Tag Archives: churchyards

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

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African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Cemetery

Mother AME Zion Church situated on the southwest corner of Leonard and Church streets, 1852 (Dripps 1852)

New York City’s oldest black congregation, Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, was founded in 1796 by a group of about 100 worshippers who had been part of the mostly white John Street Methodist Church. In 1800, they built their first church building at the corner of Leonard and Church Streets in present-day Tribeca, where they remained until 1864. Here the congregation thrived, growing to over 750 members by 1821 when they separated from the white Methodist Episcopal Church denomination and formed a separate conference of AME Zion churches that spread throughout the United States and Canada and became known for religious and social activism. Today there are more than 1.2 million members of the AME Zion denomination that began with the Mother Zion congregation.

Newspaper notice announcing removal of remains from the AME Zion Church, 1864

In 1807 a commissioner of health informed the city inspector that the AME Zion Church at Leonard Street “has no burying ground, but inter all their dead in a vault under the church. Since the first commencement of this practice [of burying their dead in the vault under the church] full five years have elapsed and I believe it will be nearly correct to state that, at an average, One hundred and fifty persons have been interred there annually since that period: hence there are now in that vault not less than seven hundred fifty dead bodies.” Fearing health risks, the Common Council prohibited further interments in the vault, and granted the church a section of the public burial ground located at today’s Washington Square Park. In 1864, Mother Zion sold its church property at Leonard Street for $90,000 and removed the bodies that had been interred there to grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Mother AME Zion Church is now located on 137th Street in Harlem and a 60-story skyscraper, 56 Leonard Street, is on the site of Mother Zion’s first church and burial ground.

A marker embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Leonard and Church streets denotes the sites history, March 2018 (Mary French)
Former site of Mother Zion’s original church and burial ground
The AME Zion grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery

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), 4: 522-523, 525; “To Whom It May Concern [Notice],” New-York Daily Tribune Apr 21, 1864, 2; The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1863 catalog & list of lot holders]; Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1993); African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (Britannica.com); Cypress Hills Cemetery Map, May 2014; OpenStreetMap

St. Raymond’s Churchyard

The small yard in front of the Church of St. Raymond, with its handful of gravestones, is a vestige of a much larger burial ground that was the first Catholic cemetery in the Bronx.  Located at the corner of Castle Hill Avenue and East Tremont Avenue, the parish was founded in 1842 when an acre of land was obtained by Reverend John Hughes to create a Catholic church and cemetery in what was then the village of Westchester.  In 1847 the cemetery was enlarged by the purchase of another acre and this site was in constant use as the parish burial ground until a new, larger St. Raymond’s Cemetery was established about two miles southeast of the church, in 1875.  Most of the graves from the churchyard, which extended along the west side of the church as well as to the rear, likely were transferred to St. Raymond’s Cemetery as the parish complex grew throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Location of St. Raymond’s Catholic parish complex at East Tremont Ave and Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx.
Location of St. Raymond’s Catholic parish complex at East Tremont Ave and Castle Hill Ave in the Bronx (NYCityMap)
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1868.
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1868 (Beers 1868)
A view of St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1905 (NYPL)
A view of St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1905 (NYPL)
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1913.
St. Raymond’s Catholic Church and burial ground in 1913 (Bromley 1913)
View of gravestones in St. Raymond’s churchyard, October 2010.
View of gravestones in St. Raymond’s churchyard, October 2010 (Mary French)

View more photos of St. Raymond’s Churchyard.

Sources:  History of Westchester County. . . (J. Scharf 1886), 814; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1, 377; St. Raymond’s Cemetery; NYCityMap; Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; Bromley’s 1913 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of the Bronx, Vol 3, Pl 26.

St. James Churchyard

The graveyard surrounding the Cathedral Basilica of St. James in downtown Brooklyn is believed to be the oldest Catholic cemetery on Long Island.  St. James was founded in 1822 when a group of about 70 Brooklyn Catholics purchased property on the corner of Chapel and Jay Streets to establish a church and a place of interment. It was the first Catholic church built in Brooklyn and the first on Long Island.  Shortly after the church was erected, the yard around it began to be used as a burial ground for clergy and laity. When the original ground was filled, more property was procured until the cemetery extended in a tongue back to about 100 feet of Bridge Street.  Some 7,000 adults and children are said to have been interred in the graveyard between 1823 and 1849, when burials there were prohibited by law.

In 1900, about 200 tombstones were still standing in the graveyard at St. James, including a number of old wooden crosses and boards among the marble and red sandstone slabs; by 1914, all the wooden markers had disappeared and only about 100 tombstones were left.  Many graves reportedly are beneath the rear of the church, covered over when the church was rebuilt and enlarged in 1902.  Most of the markers that are still present in the churchyard today lie flat in the ground, preserved but hidden from passersby by the wall that surrounds the parish grounds.

St. James Church and graveyard in 1880. When the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853, St. James was selected as the cathedral church; it was designated a basilica in 1982 (Hopkins 1880)
A view of St. James and the burial grounds on the north and south sides of the church, 1948 (Brooklyn Public Library)
St. James Church and graveyard, 2010 (NYCityMap)
Tombstones in St. James Churchyard, Aug. 2011 (Douglas Drost)

Sources:  “The Cathedral Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec. 9, 1888; “The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914), 532-535; “A Village Churchyard,” Historical Records and Studies 7 (June 1914), 183-194; The Cathedral Basilica of St. James; Hopkins’ 1880 Detailed Estate and Old Farm Line Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Vol. 2, Pl. H; NYCityMap

St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery Churchyard and Cemetery

St. Mark’s Church stands on the site of the chapel built in 1660 by Peter Stuyvesant, the last governor of Dutch New Amsterdam, and its grounds are all that remain of Stuyvesant’s vast “bouwerie,” or farm.  Stuyvesant was interred in the family vault beneath the chapel when he died in 1672.  During the 18th century, the chapel fell into a state of dilapidation, until little remained except the foundation and the Stuyvesant family vault beneath.  In 1793, Stuyvesant’s great-grandson, Peter Stuyvesant IV, donated the chapel property to the Episcopal Church with the stipulation that a new church be erected.  Originally intended to be a chapel of Trinity Parish, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery was completed in 1799 as the first New York City Episcopal parish separate from Trinity.  The Stuyvesant vault is still present under the east wall of the church; it was closed permanently when the last family member was interred there in 1953.

St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in 1836 (NYPL)
The churchyard and cemetery of St. Mark’s, 1852 (Dripps 1852)

In addition to the Stuyvesant vault, St. Mark’s had two burial sites attached to its church during the first half of the 19th century—the yards surrounding the church, which were used exclusively for vault interments, and a cemetery further east along 11th Street for conventional graves. Peter Stuyvesant IV donated a 242 x 190 plot just east of 2nd Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets, for the cemetery in 1803.  One of the stipulations in Stuyvesant’s grant of the plot was that any of his present or former slaves and their children have the right to be interred in the burial ground free of charge. An unknown number of individuals were buried at St. Mark’s Cemetery until burials there were prohibited in 1851.  The remains from this graveyard were removed to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1864 and residences were built on the site.

The first underground burial vaults were built in the grounds adjoining the church in 1807.  In these tombs lie the remains of many important individuals and members of prominent and wealthy families of 19th century New York.  Among those interred here are Mayor Philip Hone, English governor Henry Sloughter, and Daniel D. Tompkins, governor of New York and U.S. vice-president under James Monroe. Millionaire A.T. Stewart was interred in a vault in the east yard in 1876; two years later his remains were stolen and reportedly held for ransom. The suspicious events surrounding the theft and rumors of ransom demands were well publicized for several years following the crime.  The case was never officially resolved, although some stories hold that Stewart’s widow negotiated the return of the remains in 1881 and reinterred them elsewhere.

“Desecration of the vault of A.T. Stewart,” (Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 16, 1878)
The flat vault markers in the east yard can be seen in this view of St. Mark’s from ca. 1925 (Museum of the City of NY)

As the neighborhood surrounding St. Mark’s changed from upper class townhouses to tenement slums during the first half of the 20th century, the churchyard fell into disrepair.  The Preservation Youth Project restored it for community use in the 1970s, creating a playground in the east yard and a quiet garden in the west yard.  Many of the flat vault markers can still be seen among the newer pavements.

Vault marker’s in the gravel surface of the east yard, 2008 (Mary French)
St. Mark’s west yard, 2008 (Mary French)

Sources: St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery; A Comprehensive Guide to the St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery Historical Site (St. Mark’s 1999); Memorial of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery (St. Mark’s 1899); A New York Pantheon: The Burial List of St. Mark’s in-the-Bouwerie (St. Mark’s n.d.); “Public Notice” [Removal of St. Mark’s Cemetery], New York Times, Aug. 17, 1864; “Ghouls in New-York City,” New York Times, Nov 8, 1878; “New Rector Heard in His First Sermon at Old St. Mark’s,” New York Times Aug 3, 1959; “The Decline and Fall of the Commercial Empire of A.T. Stewart,” Business Review 36(3):255-286, Autumn 1962; “St. Mark’s Building Playground in its Cemetery, the City’s Oldest,” New York Times, Feb. 9, 1970; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St.

St. Fidelis Graveyard

St. Fidelis Parish was founded in 1856 to serve the Catholic community of Strattonport village, which later became part of College Point, Queens.  Originally consisting of a small congregation of German and English-speaking families, the parish’s first church was a small wooden building on 124th Street, between 14th and 15th Avenues.  Next to the church on its south side was a small churchyard where members of the congregation were buried. In 1894, the bodies from St. Fidelis churchyard were disinterred and removed to St. Mary’s Cemetery in Flushing to make room for the new brick church building that still stands at the site today.  St. Fidelis has no records of their old church graveyard, but remnants of the cemetery have been found on several occasions.

When local historian Robert Friedrich compiled information about St. Fidelis cemetery in the 1960s, the church’s pastor, Msgr. William Osborne, recalled that coffin handles and bones where unearthed during construction along the church’s south façade in the 1930s.  Later, a human skull was found during landscaping in the same vicinity.   In 1965, a tombstone inscribed “JOHANN ADAM WILLMANN GEB. [born] 12 OCT 1860, GEST [died] 12 APRIL 1863” was unearthed in the backyard of a house a block south of St. Fidelis.  When the homeowners moved into the house in the 1940s, they found priests’ pictures and church pews in the attic, evidence that the home had previously been associated with St. Fidelis’ vestry or clergy.  The gravestone is thought to have been from either the old St. Fidelis graveyard or the Strattonport Village Cemetery that was located nearby.

St. Fidelis Church and the adjoining cemetery in 1873 (Beers 1873)
A ca. 1875 view of the original St. Fidelis Church, showing the wooden fence and gateway that surrounded the church graveyard. (Poppenhusen Institute Archives)
The grave of Rev. Joseph Huber, St. Fidelis’ founding pastor who died in 1889, is the only burial in St. Fidelis’ small churchyard today. (Mark W. DelValle)

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl. 66; 1894 Brooklyn Citizen Almanac, 440; “Find Tombstone in Backyard,” North Shore News, July 27, 1965; “Cemeteries: St. Fidelis,” Robert Friedrich Collection, Poppenhusen Institute Archives.

St Luke’s Churchyard

An 1831 view of St. Luke’s Church (NYPL)

The Church of St. Luke-in-the-Fields, on Hudson Street between Christopher and Barrow, was founded in 1820 by a group of prominent residents of Greenwich Village who were desirous of an Episcopal church to serve their community.  Construction of their church, on land donated to the congregation by Trinity Church, began in 1821 and was completed the following year.  When the church was constructed, the congregation had about 100 burial vaults built beneath the yard adjacent to the church. Only the flat, inscribed tomb coverings were visible on the surface to indicate the vaults below the ground.  Around 700 of St. Luke’s parishioners were buried in the vaults until interments there were discontinued in 1852.

In 1891, the congregation of St. Luke’s moved to a new church in Harlem and their Greenwich Village church became a chapel of Trinity Church.  As part of the transfer of St. Luke’s to Trinity, the remains were removed from the burial vaults around the church. Some descendants transferred their relatives to family lots at other cemeteries, and many were reinterred at a large plot that St. Luke’s purchased at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester County.  Others were moved to plots at Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan and at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and one of the founders of St. Luke-in-the-Fields, was originally interred in one of the vaults at St. Luke’s; his body was moved to Trinity Cemetery in 1889.

When the last of the removals were made from St. Luke’s in December 1890, the New York Herald described the old vaults:

They are underground rooms, arched and walled with brick.  A slab bearing the epitaph is placed over the head of the stone stairway which leads to the surface . . . The coffins were piled one on top of the other in all the vaults.  The best preserved coffins were those which had been in the ground for the longest period.  Most of them were made of black mahogany.  The more modern coffins, with but few exceptions, had turned into dust, while some of those which have been in the ground for over sixty years are as solid as when they were built.

Dozens of the empty vaults were discovered under the topsoil in 1955, when workmen were in the process of constructing a new school, playground, and gardens on the grounds of St. Luke’s.  Most of the marble tomb covers were in place over the steps leading down into the brick vaults, and their inscriptions could still be read.  They were covered over again when the property was landscaped. In 1976, St. Luke-in-the-Fields again became an independent parish of the Episcopal Church. The old tombs, where hundreds of early residents of Greenwich Village once reposed, are likely still present under its grounds.

St. Luke’s Church, on the west side of Hudson between Christopher and Barrow, 1852 (Dripps 1852)
Beautiful gardens now cover St. Luke’s former burial grounds. (Mary French)
Old vault covers from the churchyard are preserved inside St. Luke’s church today (Ron Peaslee)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; The Church of St. Luke in the Fields; Churchyards of Trinity Parish in the City of New York, 1697-1969 (J.V. Butler 1969), 8, 89-90; Meyer Berger’s New York (M. Berger 2004), 158-159; King’s 1893 Handbook of New York City, 512, 519; “St. Luke’s Cemetery Emptied,” New York Herald Dec. 14, 1890; “The Descendants Protest,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 1889; “Destroying Old Memories,” New York Times, Dec. 18, 1888; Ron Peaslee, personal communication, Jan 19 2018.

Updated Jan 22, 2018