves will probably soon be forgotten. The painted board cannot last long; the plot is unprotected by a fence, and only a clump of particularly high weeds and tangle mark its site in the rest of the field.” 

Obituary of Benjamin Perine, interred in Cherry Lane Cemetery in 1900.

In the late 1920s, the Second Asbury A.M.E. (existing by that time only as an organization of trustees) transferred the Cherry Lane cemetery to a new corporation, the African Methodist Church Cemetery of Staten Island, Inc. At that time, a list was made of about 40 known individuals interred in the half-acre burial ground. The most well-known of those buried there was Benjamin Perine, reportedly the oldest former slave on Staten Island when he died in 1900. In 1950, the cemetery property was seized by the City of New York for non-payment of taxes, although the church claimed the land should have had tax-exempt status. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1953, whereby the cemetery property was sold to Sidelle Mann of the Bronx. By late 1950s-early 1960s, a gas station existed at the site; today it is beneath a shopping plaza. 

No one knows for sure what happened to the bodies interred in the Cherry Lane African Church Cemetery. Former borough historian Richard B. Dickenson researched the site in the 1980s-1990s and concluded that some of the bodies may have been removed to Moravian Cemetery or other local burial grounds between the 1920s and 1950s. However, he also discovered there were periodic reports of bones being found on the property when it was redeveloped. Dickenson’s work suggests that it is very likely that remains—of former slaves, freedmen, and members of some of Staten Island’s most prominent black families—may still exist beneath the shopping center.

2018 aerial view of the shopping plaza that covers the site of the Cherry Lane African Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Walling’s 1859 Map of Staten Island; Robinson’s 1907 Atlas of the Borough of RichmondPl 6; Richmond County Conveyances, Vol 20 p438-440, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “Obituary,” Richmond County Advance, Apr 5, 1890; “Obituary,” Richmond County Advance, Apr 8, 1893; “Death of an Old Resident,” Richmond County Advance, Oct 6, 1900; “Homestead Graves,” Proceedings of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island, Special No. 9, 1889; “The Old Slaves Burying Ground and Benjamin Perine,” Afro-American Vital Records and 20th Century Abstracts: Richmond County, Staten Island, 1915 and 1925, New York State Census Records (Dickenson 1985); “Black Burial Grounds a Window to the Past,” Staten Island Advance, Feb 28, 1993; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); Second Asbury (Zion) African Methodist Episcopoal (AME) Church and Cemetery—History; Second Asbury (Zion) African Methodist Episcopoal (AME) Church and Cemetery—Burials

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 

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

Merrell Cemetery

View of Merrell Cemetery, 1932 (NYPL)

Between 1889 and 1902, Staten Island historian William T. Davis located 21 homestead graveyards across the borough. Today only two of these private family burial grounds are preserved. One of these, Merrell (or Merrill) Cemetery on the north side of Merrill Avenue west of Richmond Avenue in Bulls Head, is still owned by family heirs and was used into the late 20th century.

Merrell Cemetery is a remnant of the 250-acre plantation owned by John Iyon Merrell (1740-1818), which stretched from Bulls Head to the Arthur Kill. Iyon Merrell was a descendant of Richard and Sarah Merrell, who emigrated from Warwickshire, England, in 1675 and settled on Staten Island. Prominent and influential, the Merrell family held land in the area for many years and intermarried with the Decker and Braisted families, as well as with other local clans. Merrell family heirs formed an association to ensure continued care of their family burial ground and in July 1903 rededicated the site after a cleanup and beautification that included installation of a sign at the entrance bearing the words “MERRELL CEMETERY 1675—1903.”

Detail from a 1917 map showing Merrell Cemetery at Bulls Head, Staten Island

In 1923, William Davis and his colleagues recorded about 30 marked graves in the half-acre Merrell Cemetery, the earliest dating to 1794.  They speculated there likely were many more unmarked graves at the site, possibly dating to the late 1600s. The cemetery had a frontage of 78 feet along Merrill Avenue, extended 280 feet in a northerly direction, and was “well kept up with privet hedges along the sides of the long rectangular lot.”

Headstone marking the grave of Gertrui Merrell, the oldest known interment in Merrell Cemetery (FACSI)

Although Merrell Cemetery fell into periods of neglect over the decades, descendants were interred here throughout the 20th century. The last known burial occurred in 1996 when Ruth Merrell was laid to rest alongside her husband John. In recent years the cemetery has been in legal limbo as the family association that holds the deed for the property became defunct and the site was abandoned. Merrell Cemetery is now maintained by Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island. A number of the early gravestones first recorded by William Davis over a hundred years ago are still present at the site. Among them is the rough-hewn fieldstone marking the grave of Iyon Merrell, carved with the inscription “I.Y.M. D.1818.”

View of Merrell Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)
Location of Merrell Cemetery, adjacent to P.S. 60 on Merrill Ave (NYCityMap)

Sources: Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Richmond, Staten Island, Pl 37;“Homestead Graves,” Proceedings of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island, Special No. 9, 1889; Staten Island Gravestone Inscriptions, Vol 1 (Davis et al 1924); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island  (Salmon 2006); “Sarah Jane Braisted,” Richmond County Advance, Mar 28, 1903; “Merrell Cemetery,” Richmond County Advance, Jul 18, 1903; “Enthusiastic Meeting,” Richmond County Advance, Aug 08, 1903; “The Abandoned Graveyards of Staten Island,” Chronicles of Staten Island 1(9), 1987; “Debris and Inaccessibility to Graves a ‘Disgrace’ at Merrell Family Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, Jan 4, 2012

United Hebrew Cemetery

Numerous stones left atop these monuments at United Hebrew Cemetery attest to frequent visits (Mary French)

In contrast to many of New York City’s Jewish burial grounds, which often have a deserted air about them, United Hebrew Cemetery on Staten Island hums with activity. On an average day, cars line the cemetery’s roadways, paths are filled with family and friends visiting their departed loved ones, and a yarmulke-wearing manager zips around the grounds on a golf cart. The cemetery’s history begins when the United Hebrew Cemetery Association of New York City incorporated in 1906. The association later acquired 67 acres on Arthur Kill Road in the Richmond section of Staten Island and opened to burials in 1908. United Hebrew now is the resting place of 40,000 Jews from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In its early years, United Hebrew sold plots to about 200 burial societies and benevolent associations. Today its grounds are sold directly to families or individuals, and recent emigration from the former Soviet Union has resulted in an increase in burials over the past few decades.

The Drobniner Holocaust memorial at United Hebrew Cemetery (Steven Lasky/Museum of Family History)

Among those interred at United Hebrew Cemetery are countless people touched by the Holocaust and monuments found throughout the cemetery memorialize those who suffered or died under Nazism.  The Holocaust memorials are dedicated to specific towns that lost their Jewish population to the Nazi regime and their collaborators, or to the many Jews themselves who once inhabited these towns. A monument in the Eishishok Society plot at United Hebrew commemorates more than 4,000 Jews of the Lithuanian shtetl of Eishyshok who were massacred by German troops in 1941. Another large monument, erected by the Drobniner Benevolent Society, commemorates 3,000 Jews from the town of Drobnin, Poland, who were gassed and cremated at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buried at the foot of the Drobniner monument are ashes brought from Auschwitz in 1961 by one of the camp’s survivors, Rabbi David Foffer.

Burial site of ashes from Auschwitz interred at the foot of the Drobniner monument (Steven Lasky/Museum of Family History)
Listing for United Hebrew Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
Location of United Hebrew Cemetery on Arthur Kill Road in Staten Island (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of United Hebrew Cemetery

Sources: “Incorporations Filed,” Buffalo Courier, Nov 2, 1906; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164-165; Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; “Rites for Nazi Victims,” New York Times, Nov 27, 1961; “Jewish Cemeteries Recall Era of Immigration, Times of Suffering, Moments of Forgiveness,” Staten Island Advance, Jul 26, 2005; Carved in Granite: Holocaust Memorials in Greater New York Jewish Cemeteries (Poplack 2003); “Holocaust Memorials of New York and New Jersey,” Museum of Family History; OpenStreetMap