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.
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.
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.
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