Tag Archives: church cemeteries

Polish National Catholic Cemetery

A view of the Polish National Catholic Cemetery, Apr 2017 (Mary French)

The Polish National Catholic Cemetery on Willowbrook Road in the Graniteville section of Staten Island is the parish cemetery of Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church of Bayonne, New Jersey. Other than its location, this cemetery’s Staten Island/New York City associations are limited—most of those laid to rest here lived and worked in New Jersey—but it is of interest due to its connection to an important period in Polish American history.

Sacred Heart of Jesus Polish National Church, Bayonne, New Jersey, ca 1914 (Bayonne Public Library)

During the late 19th century, many Polish immigrants were unhappy with the Roman Catholic Church in the United States for several reasons, including an absence of a bishop of Polish birth or descent, lack of services in the Polish language, and disputes over ownership of church properties. These resentments smoldered into open revolt in many parishes, mainly in the Eastern states, and led to the founding of the Polish National Catholic Church in 1897. This independent Catholic denomination, headquartered in Scranton, Pennsylvania, comprised about 20,000 Poles who left the Roman Catholic Church. 

The Polish National Catholic Cemetery on Willowbrook Road was established during this time of conflict. In 1898, Bayonne Poles founded the Roman Catholic parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel; shortly after it was incorporated, a schism in the parish resulted in a group breaking off to incorporate as St. Mary Carmelite Roman Catholic Polish Church. A dramatic struggle over church property ensued between the two corporations, including several church raids and a lawsuit that was decided in favor of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel delegation. In the aftermath, St. Mary Carmelite  became a parish of the Polish National Catholic Church and reorganized under the name Sacred Heart of Jesus.

This snippet from a 1907 map shows the Polish National Catholic Cemetery—identified here as St. Mary’s R.C. Church property—on Willowbrook Road

On March 14, 1902, the parish—still incorporated at that time as St. Mary Carmelite Roman Catholic Polish Church—paid $1,200 for the tract of land on Willowbrook Road for “its successors and assigns forever for cemetery purposes.”  Today the half-acre burial ground is enclosed by a chain-link fence that separates it from Lake Cemetery and Rehoboth Pentecostal Church on its north side and a housing development on its south side. The well-kept site is still an active parish cemetery of Heart of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church.

The Polish National Catholic Cemetery and surrounding properties in 1951
2012 aerial view of the Polish National Catholic Church Cemetery

View more photos of Polish National Catholic Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1907 Atlas of the Borough of Richmond Pl 6; 1951 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Staten Island (Borough Of Richmond), Richmond County, New York; Richmond County Conveyances, Liber 289, p469-470, Richmond County Clerks Office; Bayonne Old and New (Sinclair 1940); Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Mead 1995); “Polish National Catholic Church,” Encyclopedia Britannica; “Church in Court,” The Jersey City News, Nov 19, 1901; “Parishioners Raid Church,” Passaic Daily News, Oct 23, 1903; “Louis Kubizna,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), Nov 23, 1926; “Joseph Jaworoski,” The News (Paterson, New Jersey), May 19 1954; “Michael Archdeacon,” The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), Nov 18, 1968; “Stanley Senkoski,” The Central New Jersey Home News, Feb 7, 1974; “Adolph S. Mager,” Press and Sun Bulletin (Binghampton NY), Nov 28, 1992; “Julia Obarowski,” Asbury Park Press, Apr 4, 2002; “Helen Bilinski,” The Jersey Journal, Nov 15, 2010; “Florence Vila,” The Jersey Journal , Dec 21, 2017; “Our Memorial Day Observance,” Heart of Jesus PNCC, June 2011

St. Thomas’ Churchyard

An 1826 drawing of the first St. Thomas Church at Broadway and Houston Streets (St. Thomas Church )

St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue is one of America’s most beautiful places of worship, renowned for its glorious liturgical music and stunning architecture. Situated at the heart of Midtown since 1868, this Episcopal parish has its roots in the lower part of Manhattan. In 1823, a group from the city’s three largest Episcopal parishes—all located at the overcrowded southern tip of Manhattan—met to discuss the need for new church further uptown, where residents were migrating. In January of 1825, St. Thomas Church was incorporated and that July ground was broken for their church building at the northwest corner of Broadway and Houston Street, a location then at the edge of the settled city.

Detail from an 1852 map showing St. Thomas Church at Broadway and Houston. Burial vaults were located in the churchyard behind the building.

To raise money for their first house of worship, the vestry of St. Thomas decided to utilize open ground behind the church for burial vaults. Here they built 58 vaults, each 9×11 feet, that were sold for $250 each. At least 36 of the vaults were purchased by families of St. Thomas. Among those who acquired a family vault was William Backhouse Astor, a member of St. Thomas’ original vestry. William B. Astor’s father John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man in the country at that time, was interred in William’s private vault in St. Thomas’ churchyard when he died in 1848.

The first St. Thomas Church was consecrated in 1826. Designed in the Gothic style, it had octagonal towers that rose over the countryside like a castle. After it was destroyed in an 1851 fire, a second church was built on the same site. But by that time, the once-fashionable neighborhood at Broadway and Houston Street had changed dramatically, the church shared the street with bawdy dance halls, saloons, and hotels, and many of its members had moved on. In the 1860s, the congregation made plans to relocate even farther uptown, acquiring land at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 53rd Street for a new church.

An 1824 notice for burial vaults for sale at St. Thomas churchyard

Removal of the burial vaults in the churchyard posed a difficulty in the sale of St. Thomas’ church  property at Broadway and Houston. When the vestry originally sold the vault lots at the rear of the church, the deeds protected the rights of the vault owners for the duration of the church’s corporation. Consequently, the property as a whole could not be sold unless the vault owners agreed to surrender their rights or to sell the land back to the corporation. Many vault holders did agree to transfer the remains of their family members to other places; the remains of the Astors, for example, were removed to Trinity Cemetery. But some refused to give their consent and over a hundred bodies were still interred in the vaults at the time the property was to be sold.

Notice of John Jacob Astor’s funeral and interment in his son’s burial vault in St. Thomas Churchyard in 1848

After several years of legal wrangling, in 1868 a settlement was reached wherein the vestry was compelled to pay $48,550 to the owners of the 28 vaults that were still occupied and the remains were subsequently removed. On October 14, 1868, the cornerstone of the new St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue was laid. This structure was destroyed by fire in 1905 and replaced by the present sanctuary, a French Gothic Revival masterpiece completed in 1916. The site of the parish’s first church building and burial vaults at Broadway and Houston is now occupied by the Cable Building, built in 1892.

A modern map shows the Cable Building at the site of the original St. Thomas Church and burial vaults (NYCityMap)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; “Private Vaults,” Evening Post, Apr 7, 1824;  “Funeral of John Jacob Astor,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 1, 1848;  “Difficulties in St. Thomas’s Church,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 20, 1860; “Removal of St. Thomas’ Church,” New York Times, July 31, 1860; “Sale and Removal  of St. Thomas’s Church,” New York Daily Tribune, July 28, 1860; “Sale of St. Thomas’ Church, in Broadway,” New York Times, Aug 2, 1865; “Sale of St. Thomas’s Episcopal Church; The World, Aug 2, 1865; “Two More Landmarks Gone,” Evening Post, Jun 11, 1866; Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Wright 2001); From Abyssinian to Zion: A Guide to Manhattan’s Houses of Worship (Dunlap 2004); All Around the Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities (Bunyan 1999); The Gate of Heaven: The Story of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue (Our Town Films 1999)

St. Joseph’s Cemetery

A view of monuments in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

Each spring and fall, about 150 people from the parish of St. Joseph-St. Thomas participate in clean-up operations at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in the Rossville section of Staten Island. Including members of the Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, parish sports teams, and other groups, the crew clears graves of underbrush and ivy, pours fresh dirt on old graves that have sunken in, and spreads grass seeds to fight erosion. Putting belief into action, the people of St. Joseph-St. Thomas volunteer their time and energy to maintain a safe and respectful burial place where family and friends can visit the graves of their loved ones.

This snippet from an 1874 map shows St. Joseph’s Church on Washington St (now Poplar Ave) and their parish cemetery one block away on Glen Ave (now Barry St)

In keeping their cemetery in good condition, the people of St. Joseph-St. Thomas are also preserving the legacy of their parish. St. Joseph’s Church was founded in 1848, by Father Mark Murphy, pastor of St. Peter’s Church (the first Catholic church on Staten Island), when he celebrated Mass for 58 Catholics in a house on Rossville Avenue as a mission of St. Peter’s. In 1851, a small chapel dedicated to St. Joseph was completed on what is now Poplar Avenue. In 1855, St. Joseph’s became an official parish—the third oldest of Staten Island’s parishes after St. Peter’s and St. Mary’s. In 1862, St. Joseph’s purchased land for a cemetery about one block away from their church, on the south side of today’s Barry Street. Now comprising 2.5 acres, St. Joseph’s Cemetery is the final resting place of over 1,000 Catholics, including many veterans of the American Civil War, Spanish-American War, First World War, Second World War, Korean War, and Vietnam era.

A 1903 newspaper clipping about the death of Thomas R. Murphy, who is interred at St. Joseph’s Cemetery

In 1959, the parish of St. Joseph merged with St. Thomas the Apostle in Pleasant Plains to become the parish of St. Joseph-St. Thomas. Both St. Joseph and St. Thomas continue to offer services and their combined parish is one of the largest and most active on Staten Island. And burials are still made at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, which is operated by the parish and cared for by its community. Cardinal John O’Connor commented on the community’s dynamism at the parish’s 150th anniversary celebration in 1998. “This is truly a living parish,” he said. “It is so important that what you leave to those who will follow you is at least equal to what you have received from those who went before.”

These two Hungarian markers at St. Joseph’s Cemetery may mark the graves of immigrants who worked in brickyards that operated in the nearby Kreischerville section (now Charleston) of Staten Island during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Mary French)
2018 aerial view showing St. Joseph’s Church and parish cemetery in Rossville (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of St. Joseph Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1874 Atlas of Staten Island, Sec 23; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006); “Killed at the Crossing,” Richmond County Advance, Dec 12, 1903; “‘150 Years New,’” Catholic New York, Jul 2, 1998; Denis P. McGowan, comment on “The Ruins of Rossville,” Forgotten New York, Nov. 15, 2015

German Catholic Cemetery, 124th Street

An 1869 notice in the New York Herald announces the removal of remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street

Even as New York’s Catholic population grew from no more than 200 at the end of the Revolutionary era to 400,000 by the mid-19th century, there was but one official cemetery for Manhattan’s Catholics, each closing in turn as it reached capacity. The first was around St. Peter’s in Barclay street, the second at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the third on 11th Street, and, in 1848,  Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Parishes throughout Manhattan were expected to bury their dead in the authorized cemetery and were prohibited by the diocese (archdiocese after 1850) from establishing graveyards adjacent to their churches or elsewhere.

But Manhattan’s early German Catholics were eager to have their own burial places, separate from the Irish that dominated the designated cemetery for the diocese/archdiocese. Several German Catholic parishes established cemeteries, or attempted to do so, and were censured for their defiance and their burial grounds closed. One of these was the Church of St. John the Baptist on 30th Street, whose trustees opened a cemetery on property they acquired in 1848.  State Senator Erastus Brooks provides an account of this cemetery in an 1855 editorial letter:

On 123d and 124th streets, there is a burial ground covering eight lots, belonging to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on 30th street. The owners were Germans. They built a church and selected a suitable place for the burial of their dead. For some time, without restraint from the Archbishop or others, they were permitted to inter the members of their congregation in these grounds, which were sacred both to the memory of the dead and to their friends. The Archbishop interposed, and prohibited the use of the grounds for this purpose.

The congregation, in a spirit of German independence, continued to bury their dead there, notwithstanding the prohibition of the Archbishop. It was then announced by authority from the pulpit, that burial services would not be permitted there any longer. Still the congregation persisted in exercising their rights as men, and in discharging their duty to the dead. For a time the dead were buried without the usual funeral ceremonies or services. The Archbishop in the exercise of his highhanded power, then took the Priest from the congregation, and, as a consequence, the Church had to be closed, and was closed for some time.

The German Catholic Cemetery depicted on an 1851 map of upper Manhattan. Although it appears here that the cemetery extended over entire block, other sources indicate it was confined to the center of the block, in the area denoted by arrow

An 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows this German Catholic Cemetery and implies that it extended the entire block bounded by 123rd and 124th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards). However, other documentary evidence and historical accounts indicate the cemetery was confined to a parcel at the middle of the block (indicated by arrow on the map detail above). No evidence has been found of the number nor names of those interred there.

As noted in Senator Brooks’ letter, the archdiocese interdicted St. John the Baptist for their cemetery, as well as for other disagreements with church authorities, and the parish was consistently troubled until it was reorganized under the control of Capuchin Franciscan friars in 1871. In 1869, the remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street were removed to Calvary Cemetery. The property was subsequently sold to help fund a new church building for the resurrected St. John the Baptist parish; this building still stands at West 30th Street. Apartment buildings are at the former site of the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street.

2018 aerial view of the German Catholic Cemetery site today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); “Catholic Cemetery and Catholic Burials,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, Aug 23, 1851; The Controversy Between Senator Brooks and † John, Archbishop of New York…(Tisdale 1855); “Special Notices,” New York Herald, April 4, 1869; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Dolan 1975); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Ennis Francis Houses 1A Documentary Report (Geismar 2010)

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