Tag Archives: Astoria

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery

Detail from an 1874 map of Astoria, arrows denote the original Our Lady of Mount Carmel church and adjoining cemetery at the corner of Van Alst Ave and Trowbridge St (today’s 21st St and 26th Ave) and the new parish church built in 1871 at Newtown Ave and Crescent St

The second Catholic church in Queens was established in the historic township of Newtown in 1841, at the corner of Trowbridge Street (26th Avenue) and Van Alst Avenue (21st Street) in Astoria. Originally known as St. John’s Church, the small wooden edifice was later known as St. Mary’s and, finally, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Vacant land adjoining the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners, mostly Irish immigrants who worked in local silk factories and greenhouses or were employed in the households of wealthy families who had their country homes at Newtown. The church was situated at the heart of Astoria’s Irish enclave, and this Celtic heritage can be seen on historic maps that sometimes identify Van Alst Avenue as Emerald Street.

View of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1931 (NYPL)

By 1871, the parish had outgrown their original building and laid the cornerstone for a new church edifice nearby at Newtown Avenue and Crescent Street, where Our Lady of Mount Carmel is now. The old church building was used as a Sunday school and housed the Redemptionist Mission Catholic congregation before it was demolished around the turn of the century.

The old parish cemetery continued to be used into the 1920s, but, for unknown reasons, the title to the cemetery was not transferred to the new church and by the second half of the 20th century its ties to the parish had been forgotten. Without any maintenance, the graveyard became so overgrown that the tombstones were no longer visible. Around this time, people in the neighborhood began to call it the “Famine Cemetery,” referring to the immigrants who came to this country to escape the Irish potato famine. Lacking a formal name for much of its history, old records refer to the site by various names, including St. John’s Cemetery, St. Mary’s Cemetery, and Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Tombstones in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1998 (Newsday)

The Diocese of Brooklyn took over maintenance of the site in 1983 and the property’s ownership issues were eventually resolved. Known today as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, it is intact at the northwest corner of 26th Avenue and 21st Street in Astoria. Inside the 82 x 188-foot site are about 80 tombstones dating from 1844 to 1926, and the names on them are exclusively Irish. “In memory of Patrick Crawley, who departed this life Nov. 5, 1855, a native of County Louth,” reads one memorial. “In memory of John O’Rork, native of the parish of Culmullin, Co. Meath, Ireland,” reads another. Many more graves here are unmarked, and the actual number of interments is unknown since the early burial registers were lost in a fire.

As part of their 175th-anniversary celebrations, on September 15, 2016, Our Lady of Mount Carmel held a mass at their old parish cemetery. With over 100 people in attendance, this “graveyard mass” commemorated church history and honored the lives of its first parishioners.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, June 2010 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Out Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery

Sources: Map of Long Island City, Queens Co., N.Y. (Dripps 1874); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); History of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1853-1950 (Sharp 1954); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); The Graveyard of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Astoria, Queens (Fagan 1999); “The Church in Astoria,” Irish American, Mar 13, 1875; “Obituary—Rev. James Phelan,” Irish American, Mar 13, 1880; “Died,” New York Herald, Apr 12, 1892; “Patrick Evers,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 24, 1926; “Old Cemetery in Deplorable State,” Irish Echo, Dec 6, 1975; “Irish-Americans Ask for Restoration of 19th-Century ‘Famine Cemetery’,” Daily News, Aug 19, 1983; “An Emerald Street Far From Home: Irish Famine Cemetery…” Newsday, Mar 17, 1998; “Beyond the Grave: A Restored Famine Cemetery…” Newsday, Mar 17, 2002; “‘Graveyard’ Mass Remembers Astoria’s First Parishioners,” The Tablet, Sep 21, 2016

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)