Tag Archives: Catholic cemeteries

Calvary Cemetery

Birds-Eye View of Calvary Cemetery, 1855, by Endicott & Co. (MCNY)

An early 20th century guide to New York City cemeteries describes Calvary Cemetery in Queens as “by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments, extent and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.” With an estimated three million burials, today it is America’s largest cemetery in number of interments and is renowned for its dramatic setting—a vast necropolis tucked in among the chaotic surroundings of highways, industrial buildings, and businesses, with views of Manhattan rising as a backdrop.

View of Manhattan from Calvary Cemetery (Getty)

The Archdiocese of New York established Calvary Cemetery in 1848 after the closure of their burial grounds at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and on 11th Street in Manhattan. Located in the Long Island City/Woodside area of Queens and managed by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Calvary served as the main burying ground for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population for many years and burials are still made there. By the early 1900s, it had over 750,000 interments and handled 18,000 burials a year—almost half the annual deaths in the city at that time. Calvary’s 365 acres hold five times as many bodies as the more famous and spacious Green-Wood Cemetery in nearby Brooklyn and are divided into two expanses: Old or First Calvary, the cemetery’s earliest parcel, bounded by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Blvd, Review Ave, and Greenpoint Ave; and New Calvary, three divisions stretching from Queens Blvd to 55th Ave and cut by the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Detail from an 1873 map, showing Old Calvary and New Calvary (Beers 1873)

Calvary’s scenic power results from the magnitude of graves and tombs and the surrounding presence of urban life rather than from its design; however, Old Calvary does contain several significant monuments and features. The charming red brick, Queen Anne-style gatehouse at the main entrance (Greenpoint Ave at Gale Ave) is an architectural gem, one of the last of its kind in the area. At the center of the grounds is the cemetery’s chapel, which was declared the “most remarkable mortuary chapel in America” when it was erected in 1908. Designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall, it features a beehive-shaped concrete dome crowned with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Crypts below the building are for the burial of priests of the Archdiocese.

The Civil War & 69th Regiment monuments at Calvary Cemetery, Dec 2017 (Mary French)

In the southeastern part of Old Calvary, a Civil War monument erected by the City of New York in 1866 honors 21 Roman Catholic Union soldiers interred in a 40×40 foot plot that is a city-owned park within Calvary. The 50-foot-high granite obelisk is surmounted by a bronze figure representing peace that was sculpted by Daniel Draddy. Draddy also created the four life-size bronze figures depicting Civil War soldiers that stand on pedestals surrounding the column (identical figures border the Soldiers’ Monument at Green-wood Cemetery, which was erected three years later). Adjacent to Calvary’s Civil War monument is a memorial to New York City’s famed Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. Formed in 1849, this Irish-heritage unit gained notoriety for its members’ bravery and valor in the Civil War.

Near the Civil War/69th Regiment plot is a metal fence enclosing a “cemetery within a cemetery”—a small burial ground that predates Calvary Cemetery. When the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were assembling land to form Calvary in 1845, they purchased a tract from Mrs. Ann Alsop, part of a farm that had been in the Alsop family for generations and included the old family graveyard. When the property was sold, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day. About 30 gravestones stand in the old burial ground, dating from 1743 to 1889.

The showpiece at Old Calvary is the massive Johnston mausoleum that sits atop a hill near the cemetery’s eastern edge. Built of huge granite blocks, this domed neo-Baroque chapel and tomb has a figure of Christ holding a cross at its summit and sculpted angels at each corner of the roof, gazing heavenward. Magnificent but blackened by age and pollution, with a decaying marble frieze above its fragmented bronze ornamental doors, it has an atmosphere of neglect and dissipation that is a visible symbol of the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of the family that reposes within.

John Johnston, head of the dry goods firm J. & C. Johnston, was one of the city’s most successful merchants when he built the mausoleum in 1873, reportedly at a cost of $200,000 (roughly equivalent to $4 million today). Born in Ireland in 1834, Johnston came to New York in 1847 and worked his way to the top of the mercantile trade. His successful dry goods firm included brother Charles Johnston, who died in 1880. John bore a deep affection for his brother Charles and never recovered from the latter’s death; he died in 1887, leaving the family fortune and business in the hands of his younger brother, Robert Johnston. The once-thriving firm closed a year after John’s death and Robert gradually lost the family millions as well as his palatial home along the Hudson River in Riverdale. He spent his final years in poverty, living as a recluse in a barn on his former estate. Robert was found there in 1904, sick with pneumonia and insane, and died in the hospital at Ward’s Island. He was interred alongside his brothers in the family crypt.

An aerial view of part of Old Calvary Cemetery in 2015. The Johnston Mausoleum is in the foreground (James Sengul)

A number of notable individuals are also buried at both Old Calvary and New Calvary, including Olympic gold medalist Martin Sheridan, considered the greatest all-around athlete of his time; Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island; Joseph Petrosino, a trailblazing NYPD detective who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime; and four-time New York governor Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for United States president (in 1928). Moreover, Calvary is legendary as the fictional burial site of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. One determined urban explorer has identified the exact spot in the cemetery where the burial scene was filmed for the 1972 Mafia classic: Old Calvary, Section 1W, Range 18, Plot P, Grave #17.

Location of Calvary Cemetery in Queens (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Calvary Cemetery

Sources: Calvary Cemetery; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 3; History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 379; King’s Handbook of New York City (1893), 522; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 16-19; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-177; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 34-35; Encyclopedia of New York City (Jackson 1991), 176; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfied 1997), 179-180, 183; “You Can Come and Go. They’re Staying Awhile,” New York Times Nov 30, 2008; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times Apr 12, 1950, 29; AIA Guide to New York City (White et al 2010), 765; “Most Remarkable Mortuary Chapel in America,” Popular Mechanics Sep 1909, 292-293; “Burial of Charles Johnston,” New York Tribune May 4, 1880, 8; “An Old Merchant Dead,” New York Times May 17, 1887; “Poor, but has a $200,000 Tomb,” The Sun May 10, 1903, 3; “Once Rich, Now in Morgue,” New York Times May 4, 1904; Calvary Cemetery, Queens New York Est 1848 (aerial video); NYCityMap


St. John’s Cemetery

A view of St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, April 2016
A view of St. John’s Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

There is a graveyard in Middle Village, Queens, where the Mafia goes to rest in peace. It is a bucolic haven where the rolling swards are tended by uniformed gardeners and the marble crypts are reminiscent of a grander age . . . It is a landscape of silent stone and quiet grass and bird song, and its utter peacefulness holds no sign of the violent deeds of those interred within its grounds . . . (New York Times, July 21, 2001)

St. John's Cemetery in 1891
St. John’s Cemetery in 1891 (Wolverton 1891)

St. John’s Cemetery was established by the Brooklyn Diocese in 1879 to meet the burial needs of Catholic families of Queens and Brooklyn. Located just west of Woodhaven Boulevard in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens, the 190-acre cemetery is divided into two sections that straddle Metropolitan Avenue. Officially consecrated in 1881, the area north of Metropolitan Avenue was the first to receive interments and by 1895 there were already 32,000 burials here. The land on the southern side was developed and made available for burials in 1933.

Over the years, many prominent Mafia figures chose St. John’s as their final resting place and the cemetery has gradually become a “who’s who” of organized crime families that dominated the New York City underworld since the 1930s. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, credited with creating the structure of the modern American Mafia, was interred in the family mausoleum at St. John’s in 1962. In addition to Luciano, more than 20 infamous crime figures are laid to rest here, including some of the most notorious mob bosses in recent history. Among them are Joe Profaci, Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino, Carmine Galante, Joe Colombo, and celebrity mobster John Gotti, widely considered the last of the classic Mafia chiefs.

A pine box containing the coffin of Charles "Lucky" Luciano is wheeled toward the family mausoleum, Feb. 1962. The crypt is inscribed, "Luciana," his real surname.
A pine box containing the coffin of Charles “Lucky” Luciano is wheeled toward the family mausoleum, Feb. 1962. The crypt is inscribed, “Luciana,” his real surname (Getty Images)
Mario Cuomo’s tomb at St. John’s Cloister (Mary French)

Although St. John’s Cemetery is distinctive for its assemblage of deceased mafiosi, it is perhaps most significant as the burial place for two dedicated public servants and icons of contemporary American politics. Geraldine Ferraro, the former Queens congresswoman who was the first woman nominated for U.S. vice president by a major political party, was buried here in 2011. Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale on the Democratic party ticket in the 1984 presidential election, becoming a symbol for women’s equality. Also interred at St. John’s is Queens native and three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, a powerful and eloquent speaker whose keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention made him a national political star, was entombed in St. John’s Cloister mausoleum in January 2015.

Geraldine Ferraro's gravesite at St. John's Cemetery.
Geraldine Ferraro’s gravesite at St. John’s Cemetery (Mary French).
Location of St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens
Location of St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of St. John’s Cemetery.

Sources: “St. John’s Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 21, 1881, 4; Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 30; “Our Cities of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 28, 1895, 28; “Middle Village Journal – Sleeping with the Giants of the Mob,” New York Times, July 22, 2001; St. John Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); “Cemetery has a Mob of Mafiosi,” Daily News, Feb 26, 2008; “St. John Cemetery in Queens,” The Velvet Rocket, Jan 18, 2012.

St. Raymond’s Cemetery

View of St. Raymond’s Cemetery (Old Section), August 2015 (Mary French)
Location of St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.
Location of St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx (OpenStreetMap)

A typical day at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx is bustling with activity – with nearly 4,000 burials each year, St. Raymond’s is one of the busiest cemeteries in the nation. Established by the Church of St. Raymond, this Catholic burial ground has expanded from its original 36-acre site in the Throgg’s Neck neighborhood to an 180-acre complex that, when full, will accommodate over half a million people. The cemetery is composed of two sections, both situated just east of the Hutchinson River Parkway: the “Old Cemetery,” created about 1875 on Tremont Avenue, and the “New Cemetery,” developed at Lafayette Avenue in the 1950s.

St. Raymond's Cemetery in 1891.
St. Raymond’s Cemetery in 1891 (Sheil 1891)

Notable individuals buried at St. Raymond’s include gangster Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, famed boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho, and the infamous Irish cook known as Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon), who allegedly caused multiple outbreaks of typhoid fever in turn-of-the- century New York.

The history of St. Raymond’s Cemetery also includes its role in one of the most notorious crimes of the 20th century. A site inside the cemetery’s Whittemore Avenue entrance was used in 1932 as the drop point for the $50,000 ransom money paid to the kidnappers of Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month old son; the child’s body was later discovered near Lindbergh’s New Jersey estate. Bruno Hauptmann was apprehended for the crime in 1934 when he used bills from the ransom money to purchase gasoline at a service station in New York City. Hauptmann’s murder trial caused a media frenzy that went unmatched until the O.J. Simpson trial in  1995.

View of the site in Old St. Raymond's Cemetery where ransom was paid to the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby, 1932.
View of the site in Old St. Raymond’s Cemetery where ransom was paid to the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby, April 1932 (Getty Images)
Hector Camacho's is laid to rest at St. Raymond's Cemetery, Dec. 2012.
Hector Camacho is laid to rest at St. Raymond’s Cemetery, Dec. 2012 (Jose Rivera)
Billie Holiday’s gravesite at St. Raymond’s Cemetery (Mary French)
Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) gravesite at St. Raymond’s Cemetery (Mary French)
Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll is carried to his grave in St. Raymond's Cemetery.
Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll is carried to his grave in St. Raymond’s Cemetery, Feb 1932 (Getty Images)

Marked by an absence of the floral flourishes usually accompanying the interment of a gang chieftain, Vincent (Mad Dog) Coll, Manhattan racketeer, was buried this morning. With only a dozen mourners and as many detectives, who stood in the mud and braved the penetrating chill, the remains of Coll were laid alongside his brother Peter, who was slain less than nine months ago, in St. Raymond’s Cemetery, the Bronx. A thick mist enveloped the gathering. The grave diggers waiting in the background were indistinct forms as the funeral director recited two prayers, the only religious ceremony to mark the final rites fo the 23-year-old youth who, in a year, rose from an obscure thug to one of the most feared figures in the New York underworld. His career came to an abrupt end Monday when machine gunners cornered him in a W. 23d St., Manhattan, drug store and “gave him the works.” (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 11 1932)

View more photos of St. Raymond’s Cemetery.

Sources: St. Raymond’s Cemetery (Church of St. Raymond); Sheil’s 1891 Map of the town of Westchester, Westchester County, N.Y.; The Story of the Bronx (Jenkins 1912), 324;  Only Dozen Mourn as Coll is Taken for His Last Ride, Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 11, 1932 p3; WPA Guide to NYC (1939), 546-547; The Lindbergh Kidnapping (FBI); The Lindbergh Kidnapping (British Pathe newsreel); Despedida a Hector Macho Camacho Video por Jose Rivera 12:1:12.

Jesuit Cemetery, Fordham University

The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014 (Mary French)

His body was laid to rest in the cemetery at Fordham, which holds the dust of many of the most intimate friends of his religious life. This, his first American home, from which he had gone forth in the early dawn of his priesthood with the new glory of sacerdotal dignity still shining on his brow, now opens her arms to receive him back, worn out in the service to which he had been sent. (excerpt from eulogy of Father Theodore Thiry, 1889)

Hidden behind a hedge on the campus at Fordham University in the Bronx is a small cemetery that stands as a symbol of the Jesuit history and tradition on which the university was founded. It is the final resting place for a group of men with a deep spirituality and an outstanding record of devotion and scholarship, many of whom left behind family and country to follow God’s call.

Shortly after the Catholic archdiocese of New York established Fordham in 1841 (originally named St. John’s College) as a seminary and a college for the general public, the scholastic functions were given to the Jesuit order, a religious group with a great deal of experience in higher education. Five Jesuit priests from St. Mary’s College in Kentucky were recruited in 1846 to staff the institution. Other Jesuits soon joined them, and St. John’s continued as a small liberal arts college for men until it expanded and was renamed Fordham University in 1907.

As was typical of many religious institutions of the time, the Jesuits set aside a plot of land at Fordham for burial purposes. The cemetery was a burial ground for the deceased from Fordham as well as from other Jesuit institutions in the region. The site of this “original” cemetery at Fordham was a hillside near Southern Boulevard, on property that is now part of the New York Botanical Garden. The first burial took place there in July 1847 when Brother Joseph Creeden, a 26-year-old Irish-born novice, died two months after entering the Jesuit novitiate. Over the next four decades, another 60 Jesuits were interred near him, as well as nine students, three seminarians, and three college workmen. One of the Jesuits buried in the old cemetery was Father Eugene Maguire, who died at St. Mary’s College, Kentucky, in 1833 and whose remains were transferred to Fordham in 1850.

Location of the original Jesuit cemetery at Fordham, near Southern Boulevard, 1868
Location of the original Jesuit cemetery at Fordham, near Southern Boulevard, 1868 (Beers 1868)

The loss of the property on which the old cemetery was located created a crisis among the Jesuits regarding their past burials and future ones. Although they considered transferring their burials to St. Raymond’s Cemetery, members of the Jesuit community requested that the graves be retained on college property to respect the dead by having them “apud nos” (among us). A suitable site in the campus vineyard was found and the graves from the original cemetery were relocated there in January 1890. The new gravesites were marked with marble tombstones, replacing the wooden crosses that had been used as markers in the old cemetery.

Permit for transfer of remains from the old cemetery to the new cemetery at Fordham, 1890 (Hennessy 2003)
Permit for transfer of remains from the old cemetery to the new cemetery at Fordham, 1890 (Hennessy 2003)

Between 1890 and 1909, 64 more Jesuits were buried in the new cemetery. Father William O’Brien Pardow, a prominent speaker and retreat master whose funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, was the last person buried in the cemetery at Fordham, in January 1909. Thereafter, the graveyard was largely forgotten although not completely neglected – in the 1950s, a stone and brick wall surmounted by a symbol of blessing was erected on the south side of the cemetery and a number of burials were relocated within the site to facilitate the building of Faber Hall.

By 1998, the cemetery was a campus eyesore and curiosity; many of the tombstones were disintegrating or vandalized and it was widely believed that the site was a “phantom cemetery” containing monuments but no human remains. Archival records proved otherwise, and a committee was appointed to preserve the cemetery’s sacred character. The site was renovated and beautified, and low granite markers replaced the deteriorated tombstones. Now well kept and orderly, the graveyard recognizes a community created by a common history and shared vision.

The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham, ca. 1970 (Fordham Archives)
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham, ca. 1970 (Fordham Archives)
Location of the Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, between University Church and Faber Hall.
Location of the Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, between University Church and Faber Hall
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014
The Jesuit Cemetery at Fordham University, June 2014 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Fordham Cemetery.

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 11; “The Old Cemetery in Fordham University,” (Falco 1971), Bronx County Historical Society Journal 8(1):20-25; How the Jesuits Settled in New York: A Documentary Account (Hennessy 2003); “Who’s Buried at Fordham?,” The Ram, Nov 4, 1976 p. 2; “Thousands Mourn for Father Pardow,” New York Times Jan 27, 1909; Fordham University: History & Mission; Fordham University: Rose Hill Campus Map; Fordham University: Cemetery Chronology.

Sisters of Charity Cemetery

The Sisters of Charity Cemetery at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.
The Sisters of Charity Cemetery at the College of Mount Saint Vincent (Mary French)

The Sisters of Charity Cemetery, located on the grounds of the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx, is the final resting place for many women who were pioneers in New York City education, health care, and social services. In 1817, Elizabeth Ann Seton sent three Sisters of Charity from Maryland to New York City to staff an orphanage at Prince and Mott Streets. Beginning at that location, the Sisters established schools throughout the diocese, which was the foundation of the parochial school system of New York.

In 1847, the Sisters of Charity of New York became an independent congregation and created the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent—the first institution to offer higher learning for women in New York. The Academy and Motherhouse, which were originally located near today’s Central Park, moved to their present-day site along the Hudson River in the North Riverdale area of the Bronx in 1859. The Academy was renamed the College of Mount Saint Vincent in 1911.

The small Sisters’ Cemetery lies along a hill just west of the Cardinal Hayes auditorium building on the Mount Saint Vincent campus. Well kept and peaceful, the site contains about 200 gravestones dating from the 1850s to the present. At the top of the hill and overlooking the cemetery is a path with a row of Stations of the Cross plaques mounted in wooden shrines. Most of the gravestones are simple, horizontal slabs; small vertical markers identify some of the Sisters who served as nurses during the Civil War. Larger monuments honor the presidents and mothers general of the order. A five-foot stone cross marks the grave of Mother Elizabeth Boyle, one of the original three Sisters sent from Maryland to New York in 1817 and the first Mother Superior of the New York community.

Other early members of the New York Sisters of Charity community also rest in the cemetery, including Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon, who began the The New York Foundling in 1869 as a home for abandoned children. Today, The Foundling is one of New York City’s oldest and largest child welfare agencies, providing foster care, adoptions, and other services for families.

The Sisters of Charity Cemetery at the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent, ca. 1911.
The Sisters of Charity Cemetery at the Academy of Mount Saint Vincent, ca. 1911 (Bromley 1921)
The Sisters’ Cemetery at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, 2015.
The Sisters’ Cemetery at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, 2015
Gravesite of Mother Elizabeth Boyle, the first Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity of New York.
Gravesite of Mother Elizabeth Boyle, the first Mother Superior of the Sisters of Charity of New York (Mary French)

View more photos of the Sisters of Charity Cemetery.

Sources: Bromley’s 1921 Atlas of Borough of the Bronx, Sect. 13, Pl. 80; College of Mount Saint Vincent—Campus Map; College of Mount Saint Vincent—History; “History in Stone on Mount Hilltop,” Sr. Regina Bechtle, Visions 12(1), 2008, p. 14.

St. Raymond’s Churchyard

The small yard in front of the Church of St. Raymond, with its handful of gravestones, is a vestige of a much larger burial ground that was the first Catholic cemetery in the Bronx.  Located at the corner of Castle Hill Avenue and East Tremont Avenue, the parish was founded in 1842 when an acre of land was obtained by Reverend John Hughes to create a Catholic church and cemetery in what was then the village of Westchester.  In 1847 the cemetery was enlarged by the purchase of another acre and this site was in constant use as the parish burial ground until a new, larger St. Raymond’s Cemetery was established about two miles southeast of the church, in 1875.  Most of the graves from the churchyard, which extended along the west side of the church as well as to the rear, likely were transferred to St. Raymond’s Cemetery as the parish complex grew throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Location of St. Raymond’s Catholic parish complex at East Tremont Ave and Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx.
Location of St. Raymond’s Catholic parish complex at East Tremont Ave and Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx (NYCityMap)
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1868.
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1868 (Beers 1868)
A view of St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1905 (NYPL)
A view of St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1905 (NYPL)
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1913.
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1913 (Bromley 1913)
View of gravestones in St. Raymond’s churchyard, October 2010.
View of gravestones in St. Raymond’s churchyard, October 2010 (Mary French)

View more photos of St. Raymond’s Churchyard.

Sources:  History of Westchester County. . . (J. Scharf 1886), 814; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1, 377; St. Raymond’s Cemetery; NYCityMap; Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; Bromley’s 1913 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of the Bronx, Vol 3, Pl 26.

Most Holy Trinity Cemetery

A profusion of crosses mark the gravesites in Holy Trinity Cemetery, 1929 (NYPL).

A landscape dotted with rusted metal markers and wooden crosses, Most Holy Trinity Cemetery in Brooklyn is one of the city’s most unique and visually arresting graveyards.  Nestled at the end of Central Avenue in Bushwick and bounded by Evergreen Cemetery and the tracks of the NYC Subway’s L train, the 23-acre cemetery was established in 1851 as a new cemetery for Most Holy Trinity Church, the first German Catholic church in Williamsburg.  The parish cemetery was originally located behind the church at Montrose Avenue in East Williamsburg; when a new church building and schools were planned for that site, a four-acre parcel of land was purchased from Evergreen Cemetery to serve as a church cemetery.  The remains from the Montrose Avenue site were transferred to the new Most Holy Trinity Cemetery and, as the need for burial space grew over the years to accommodate an estimated 25,000 graves, the church purchased additional parcels from Evergreen until the parish cemetery reached its present size.

Location of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.
Location of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery (OpenStreetMap)
Holy Trinity Cemetery in 1880.
Holy Trinity Cemetery in 1880 (Hopkins 1880)

When Most Holy Trinity Cemetery was created, the church resolved that no distinctions were permitted to be made between the rich and the poor, and the rule was established that no stone monuments could be erected. Until very recent times, when flat gravestones have been permitted, only simple wooden and metal markers indicated the resting places of the dead.  This “democratic equality of the grave” set the graveyard apart from others in the area and the markers created a remarkable visual spectacle.  An 1890 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described it:

The monuments that surmount [the graves] present a curious picture and one that has not a parallel in any other cemetery in the neighborhood of these two cities . . . the monuments are now all of wood, or, especially the later ones, of galvanized iron, dressed in imitation of gray granite.  Nearly all of them have crosses rising above them, but the peculiar feature of nearly every one of them is that it is decorated with highly gilded figures of the crucifix, the winged head of a cherub and lamb.  Some stones contain all of these three figures, some only one.  They sparkle everywhere among the thickly strewn white and gray monuments and give the peculiar aspect to the cemetery that distinguishes it decidedly from all others.

Today, few of the numerous wooden crosses that once filled the cemetery are still present and the weatherworn crucifixes have lost their gilding.  Large grassy areas, probably once filled with wooden crosses, now have only a few markers scattered here and there.  The rusted metal markers, many strangely crumpled and peeling with paint, add to the peculiar atmosphere of this most interesting site.

New-York Tribune March 10, 1901
Metal grave markers in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011.
Metal grave markers in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011 (Mary French)
Wooden grave marker in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011.
Wooden grave marker in Holy Trinity Cemetery, December 2011 (Mary French)

View more photos of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.

Sources: OpenStreetMap; Hopkins’ 1880 Detailed Estate and Old Farm Line Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2, Pl. R; The History of Most Holy Trinity Cemetery; “Crosses Gone from Hundreds of Graves in the Trinity Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 24 1890, p.6; “Holy Trinity Cemetery. A Unique Burial Ground Which Is a Multiplied Golgotha,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 26 1899, p.18; “An Oddity in Burial Grounds,” New-York Tribune Mar 10 1901, A7 “A Village Churchyard,” Thomas F. Meehan, Historical Records and Studies 7, 1914, p.183-194.