Tag Archives: church cemeteries

St. John’s Cemetery

A view of St. John’s Cemetery by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1860 (NYC Parks & Recreation).
A view of St. John’s Cemetery by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1860 (NYC Parks & Recreation).

In 1890, the City of New York selected St. John’s Cemetery, located on the east side of Hudson Street between Clarkson and Leroy Streets in Greenwich Village, as a site for a new public park.  The property, which was connected with St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Church, served as a burial ground from 1806 to 1852 and an estimated 10,000 individuals were buried there. Following a five-year legal battle with Trinity, the city secured the property under the Small Parks Act, a law passed by the state legislature in 1887 that allowed the city to acquire property for the creation of small parks in crowded neighborhoods.

St. John’s Cemetery served as a burial ground primarily for the poorer and middle classes, although some prominent individuals and members of well-known families, such as the Schermerhorns, Berrians, Leggetts, and Valentines, were also buried there. The cemetery had been in a dilapidated condition for many years by the time it was taken by the city in 1895, but in the first half of the 19th century it was said to be a pleasant, restful place, and Edgar Allan Poe reportedly roamed the burying ground when he lived nearby in the 1830s.  Helen Jewett, a prostitute whose 1836 murder became a media sensation, was briefly interred at St. John’s Cemetery; four nights after her burial, medical students stole, and subsequently dissected, her body.

When Trinity lost the battle to keep the cemetery property, their attorney stated, “We did not believe the city could take such property for parks, but the courts have decided otherwise, and if the city takes the ground it takes the remains also, and must make its own disposition of them.”  In 1896, the city announced that families wishing to remove relatives interred in the cemetery must do so by the end of that year; remains from only about 250 graves were removed before construction on the new park began in 1897.  In 1898, the new Hudson Park (renamed James J. Walker Park in 1947), opened on the site.  Remains beneath the park have occasionally been unearthed during construction work, as in 1939 when workmen encountered the coffin of six-year-old Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, who died in 1850.  One reminder of the old burying ground still exists – an 1834 monument to fallen firemen, one of the most prominent markers in the old cemetery, was preserved during the original construction of the park, and stands today along its north side.

St. John’s Cemetery (identified here as Trinity Church Cemetery) at Hudson, Clarkson, and Leroy Streets, 1852 (Dripps 1852)
Tombstones in St. John’s Cemetery, ca. 1895. The firemen’s monument can be seen at the right side of the photo. (NYPL)
The firemens monument at the north side of Walker Park is a remnant of St. Johns Cemetery. (Mary French)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Before They Were Parks (NYC Parks & Recreation); Walks in Our Churchyards (J.F. Mines 1896), 152-164; Literary New York (Hemstreet 1903), 148; The Murder of Helen Jewett (Cohen 1998), 299; Report of the Tenement House Committee…Jan. 17, 1895, 42-43; “What Will Become of These Bodies?,” New York Herald, March 20, 1893, 4; “Old St. John’s Cemetery,” New York Times Sept 13, 1896; The Mummy in Trinity Church (The Archivists Mailbag).

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St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral Cemetery

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1836, with cemetery grounds located north and south of the church (Colton 1836)

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.

A depiction of the 69th regiment, part of New York’s Irish Brigade, marching down Prince  and Mott Streets next to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in 1861. The southern portion of the cemetery, where some members of the regiment are buried, is shown. (NYPL)

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.

View of graveyard on the north side of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (Mary French)
View of graveyard on the south side of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral (Mary French)

Virtual tour of the cemetery and crypts at Museum Planet.

Sources: Colton’s 1836 Map Of The City and County Of New-York; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1, 371-373; History of St. Patrick’s Cathedral;Centennial at Old St. Patrick’s,” New York Times, May 19, 1909; “Politely, A Cathedral Battles to Keep Modern Scrawling Off a Wall’s Historic Bricks,” New York Times, July 6, 2003; “Cathedral With a Past; Basilica With a Future,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 2010.

St. Peter’s Catholic Graveyard

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.

St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church and the surrounding graveyard in 1807 (Bridges 1807)

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.

An 1831 view of the original St. Peter’s Church (Bourne Views of New York).
A present-day view of St. Peter's Roman Catholic Church. (Beyond My Ken)
A present-day view of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church at 22 Barclay St. (Beyond My Ken)

Bridges’ 1807 Plan of the city of New-York; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1, 370; The Catholic Churches of New York City, 586-624; A Brief Sketch of the Early History of the Catholic Church on the Island of New York (copy of Bourne engraving); “Excited Roman Catholics: The Proposed Removal of Dead Bodies from a Cemetery,” New York Times Jan 4, 1883; “St Peter’s 108 Years Old,” New York Times Nov 27, 1893; “St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church 22 Barclay Street” by Beyond My Ken.

11th Street Catholic Cemetery

The 11th Street Catholic Cemetery in 1851.
The 11th Street Catholic Cemetery in 1851 (Dripps 1851)

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.”

An 1883 diagram of the cemetery (New York Herald)

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.

The vacant cemetery site in 1911 (Bromley 1911)
A present-day view of the former 11th Street Catholic Cemetery site  (NYCityMap)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Bromley’s 1911 Atlas of the city of New York, borough of Manhattan Pl.12; NYCityMap; A brief sketch of the early history of the Catholic Church on the island of New York 119-120; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,Historical Records and Studies 1, 374; “Excited Roman Catholics: The Proposed Removal of Dead Bodies from a Cemetery,” New York Times Jan 4, 1883; “Selling the Graves,” New York Herald, Jan. 5, 1883, 6; “The Cathedral Cemetery Case,” New York Times Jun 5, 1883; “Catholics to Abandon East Side Cemetery,” New York Times Feb 3, 1907; “Give Up An Old Cemetery: Catholic Burying Ground in East Eleventh Street to be Abandoned,” New York Times Mar 28, 1909; “Sell Old Catholic Cemetery at Last,” New York Times, Nov 7, 1912.