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.
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.