The graveyard surrounding the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn is believed to be the oldest Catholic cemetery on Long Island. St. James was founded in 1822 when a group of about 70 Brooklyn Catholics purchased property on the corner of Chapel and Jay Streets to establish a church and a place of interment. It was the first Catholic church built in Brooklyn and the first on Long Island. Shortly after the church was erected, the yard around it began to be used as a burial ground for clergy and laity. When the original ground was filled, more property was procured until the cemetery extended in a tongue back to about 100 feet of Bridge Street. Some 7,000 adults and children are said to have been interred in the graveyard between 1823 and 1849, when burials there were prohibited by law.
In 1900, about 200 tombstones were still standing in the graveyard at St. James, including a number of old wooden crosses and boards among the marble and red sandstone slabs; by 1914, all the wooden markers had disappeared and only about 100 tombstones were left. Many graves reportedly are beneath the rear of the church, covered over when the church was rebuilt and enlarged in 1902. Most of the markers that are still present in the churchyard today lie flat in the ground, preserved but hidden from passersby by the wall that surrounds the parish grounds.
St. Fidelis Parish was founded in 1856 to serve the Catholic community of Strattonport village, which later became part of College Point, Queens. Originally consisting of a small congregation of German and English-speaking families, the parish’s first church was a small wooden building on 124th Street, between 14th and 15th Avenues. Next to the church on its south side was a small churchyard where members of the congregation were buried. In 1894, the bodies from St. Fidelis churchyard were disinterred and removed to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Flushing to make room for the new brick church building that still stands at the site today. St. Fidelis has no records of their old church graveyard, but remnants of the cemetery have been found on several occasions.
When local historian Robert Friedrich compiled information about St. Fidelis cemetery in the 1960s, the church’s pastor, Msgr. William Osborne, recalled that coffin handles and bones where unearthed during construction along the church’s south façade in the 1930s. Later, a human skull was found during landscaping in the same vicinity. In 1965, a tombstone inscribed “JOHANN ADAM WILLMANN GEB. [born] 12 OCT 1860, GEST [died] 12 APRIL 1863” was unearthed in the backyard of a house a block south of St. Fidelis. When the homeowners moved into the house in the 1940s, they found priests’ pictures and church pews in the attic, evidence that the home had previously been associated with St. Fidelis’ vestry or clergy. The gravestone is thought to have been from either the old St. Fidelis graveyard or the Strattonport Village Cemetery that was located nearby.
When officials of the newly established Diocese of New York decided to build the city’s first cathedral in 1809, they selected a site at Mott and Prince Streets that was within the burying ground of St. Peter’s Church. St. Peter’s, the city’s first Catholic church, created the cemetery at the beginning of the 19th century when the graveyard around their church on Barclay Street became full. In 1801, they purchased several lots on the northwest corner of Prince and Mott streets, in the area that is now known as NoLita; an 1803 purchase of additional lots on the northeast corner of Prince and Mulberry streets enlarged the new burial ground.
When a portion of the cemetery was chosen as the cathedral site, provisions were made for the relocation of any graves within the building site to other areas of the cemetery. Construction on St. Patrick’s Cathedral began in 1809 and was completed in 1815. Between 1811 and 1824, the church’s property was expanded further by the acquisition of adjacent lots, and the cemetery grew to its present dimensions, flanking the church on its north and south sides. Additionally, a network of family crypts was built beneath the church. In ca. 1830, a 10-foot-tall brick wall was constructed around the boundary of the property to protect the church and cemetery from anti-Catholic violence that was prevalent during that period.
Over 32,000 burials were recorded in St. Patrick’s Cemetery between the time that interments began to be registered in 1813 until the Catholic Cemetery on 11th Street opened in 1833. The 11th Street cemetery replaced St. Patrick’s Cemetery as the main burial ground for the city’s Catholic community, but occasional interments continued in the graveyard and crypts at St. Patrick’s into the early 20th century.
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral became a parish church when the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan was completed in 1879. The Old Cathedral was recently designated a basilica due to its historical and spiritual significance. Its cemetery and vaults hold the remains of many of the city’s early Catholics, including those transferred from the graveyard at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street in 1836. Most of those buried at Old St. Patrick’s are Irish, including several members of the 69th New York regiment, part of the “Irish Brigade” that fought in the Civil War. The cemetery is also the original burial site of Pierre Toussaint, a former Haitian slave who is a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church; his remains were moved to a crypt at the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1990.
The first Catholic cemetery in New York City, and in the State of New York, was around the original St. Peter’s Catholic Church in lower Manhattan. In 1785, a group of Catholics in New York acquired an 110 x 125 foot plot on the southeast corner of Barclay and Church streets. The first St. Peter’s church, a brick building of 48 x 81 feet, was erected on the site and the remainder of the property was reserved for a burial ground.
The churchyard had become inadequate by the end of the 18th century, and in 1801 St. Peter’s purchased land at the corner of Prince and Mott streets to serve as a new burial ground. Subsequent acquisitions expanded this property, which became the site of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1809. In 1836, St Peter’s began construction of a new, larger church on the same site as the old church and graveyard on Barclay Street. The graves in the churchyard were removed at that time, and were reinterred in the graveyard adjacent to St. Patrick’s Cathedral at Prince and Mott streets. Some remains were reburied under the new church building, which still stands today. According to a statement made by Vicar General William Quinn in 1883, remains that had been buried beneath the present church were disturbed during excavation work in the mid-1800s and were reburied at Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
This cemetery is on the grounds of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica Estates, Queens, and is exclusive to members of the Passionist order. The Passionists founded the parish in 1924, when they purchased 16 acres of hillside property and established a monastery, church, school, and gardens. The cemetery has been used since the 1960s as a burial place for senior priests from Immaculate Conception Monastery and elsewhere.
The small cemetery contains the graves of about 70 Passionist priests and brothers. Dates on the headstones range from 1961 to present. In addition to the graves, the cemetery has memorials to a number of Passionist missionaries who died overseas. Among those buried in the Passionist Cemetery is Rev. Leo Joseph Gorman, who for many years hosted “The Sunday Mass” syndicated television program.
Controversy erupted in 1883 when the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral announced plans to remove their cemetery at 11th Street, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, so that the land could be sold. The cemetery, which extended to 12th Street and occupied most of the block, was opened in 1833 to serve the city’s Catholic community after the burial ground around St. Patrick’s Old Cathedralreached capacity. Fifteen years later, the 11th Street Catholic Cemetery was also full and burials there ceased after the church opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848. According to an 1899 article written by Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan, over 41,000 interments were made in the 11th Street cemetery between 1833 and 1848.
By the time the removal and sale was proposed in 1883, the cemetery had been in disuse for several decades. At a January 1883 meeting to consider the matter, the Trustees of St. Patrick’s advocated for removing the graves to Calvary Cemetery because, “The old cemetery has been neglected and has become a scene of desolation. The fences have been broken by boys, and stones, pieces of pottery, tin cans, and other refuse have been thrown into it, until it has reached such a condition that it has become a great source of trouble to the church to arrange for protecting its property against trespassers.”
Many lot-holders opposed disturbing the graves of their relatives, contending that the cemetery was sacred ground and that selling it would be sacrilegious. Among the opponents was attorney Arthur J. Delaney, who had several family members interred in the cemetery. Delaney obtained a temporary injunction preventing the removals, claiming that lot-holders, as purchasers of burial rights, had a perpetual interest in the ground that would be violated if the bodies were moved and the cemetery sold. The State Supreme Court dissolved the injunction shortly after its issuance, saying that payment for interment in a cemetery gives no title to the land, only the rights to be buried and remain undisturbed for as long as the cemetery continues to operate and to have one’s remains removed and properly reburied in a new burial place once the ground ceases to be used as a cemetery.
Another 25 years passed before removal of the cemetery was carried out. The church met with opposition again in 1907 when it resolved to proceed with the disinterments, but the graves were finally removed in 1909 and the remains of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 individuals were reinterred in Section 4B at Calvary Cemetery. It is not known what happened to the remains of the tens of thousands of other individuals that were said to have been interred in the 11th Street cemetery. The property at 11th Street was sold in 1912; East Side Community High School, Open Road Park, and Mary Help of Christians Church occupy the old cemetery site today.