Tag Archives: church cemeteries

Catholic Cemetery, Williamsburg

The Catholic Cemetery on North Eighth St and First St (now Kent Ave) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1868

In 1840, Rev. James O’Donnell bought a parcel of land on the northeast corner of North Eight Street and First Street (now Kent Avenue) to establish the first Roman Catholic church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A small frame church was erected in the center of the property and the land all around it was reserved for a cemetery. The church, called St. Mary’s, was dedicated on June 27, 1840. This humble wooden building served the 500 Catholics of the parish, which at that time had a vast territory stretching from Hallett’s Cove on the north, Myrtle Avenue on the south, the East River on the west, and Middle Village on the east.

The number of Catholics in the parish grew quickly, and soon the little church was too small for the congregation. Fr. O’Donnell’s successor, Rev. Sylvester Malone, secured ground on Wythe Avenue near South Second Street for a new parish church, which opened in 1848. To avoid confusion with St. Mary’s parish in Manhattan, the diocese renamed the parish after Sts. Peter and Paul when the new building was dedicated. Sts. Peter and Paul parish endures in present-day Williamsburg, now worshipping at McCaddin Memorial Hall on Berry Street.

A newspaper announcement of the opening of the Catholic church and cemetery in Williamsburg in 1840

Many pioneer Catholics of Williamsburg were laid to rest in the burial ground on North Eighth Street, which the parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul kept on using for some time after they relocated to their new building and their original church building in the middle of the cemetery, St. Mary’s, was torn down. The last known burial here was in 1855. The Catholic cemetery with its headstones was for many years a Williamsburg landmark, but after it closed it became an eyesore, the graves overgrown with grass and weeds, the stones broken and their inscriptions obliterated.

In 1890, Bishop Loughlin of the Brooklyn diocese ordered the removal of the old Catholic cemetery at Williamsburg. The parish requested people who had relatives interred there to arrange for transfer of their remains; those that were unclaimed were dug up and reburied at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. Once cleared, the former cemetery ground was sold and a factory was built on the site. In 2007, the property was redeveloped for residential use; the luxury condo building North8 is now on the site of Williamsburg’s first Catholic cemetery.

Excerpt from an article about Edward Neville, buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Williamsburg in 1855. Neville was the proprietor of Williamsburg’s Kings County Hotel; the discovery of his body in Gowanus Bay after a two-week disappearance created a sensation in November 1855.
A 2018 aerial view of the North8 condo building that is now on the former site of the Catholic cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Higginson’s 1868 Insurance Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 67; Kings County Conveyances, Vol 93 p504-507, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Memorial of the Golden Jubilee of the Rev. Sylvester Malone (Malone 1895); The Eastern District of Brooklyn (Armbruster 1912); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “A Village Churchyard,” Historical Records and Studies 7 (Meehan 1914); “Burial of Mr. Neville,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 26, 1855; “Coroner’s Inquest on the Body of Mr. Neville,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 26, 1855; “Body Found,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Mar 6, 1856, [The Body of Sarah Lake], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 26, 1882; “An Old Landmark Doomed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 27, 1890

Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery

Monument marking the Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery reburial grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Feb 2018 (Mary French)

A large granite marker sits atop a rise in the northwest section of Cypress Hills Cemetery, where it marks the reburial ground for bodies exhumed from a Brooklyn cemetery during the winter of 1874-1875. The cemetery was located on Humboldt, Withers, and Frost streets in Williamsburg, on land acquired in 1844 by the trustees of the Cannon Street Baptist Church of Manhattan. Founded in 1840, the Cannon Street Baptist Church was near Broome Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

This detail from an 1852 map of Williamsburg shows the Cannon Street Baptist Chuch Cemetery

The Cannon Street Church used their Williamsburg cemetery as a burial ground for their congregation which, at 700 members in 1846, was one of the largest and most powerful in Manhattan. They also opened it up as a burial place for other Baptist churches and, according to an 1874 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, “the graves were quickly bought, and it became a popular place of interment. Indeed, it became such a favorite that in the poor ground they had to pile in corpses from seven to twelve feet high in each grave.”  By the late 1850s, the cemetery was full and interments were discontinued. As it was no longer a source of revenue for them, the Cannon Street Church let the cemetery go to ruin and it became a pasture ground for neighborhood animals.

One of the few headstones transferred from the Cannon Street Baptist Cemetery to the reburial ground at Cypress Hills (Mary French)

In 1864, Cannon Street Baptist Church acquired property for a new church at Madison and Gouverneur streets and decided to sell their Williamsburg cemetery. In that same year, they were authorized by an act of the New York State legislature to remove the dead interred in their cemetery, “and deposit the same in any cemetery in the county of Kings or in the county of Queens authorized by law to make interments.”  However, it was not until a decade later, when Cypress Hills Cemetery was awarded the contract for the removal project, that bodies were disinterred from Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had a reporter observe the exhumations and published a list of about 200 names identified from headstones and coffin nameplates, including some of those found in the cemetery’s 100-x-75-foot “colored” section. The rest of the hundreds of graves in the cemetery were unidentifiable (no burial records having been located) and the bones exhumed from them were “huddled into the same box with the ones in the next grave, there being in many instances the remains of twenty human beings in one box.”

The cemetery property was quickly redeveloped after the disinterment process was completed and the remains reburied at the one-acre ground at Cypress Hills. In the following years, excavations for cellars during housing construction at the site uncovered at least 12 more bodies that had been overlooked during the 1874-1875 removal. The Cannon Street congregation, which renamed itself East Baptist Church when it relocated to Madison and Gouverneur streets, disbanded in 1896. Their former cemetery property is covered by residences today.

A view of the Cannon Street Baptist Church reburial ground at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Feb 2018 (Mary French)
Snippet of Cypress Hill Cemetery map showing location of the Cannon Street Church Cemetery grounds
2018 aerial view of the former Cannon Street Church Cemetery site in Williamsburg (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the city of Williamsburgh and town of Bushwick (Field 1852); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 125 p135-139, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; [East Broome Street Baptist Church], Baptist Advocate, Aug 15, 1840; “Cannon Street Church,” Baptist Advocate, Feb 13, 1841; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Careless Burial,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1858; [Legislature], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1864; “Board of Health,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 21, 1874; “An Old Burial Ground to Be Sold,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 1, 1874; “Desecration,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 3, 1874; “Human Remains Exhumed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 24, 1878; “Thrice from the Tomb,” New York Herald, Dec 22, 1878; “Incomplete Removal of a Cemetery,” New York Tribune, Aug 13, 1879; “Skeletons,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 12, 1879; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “East Baptist Church to Go,” New York Times, Aug 9, 1896; Cypress Hills Cemetery (Duer & Smith 2010)

West Farms Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery & Hedger-Edwards Family Cemetery

Detail from a 1901 map showing the location of the “Old Cemetery” – the West Farm Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery & Hedger-Edwards Family Cemetery. By this time parts of the two adjoined cemeteries had been taken for E 172nd St and Boone Ave

“Blast Blows Bodies from Old Cemetery” was the alliterative headline of a 1911 New York Times article about graves unearthed in the West Farms section of the Bronx. As the article reports, in July 1911 employees of the Stanton Construction Company exposed an array of bones and pieces of coffins when using dynamite to excavate for a sewer line through Boone Avenue near East 172nd Street. After realizing their explosions had blown into part of a forgotten graveyard, the workmen gathered the remnants of the skeletons together and packed them into three boxes from which dynamite sticks had been removed. They then reburied the boxes among overturned headstones found along the roadside. In 2015, these three dynamite boxes with the repacked bones were among about 80 graves found by archaeologists during excavations conducted before construction of an affordable housing complex.

In 2015, archaeologists recovered this dynamite box packed with partial remains of at least 20 individuals that had been unearthed and reburied during sewer construction in 1911 (HPI)

The old cemetery disturbed by workmen in 1911 and excavated by archaeologists over a century later was actually two adjacent graveyards—the Hedger-Edwards burial ground and the cemetery of the West Farms Reformed Dutch Church. The two graveyards were situated at the northeast corner of present-day Boone Avenue and East 172nd Street and together formed a cemetery of about an acre and a half in size. The site was formerly part of the 100-acre farm of the Hedgers family, early settlers of West Farms who had their homestead between today’s Boone and Longfellow avenues. On the east side of their land, the Hedgers set aside a burial ground for their family and their Edwards kin. This family burial ground is mentioned in the 1769 will of John Hedgers, who reserved “a piece of land for a burying place for me and my family, in my orchard, where my sister-in-law lies buried.” 

In 1845, West Farms Reformed Dutch Church purchased a parcel immediately west of the Hedger-Edwards burial ground for use as a burial place for their congregation. Founded in 1839, the West Farms Reformed Dutch Church was located about a mile north of the cemetery grounds, at the southeast corner of the present intersection of Boston Road and East 179th Street, until they moved to a new church at Prospect Avenue and Fairmount Place in 1904.

One of the partial gravestones found during the 2015 excavations at the West Farm Reformed Dutch Church/Hedger-Edwards family cemeteries, it originally marked the grave of one-year-old William Henry Golden, who died 1848 (HPI)

By the end of the 19th century, the joined cemeteries were disused and neglected, and the City of New York made plans to extend Boone Avenue and East 172nd Street through the site. About 70 graves were exhumed and reburied at Woodlawn Cemetery between 1895-1900 in preparation for the street construction. Many other graves were left behind and bones were disturbed during roadwork in 1905 and during the 1911 sewer construction. In the 1920s, the “forlorn, deserted” cemetery still had a few stones standing, bearing familiar Bronx family names including Austin, Mapes, Butler, Corsa, Edwards, and Cortelyou. But by the mid-20th century, the West Farms Reformed Dutch Church had dissolved and a parking lot was built over the old cemetery site. 

Redevelopment of the site in 2015 once again unearthed graves at the forgotten cemetery, when archaeologists excavated human remains, coffin wood and hardware, personal effects, and partial gravestones from 79 burial shafts; 45 of these were within the Hedger-Edwards burial ground, 20 were within the church cemetery, and two were on the boundary line between the two parcels. In 2017, the human remains and artifacts recovered from the site were reinterred in a crypt in the Hillcrest mausoleum complex at Woodlawn Cemetery; the gravestones were transferred to the Bronx County Historical Society. The Crotona Park East Compass Residences development is now at the former cemetery site.

A view of the crypt at Woodlawn Cemetery where remains excavated from the West Farms RD Church Cemetery & Hedger-Edwards Family Cemetery were reinterred in 2017 (HPI)
Aerial views of the cemetery site in 2012, when it was covered with a parking lot, and today, occupied by the Compass Residences (NYCThen&Now/GoogleEarth)

Sources: Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the borough of the Bronx, Vol. 2, Pl. 6; Cemetery inscriptions copied from a cemetery in the Bronx formerly located at 172nd St and Boone Ave. WCHS Call #200#50, Cemeteries file, Bronx County Historical Society; Early Wills of Westchester Co from 1664 to 1784 (Pelletreau 1898); Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Family History of New York, Vol III (Pelletreau 1907); “Digging Among the Dead,” The Evening World, Sep 17 1895; “Unmarked Graves Dug Open,” New York Sun, Mar 13, 1906; “Blast Blows Bodies from Old Cemetery,” New York Times, Jul 30, 1911; “Coffins Unearthed by Men Digging Sewer in Bronx,” New York Press Jul 30, 1911; “A Neglected Cemetery, New York Tribune, May 26, 1921; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Phase IB Archaeological Field Investigation, Crotona Park East Compass Residences (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 2017); Julie Abell Horn, personal communication, Sep 23, 2022.

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)