Tag Archives: church cemeteries

Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery

A city notice of the proposed removal of Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery in 1842

Citizens of New York City readied to protect their dead in 1842 when the Hudson Insurance Company threatened to remove a cemetery near the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets in the Lower East Side and convert the property into house lots. Thousands signed a petition that was forwarded to the state legislature, asking for a prohibition of the digging up of the dead. A large group of women watched the cemetery day and night—one lady, armed with a pistol, guarded the grave of her husband and children. And when the company’s agent arrived at the burial ground with workmen carrying shovels and spades, “it was the Ladies,” the New York Herald reports, “who over-powered and over-awed this wonderful agent with his men of war, and made them quit the battlefield.”

Detail from an 1832 map showing Bethel Baptist Church at the northeast corner of Delancey and Chrystie streets. The cemetery (not depicted), adjoined the church along Chrystie St.

The scene of this excitement was the burial ground belonging to Bethel Baptist Church. The second oldest Baptist congregation in the city, Bethel Baptist organized in the year 1770 and had its first house of worship on Rose Street in downtown Manhattan. By the early 1800s the congregation had grown to more than 400 members and in 1819 their pastor, Rev. Johnson Chase, purchased eight lots of ground at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets for a new church, parsonage, and burying ground. They erected a 65×85-foot brick church on the lots along Delancey Street and used the four lots adjoining the building for the graveyard.

A circular prepared in 1844 by friends and relatives of those interred in the cemetery provides a description of the site: “The said four lots, constituting the Bethel Baptist Burying Ground, contain a square of one hundred feet of ground, fronting on Christie st. In this ground, the remains of about 5,000 human beings are supposed to have been interred since said purchase. On an average the coffins are understood and believed to be at least five deep. The lowest tier of coffins are about fourteen feet below the surface. The surface of the grave yard is now five or six feet above what it originally was, having been filled up with coffins, graves, etc.”

A notice of a meeting of friends and relatives who opposed the cemetery removal

Beset by difficulties (including claims that church trustees used the cemetery as a money-making enterprise, selling the same plots over and over), Bethel Baptist disbanded in 1840 and sold their property. Thwarted in their attempts to remove the burial ground, Hudson Insurance Company suspended their plans for the site. The abandoned cemetery became an enclosure for hogs that tore up the ground and uprooted headstones. The city took over the property in 1856 and built a public school at the site. In the 1930s, the school was demolished and the site became part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

An 1893 map shows the public school that was built on the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery site in the 1850s

Although remains from the burial ground may have been removed before the site was redeveloped for a public school and later a public park, it seems likely the cemetery was simply built over since evidence of burials has been discovered over the years. In 1891, workmen excavating beneath the basement of the public school unearthed a large quantity of human remains under the northwest corner of the building—including 25 skulls and “a miscellaneous assortment of bones of arms, legs, and thighs.”

In 1964, decades after the site had been incorporated into the park, construction workers digging for foundation piles for a new senior recreation center were astounded when bones of what appeared to be at least 200 individuals were uncovered. Several engraved silver coffin plates were also found. The plates bore the names of Elizabeth Morrell and Emma Buchler, who died in 1821, and Martha Darby, who died in 1823. The foundation walls of the former school were visible in the excavation where the skeletons were found and had apparently been sunk down through burial vaults in the old cemetery. Following the 1964 discovery, the senior center was built and still stands at the site today. The disposition of human remains encountered during construction at the site is unknown.

Map of part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park showing the Golden Age Center for senior citizens; arrow indicates approximate location of the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sources: City of New-York (Burr 1832); Robinson’s 1893 Atlas of the City of New York 4:13; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Board of Aldermen,” New York Daily Express, Nov 30, 1841, “Corporation Notice,” Evening Post, Feb 9, 1842, “Protect Your Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1842; “Protect the Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 26, 1842; “Bethel Baptist Burying Ground,” New York Tribune, Mar 22, 1842; “Disturbing the Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 31, 1842; “Legislature of New York,” Spectator, Apr 2, 1842; “Digging Up the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 13, 1842; “Removal of the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 4, 1844; [Letter to Editor], New York Herald, Apr 5, 1844; “Protect the Dead in Their Graves,” New York Express, May 27, 1844; “Little Better Than Footballs,” New York Herald, Jul 19, 1891; “Bones Under a Schoolhouse,” New York Times, Jul 19, 1891; “Lower East Side Diggers Find Graves on a Construction Site,” New York Times, Dec 18, 1964 

St. Monica’s Cemetery

Detail from an 1859 map of Jamaica, arrows denote the original St. Monica’s church and adjoining cemetery at the bottom of Washington St (now 160th St) and the new St. Monica’s church built in 1856 a short distance north of the original site.

In October 1838, the Bishop of New York sent Rev. Michael Curran to Jamaica, Queens, to establish a parish for the town’s growing Irish Catholic population. Many of the area’s large farms employed Irish laborers, and construction of the Long Island Railroad along Jamaica Avenue in the 1830s brought an increasing number of Irish workers to Jamaica. Property was secured on the west side of Washington Street (now 160th Street), near South Street, and here a small frame church was erected and dedicated to Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. This humble little structure, 80 feet long by 25 feet wide, accommodated the 200 Catholics who came from miles around to hear Mass each Sunday. Vacant land adjoining the church was employed as a parish burial ground.

An 1897 map depicting St. Monica’s Cemetery and St. Monica’s Church.

St. Monica’s parish grew rapidly and before long their tiny wooden church was no longer adequate. In 1856 the congregation moved to a new brick building at 94-20 160th Street, a short distance north of their original church and adjoining cemetery. The old church building was used for a time as a meeting hall and eventually sold and demolished. St. Monica’s parish continued at their new location until 1973 when the church closed and the City of New York took over the building and surrounding blocks as part of the York College Urban Renewal Project. Since 2009 the former church  has housed the York College Child and Family Center.

Obituary for an 1887 interment at St. Monica’s Cemetery.

St. Monica’s Cemetery is intact today at the southwest corner of 160th Street and Liberty Avenue, in the middle of the York College Campus. About one acre in size, it is maintained by Catholic Cemeteries Diocese of Brooklyn.  Some 3,000 local Catholics have been laid to rest here, and tombstones now standing date from about 1840 to the early 2000s. Names on the tombstones reflect the changing demographics of the area—earlier burials are largely Irish, while more recent markers represent Italian families who settled in the area in the 20th century.

St. Monica’s Cemetery is noteworthy in local history as the spot where “the most beloved dog in Jamaica” took up residence. In 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the unnamed stray who was known to the neighborhood for years:

And now upon a grave, apparently neglected, with a small, obliterated wooden cross, he makes his bed. We observed him the other afternoon lying atop the little grave as though mourning someone he had known when a tiny pup or someone dear to his ancestors. A pathetic picture he makes, indeed. Neighbors say the nameless dog howls bitterly late at night and sometimes during the day, and that efforts to keep him off the burial ground have been vain . . . Out of sheer pity the kindly folks on the block have declined to interfere with the strange dog’s actions. They sympathize with him by bringing him food, and even shut their ears to his nightly howls. And already the kiddies on the block have saved their pennies so that someday when the faithful and homeless dog passes away he will be given a resting place.

A view of tombstones in St. Monica’s Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of St. Monica’s Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of St. Monica’s Cemetery

Sources: Jamaica (Walling 1859); Sanborn’s 1897 Insurance Maps of Jamaica, Queens Co., Pl 10; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “Andrew McCormick’s Funeral,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 26, 1887; “St. Monica’s Church Celebrates Half Century’s History,” Brooklyn Times Union, Oct 13, 1906; “St. Monica’s, Jamaica,” The Tablet, Jun 18, 1910; “Cemetery His Estate, Lonely Grave Top His Choice of Boudoir,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 9, 1923; York College Child Care Center – St. Monica’s Church

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery & Friends Cemetery, Westchester Square

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in January 2021; the markers in the foreground are part of the Friends Cemetery (Mary French)

The vibrant East Bronx neighborhood known as Westchester Square is one of the borough’s oldest settlements, founded in 1654 by a group of English colonists. Called Oostdorp (east village) by the Dutch, it was renamed West Chester after it transferred to the British in 1664. When the county of Westchester was formed in 1683, Westchester Village became the county seat and grew into a center of activity at the head of Westchester Creek.

At the outset of the village’s founding, a large tract of land was set aside at the heart of the settlement for common use by the community. It was on a portion of this common land, or village green, that the settlers established a community burial ground. The first Episcopal church structure was erected on the village green in 1700, on the same site as the present St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Society of Friends built a meetinghouse in 1723 immediately south of St. Peter’s Church. Both the Friends meetinghouse and the Episcopal church were situated adjacent to the community burying ground.

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows St. Peter’s Church and the Friends meetinghouse, and their adjoining cemeteries, situated on Westchester Ave

That section of the historical village green that included the community burial ground, the Episcopalian church, and the Friends meeting house—an area now situated on the east side of Westchester Avenue between Seabury Avenue, Herschell Street, and Butler Place—is owned today by St. Peter’s Church. The cemetery adjoining the church includes the community burial ground that originated with the founding of Westchester Village, as well as plots used by St. Peter’s Church and the Friends meeting house. As such, it is the burial place of some of the earliest European settlers of the Bronx and is the borough’s oldest active cemetery.

St. Peter’s Church Cemetery

A 1927 view of St. Peter’s Church and Cemetery (NYPL)

In 1795 the trustees of the town of Westchester released to the Church of St. Peter’s the parcel of ground on which the church was erected “and also the Burying Ground adjoining the said church, as it is now enclosed and fenced, and which has heretofore been used for a Burial Place by the inhabitants of the Township, containing about one acre.” This burial ground had been used by the community since the founding of the village in the 17th century. Though belonging to the town, the burial ground overlapped with St. Peter’s churchyard and had been utilized by the church throughout the 18th century for its deceased members. The 1795 release of the property contained a stipulation that the Town of Westchester would be permitted to continue to bury its inhabitants, without any fee, in vacant parts of the burial ground, so that the community would “always be permitted to bury their dead near to and adjoining their families who have heretofore been buried in the said Burial Ground.”

James Minor Lincoln’s 1909 sketch of the St. Peter’s and Friends properties

In 1909, James Minor Lincoln collected inscriptions from 1,024 monuments in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, the earliest dating to 1702. In his manuscript, Lincoln noted: “It is estimated that this cemetery has been filled two or three times, no grave can be dug anywhere without turning up bones and old gravestones that have been buried.” St. Peter’s interred 30-40 bodies a year in their overcrowded cemetery in the early 1900s; to expand the burial ground, in 1925 the church acquired the adjoining lot where the Friends meetinghouse had stood. Some of this property, which included a Friends burial ground (see below), was incorporated into St. Peter’s Church Cemetery and subsequently used for new burials. Interments are still made in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, though they’ve been infrequent since the mid-20th century.

St. Peter’s Church and Cemetery complex was designated a city landmark in 1976 and was added to the National Register of Historic places in 1983. The cemetery wraps around the Gothic Revival church building (erected in 1855) with the largest section of the burial ground extending on the building’s south side. A smaller, 19th-century Gothic-style building, formerly used as a mortuary chapel and Sunday school, is located in the southwest corner of the cemetery. Tree-lined paths wind through an assortment of ancient and modern tombstones, family plots, vaults, and mausoleums memorializing three centuries of Westchester Square’s inhabitants.

Friends Cemetery

A view of the Friends Cemetery in August 1908; the fence separating the property from St. Peter’s Church Cemetery can be seen on the left side of the image (WCHS)

The Society of Friends, a dominant presence in the early years of Westchester Village, had a graveyard behind the meetinghouse they erected in 1723 neighboring St. Peter’s Church on Westchester Avenue. When James Minor Lincoln collected inscriptions from St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in 1909 he also inventoried the adjoining Quaker burial ground, which was separated from the St. Peter’s property by a fence. Lincoln found 88 crude fieldstones and modest marble tombstones marking the Quaker graves, the earliest dated 1754. 

After the meetinghouse was destroyed by fire in 1892, the Quaker property was vacant except for the Friends Cemetery that abutted St. Peter’s Church Cemetery.  As part of the 1925 acquisition of the Friends lot by St. Peter’s, the church agreed that the Quaker burial ground would remain exclusively for interment of members of the Society of Friends and descendants of those interred there, and that it would be maintained with the same “reverent care” as the church’s cemetery. The last known interment in the Friends Cemetery was in 1927.

A plaque mounted on a stone marker identifies the Friends Cemetery at St. Peter’s Church Cemetery (Mary French)

Today the Friends Cemetery is located at the southern end of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, where the Quaker graves are found in two concentrations. The larger of the two is clearly defined by four stone markers, one containing a “Friends Burial Place” plaque. The second, smaller concentration is situated at the southeast corner of St. Peter’s Cemetery, bordering Butler Place, and its boundaries are not clearly designated. Further south of the Friends Cemetery is an open field that was part of the land St. Peter’s acquired with the Friends meetinghouse property. This vacant lot, never utilized by St. Peter’s for burials, is currently slated for development into an affordable housing complex. Community members familiar with the history of the site have raised concerns that the field might contain unmarked Quaker burials, but archaeological test excavations conducted in 2019 and 2020 found no evidence of graves and/or human remains in this parcel of land.

Modest headstones in the Friends Cemetery at the southern end of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery, Jan 2021 (Mary French)
2012 aerial view of Peter’s Church Cemetery and the Friends Cemetery (NYCityMap)

View more photos of St. Peter’s Church Cemetery and the Friends Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; The History of the Several Towns, Manors and Patents of the County of Westchester: From Its First Settlement to the Present Time (Bolton 1881); Cemetery Inscriptions, St. Peter’s P.E. Church of Westchester (Lincoln 1910, NYHS manuscript); Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; The Story of St. Peter’s, Westchester in the City of New York 1693-1976 (Lang 1976); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “Grave Concerns Continue Over Proposed Housing Site,” Bronx Times, Jul 7, 2019; Phase IA Historical Documentary and Archaeological Assessment Report for the St. Peter’s Church Property, Bronx (Chrysalis 2019); Phase IB Archaeological Field Testing for Saint Peter’s Church-Proposed Westchester Square Development Project, Bronx (Chrysalis 2020)

Amity Street Baptist Burial Ground

Detail from and 1852 map showing the Amity Street Baptist Burial Ground at the corner of Amity (now 3rd Street) and Wooster streets

In February 1863, the New York Times reported:

The rapid march of improvement, which forms so distinguishing a characteristic of the Manhattanese, is daily removing or transforming the old landmarks that have been to this generation silent reminders of olden days and a Knickerbocker ancestry. The resting places wherein were interred (as was thought for all time) the remains of those of our progenitors who have passed from earth, are no longer yielded up to the silent dead; the increase of business and population rendering the sites of their “narrow houses” more valuable to the mercantile and manufacturing community than when the practice of intramural interments was universal in Gotham…Among the other localities thus transformed, or to be transformed, is the old burying-ground corner of Amity and Wooster streets adjoining the Amity-street Baptist Church.

The “old burying-ground” at the corner of Amity Street (later 3rd Street) and Wooster was established in 1814 by the Fayette/Oliver Street Baptist Church; formed in 1795, the Fayette/Oliver Street church was among Manhattan’s earliest Baptist congregations. They buried some 1,200 congregants in their small Greenwich Village cemetery that was fenced in on the Amity and Wooster streets sides and bounded on the east by the Amity Street Baptist Church, an offshoot of the Oliver Street congregation that constructed their building in 1834 on an unused section of the cemetery land. By 1849, the Amity Street Baptist burial ground was full—so full, in fact, that it closed soon after the City Inspector found, during a visit in July of that year, “the coffin in one grave was only two feet from the surface; another, two feet four inches, and another, one foot ten inches. A child, buried on Monday last, was interred just two feet three inches below the surface; and there were ten new graves, in not one of which was the coffin three feet under the surface.”

Newspaper notice announcing removal of remains from the Amity Street burial ground, Feb 17, 1863

In the 1860s, both the Oliver Street Baptist Church and the Amity Street Baptist Church followed the northward migration of residents and moved uptown, and the decision was made to sell the Amity Street property. Trustees of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, which had consolidated with the Oliver Street Church, purchased lots at Cypress Hills Cemetery and received permission from the city to exhume the bodies from the Amity Street burial ground for reinterment at Cypress Hills. 

“Many of the wealthiest and most prominent Knickerbocker families in the City” were said to have ancestors interred in the Amity Street burial ground, and they were none too pleased by the church trustees’ decision to relocate the bodies. “One gentleman pronounced the proceeding disgraceful and unchristian, inhuman and barbarous,” the New York Times disclosed. Another man said “that if he acted on his own natural impulses, he would shoot the first man who attempted to unearth his mother’s remains;” a third declared the trustees “to be a soulless, godless corporation, in which no sentiment of honor or humanity existed.” Despite these protests, the Amity Street Baptist burial ground was emptied of its mortal remains, and the property was redeveloped. NYU’s Stern School of Business occupies the site today.

2018 aerial view of the former site of the Amity Street Baptist Burial Ground

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 9:125; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846), 258-259; “The Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jul 26, 1849; “More Removing of Dead Bodies,” New York Herald Feb 15, 1863; “Local Intelligence,” New York Times, Feb 16, 1863; “Special Notice,” New York Herald Feb 17, 1863; “Our Fathers—Where Are They? Exhumation of Remains in the Amity-Street Burial-Ground,” New York Times, Feb 17, 1863; “Record of Important Events,” Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, Vol 13, Jan/June 1883, 217; The Cypress Hills Cemetery 1880 [catalog & list of lot holders]; NYC Then&Now

Spring Street Presbyterian Church Burial Vaults

An 1852 map showing the Spring Street Presbyterian Church

Many of New York City’s cemeteries have been bulldozed for development over the years, the graves and the stories of the people buried in them lost to collective memory. In the last few decades, though, discovery of historic burial grounds during construction activities has provided opportunities to learn about segments of society that have made important contributions to the city’s history, but generally are overlooked in the historical narrative. The 1991 discovery of remains at the African Burial Ground site in Lower Manhattan revealed a wealth of information about life and death for Africans in colonial New York and became an enormously important site for the modern African American community, underscoring and commemorating their deep historical presence in the city and the nation. Recovery of remains from the site of one the Quarantine cemeteries on Staten Island in 2003 renewed interest in the history of the Quarantine Grounds and the link they provide to New York City’s history as a gateway for millions of immigrants. Another of the city’s “hidden histories” was uncovered with finding the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a unique history of class and race inclusiveness.

Remains found in one of the burial vaults during excavation in 2006 (Meade 2007)

In December 2006, human bones were found in backhoe fill when a parking lot at the southeast corner of Spring Street and Varick Street in Manhattan was being torn up for construction of a 46-story luxury hotel, Trump SoHo (recently renamed The Dominick). Research determined that the remains were of individuals interred in underground burial vaults associated with the Spring Street Presbyterian Church that stood on the site from 1811 until 1966, when the church was demolished and the parking lot was paved over the location. Archaeological excavations at the site recovered the remains of approximately 200 individuals, as well as artifacts including engraved metal coffin plates, coffin wood and nails, shroud pins, ceramics, coins, fabric, and a few personal items, including ribbons, buttons, hair combs, shoes, a whistle, and a gold wedding band. The human remains and artifacts were sent to Syracuse University where they were studied by anthropologists from 2007 until 2014, when they reinterred at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

A view of Spring Street Presbyterian Church in 1927 (NYPL)

The burial vaults at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church were four underground rooms, two made of limestone and two of brick, that were built along the southeast side of the church building and used between 1820 and 1846. During the nearly 200 years that had passed since the vaults were used, the wood coffins stacked within them had rotted and collapsed, leaving behind the piles of bones and artifacts that were unearthed during the excavation. Like the long-forgotten vaults, the distinctive history of Spring Street Presbyterian Church and its congregants had been obscured until it came to light again when the vaults were rediscovered. During the time period the burial vaults were in use, the church was a radical abolitionist congregation situated in a working-class neighborhood and its congregants were individuals of multiple classes and races (the church began admitting African Americans into full membership in 1820, seven years before slavery was abolished in New York).

Diagram showing location of the burial vaults within the Spring Street Church property (Mooney et al 2008)
Severe bowing in leg bones of one of the Spring Street children, evidence of rickets (Ellis 2014)

The Spring Street remains—the only large collection of human remains recovered in the city that date to the first half of the 19th century—allowed anthropologists to gain an understanding of what life was like for these people in rapidly urbanizing New York. The remains told of variations in health (for example, 75 of the burials were children, and half of them suffered from rickets) and morphological features of the bone, teeth, and hair indicated significant differences in ancestry, suggesting that people from diverse backgrounds were interred together in the vaults at Spring Street. Equally important as the scientific finds, the discovery established a connection to and chance to commemorate New Yorkers who were in the forefront of early battles against slavery and were vanguards in the fight for civil rights.

Silver coffin plate of Oswald Williams Roe, one of the children interred in the burial vaults (Mooney et al 2008)
A 2016 aerial view showing the Trump SoHo on the former Spring Street Church site (nyc.gov)
Monument marking the reburial site at Greenwood Cemetery (David Pultz)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Spring Street Archaeology Project (Syracuse University); Archaeological Investigations of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church Cemetery (Mooney et al 2008); Topic Intensive Documentary Study: Spring Street Presbyterian Church (Meade 2007); The Children of Spring Street: The Remains of Childhood in a Nineteenth Century Abolitionist Congregation (Ellis 2014, PhD Dissertation); David Pultz, personal communication, June 19 2014; “Trump SoHo Project Is on Hold After Discovery of Human Remains,” New York Sun, Dec 13 2006; “Burial Vaults Inspire a Celebration of a Church Opposed to Slavery,” New York Times, Oct. 8 2014; “Return from Obscurity: NY’s Spring Street Presbyterian Church,” News—Presbyterian Church USA, Nov 10 2014