Tag Archives: churchyards

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)

St. Augustine’s Churchyard

An 1860 map of Morrisania shows St. Augustine’s parish complex, at the corner of Jefferson Street and Franklin Avenue. The burial ground was at the north end of the property, near today’s 170th Street.

In 1898, the New York Sun reported on the removal of a small cemetery in the Morrisania section of the Bronx:

Workmen are busy destroying another of Morrisania’s old landmarks, the old graveyard of St. Augustine’s Church. The graveyard was the churchyard of the old church which stood for many years on Jefferson street near Franklin avenue. The graveyard was at the rear of the church and extended back over the line of 170th Street.

Morrisania was one of the quietest of country villages forty years ago, when the first interment was made in the old cemetery. In the ten years that followed many a procession went to the churchyard, until some 250 persons slept under the shadows of the church.

St. Augustine’s Church was founded in 1850 to serve Morrisania’s Catholic community, which developed as Irish and German immigrants came to live in the area. The parish’s first wooden chapel at today’s Jefferson Place and Franklin Avenue was replaced in 1860 by a “handsome and commodious” brick church seating 800 worshippers. The churchyard served as a parish burial ground from 1850 until 1876, when the local Board of Health prohibited further interments there. Interments were also made in vaults beneath the brick church building.

1876 newspaper clipping announcing the prohibition of burials at St. Augustine’s Churchyard.

When St. Augustine’s Church was destroyed by fire in 1894, the parish built their new church a few blocks south, at the intersection of Franklin Avenue and 167th Street. Remains in the vaults beneath the church were removed shortly after the fire in 1894, and reinterred in plots at Woodlawn Cemetery and St. Raymond’s Cemetery. Though the old parish churchyard was long unused and separated from their new house of worship, St. Augustine’s continued to care for the site. At the time of the 1898 removals, The Sun noted that the burial ground was still “green and beautiful” and “visited by some of the older residents of the district.”

Remains removed from St. Augustine’s Churchyard in 1898 were reinterred at St. Raymond’s Cemetery. In 2013, St. Augustine’s Church at Franklin Avenue and 167th Street was demolished and the congregation merged with Our Lady of Victory on Webster Avenue. Today apartment buildings stand at the site of the old St. Augustine’s churchyard site.

2018 aerial view of the former site of St. Augustine’s parish complex; arrow denotes approximate location of the churchyard burial ground (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the Town of Morrisania (Beers 1860); Bodies in Transit Registers IX & X, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Church of St. Augustine, Morrisania,” Irish American, Oct 2, 1858; “Dedication of a New Catholic Church,” New York Herald, Oct 3, 1860; “Dedication of St. Augustine’s Church, Morrisania,” Metropolitan Record and New York Vindicator, Oct 6, 1860; “Death of Rev. Stephen Ward,” Metropolitan Record and New York Vindicator, Jul 4, 1863; “No More Burials,” Eastern State Journal (White Plains), Mar 31, 1876; “A Catholic Church Burned,” The Sun, Apr 9, 1894; “St. Augustine’s Graveyard,” The Sun, Oct 30, 1898; “Old Cemetery Blocks Street,” New York Herald, Oct 31, 1898; History of Westchester County, Vol 1 (Scharf 1886); “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1900); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016)

New/Middle Dutch Churchyard

A view of the New Dutch Church (later known as Middle Dutch Church), ca. 1731 (Stokes)

In the early 18th century the Reformed Dutch Church at Exchange Place in Lower Manhattan found it necessary to build a second church to accommodate their growing congregation. The New Dutch Church opened in 1729 on the east side of Nassau Street, between Cedar and Liberty Streets. It was a substantial stone building, 100 feet long and 70 feet wide, with a tall steeple and bell. In the winter of 1732-33, an administrative committee established rules and regulations for burials in the churchyard of the New Church. Plots for vaults or graves “shall be at least six feet long and nine broad,” the rules read, and “at least six feet from the Church wall.” Vaults were to be built of stone or brick at the plot owner’s expense, and the owner was responsible for keeping it in repair. For the sum of £15 “in New York currency,” the owner acquired the right of burial in the plot “for himself and his heirs forever.”

Obituary for Capt. John Stake, interred in the New/Middle Dutch Churchyard in 1798

Obituaries for those interred in the churchyard of the New Dutch Church appear with great frequency in early New York newspapers. Among them are death notices for John Van Der Speigel, “a Gentleman of unblemished Character” interred in the family vault in the New Dutch Churchyard in 1770; Ann Low, “an affectionate Wife and indulgent Mother” laid to rest here in 1772; Nicholas Gouverneur, “an ancient and respectable inhabitant of this city” transported to the family vault after he died at his country seat near Newark in 1786; and Martha Washington Clinton, the 13-year-old daughter of then-governor  (and later United States vice-president) George Clinton, whose remains were “conveyed from the Government House and deposited in a vault in the New Dutch Church Yard” in 1795.

Detail from a 1797 map showing the New/Middle Dutch Church on Nassau Street between Liberty and Cedar Streets

Around the turn of the 19th century, the New Dutch Church on Nassau street became known as the Middle Dutch Church because it was situated between the old Dutch Church (or South Dutch Church) on Exchange Place and the North Dutch Church built in the late 1700s at William and Fulton streets. As Lower Manhattan became increasingly devoted to business activity in the 1800s, families moved northward and all three of the Reformed Dutch Church congregations eventually relocated uptown. In 1839, the Middle Dutch Church moved to a new building at Lafayette Place and Fourth Street; the congregation continues today as the Middle Collegiate Church at Second Avenue in the East Village. 

A view of the Middle Dutch Church in 1877, after it had been converted into a post office (LOC)

In 1844 the Middle Dutch Church building at Nassau Street was leased to the United States government and converted into a post office. The following year, the church obtained permission from the city’s Board of Aldermen to remove remains from the churchyard to their new property at Lafayette Street, but it is unclear if removals were actually made at this time. When the U.S. government sought to purchase the Nassau Street property in 1860, the title was disputed because many of the vaults surrounding the building were still tenanted and owners were actively using them for interment of family members. Some families were surprised to find that their vaults had been emptied without their permission and accused church trustees of boxing up and removing remains “stealthily and at night to a distant part of the city.” 

Coffins and human remains were found in several of the old burial vaults in 1877 when the post office (the former Middle Dutch church building) was converted into shops. Workers removed 49 boxes of human remains from the site between November 1882 and January 1883 when the building and vaults were demolished to make way for the Mutual Insurance Company building; these remains were transferred to a plot at Greenwood Cemetery. Most of these burials could not be identified, but coffin plates recovered from one vault in November 1882 named three of those interred there. One plate read “Gerrard Steddiford, died 3d April 1820, aged 67 years, 7 months, and 7 days;” another was inscribed “Louisa Matilda Von Antwerp, died 1st March 1822, aged 3 years 11 months;” and the third was marked “Peter Kemble, Jr. died 19th November, 1813, aged 26 years.”  Today One Chase Manhattan Plaza stands atop their former burial ground.

2018 aerial view of the former site of the Middle Dutch Church and burial grounds (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Taylor-Roberts 1797 New and Accurate Plan of the City of New YorkA History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York, Vol 4; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), Vol 1; Bodies in Transit Register X:1881-1894, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “John Van Der Spiegel,” New-York Journal, Aug 30, 1770; “Ann Low,” New-York Journal, Oct 8, 1772; “Nicholas Gouverneur,” Daily Advertiser, Nov 18, 1786;“Died,” New-York Weekly Chronicle, Feb 26, 1795; “Brigade Orders,” Commercial Advertiser, Mar 26, 1798; “The Middle Dutch Church,” Evening Post, Jan 17, 1845; Journal and Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen of the City of New York, Vol XXV Dec 2 1844 to May 12 1845; “Efforts to Establish a Title for the Sale of the Dutch Church,” New York Herald, Aug 8, 1860; “Removal of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 18, 1860; “The Post Office,” New York Herald, Aug 30, 1875; “Among the Forgotten Dead,” New York Tribune, Jul 6, 1877; “Found at the Old Post Office,” New York Times, Nov 21, 1882; “Five Skeletons Discovered,” New York Times, Nov 24, 1882; “The Old Post Office Building,” New York Times, Nov 26, 1882; “City and Suburban News,” New York Times, Nov 28, 1882; “Demolishing an Old Church,” New York Tribune, Mar 27, 1887

Bethel A.M.E. Church Cemetery

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery located on what is now Unionport Road.

African Americans have been a part of the heritage of the Bronx since 1670, when slaves were brought from Barbados to live and work on the estate of the wealthy and aristocratic Morris family. Free and enslaved blacks were integral to the borough’s development, constituting between 10 and 15 percent of the area’s population during the colonial period. Before the end of slavery in New York in 1827, most blacks in the Bronx were buried in plots set aside for them on the estates of slave-holding families. In 1849, a group of black men formed the first African American church in the Bronx and, alongside it, the only independent African burial ground known to have existed in the borough.

In the 1840 census, 187 African Americans were among the 4,154 residents of the Town of Westchester (now part of the East Bronx). Blacks worshipped, were baptized, married and buried at the town’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church or elsewhere, but they had no place in the town where they could serve in leadership roles or have their own burial grounds. To remedy this, the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Westchester formed in 1849 and a year later acquired a 1.25-acre parcel on what is now Unionport Road.

The congregation built their church, known as Bethel A.M.E., at the southeast corner of the parcel, and used the land behind the building as a cemetery. The church and adjacent cemetery were situated at a provincial commercial center convenient to a good number of African-American laborers, skilled craftsmen, and service professionals who worked on the estates of the East Bronx or in area businesses. But by the late 1800s, Bethel A.M.E. struggled to survive—although  the congregation reincorporated as Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888, in 1894 they sold the property and disbanded. Chang Li Supermarket occupies the site today.

A view of the Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester Co. (Mary French)

At least 58 individuals were interred in the Bethel A.M.E. church cemetery between 1850 and 1894. Prior to disposing of the church property, the trustees had the remains in the cemetery exhumed and reinterred in a plot they acquired at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester County. The Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope is marked with a large monument commemorating the congregation’s history. The memorial is inscribed: “Bethel A.M.E. Church of Westchester, New York. Founded by Rev. Stephen Amos, dedicated Mar 11, 1849. Elders Rev. Ely N. Hall, Rev. Jas. M. Williams. Trustees Uriah Copeland, Thos. Chapman, Jno. G. Mickens, Benj. States, Hy. Jackson, Jno. Francis, Eppenetis Treadwell.” 

Among those buried in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery were several members of the Mickens family of West Farms. John Mickens, a church trustee, was a laborer originally from Maryland who, with his wife Charlotte, purchased a parcel of land in the Town of West Farms in 1850. John’s son, also named John, was a waiter who lived in separate household in West Farms with his wife Julia, a dressmaker, and their children. The younger John Mickens was interred at Bethel A.M.E. cemetery in 1867; his headstone, standing in the church’s plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, is one of the few intact markers surviving from the original cemetery. 

One of the fragementary tombstones marking the graves of the children of Uriah Copeland, originally buried in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery

Some of the earliest burials in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery were eight children of Uriah and Zilpah Copeland, interred there between 1849 and 1852. Uriah Copeland, a Virginia native who lived with his family in the Town of Westchester in the 1840s and 1850s, was a founding trustee of Bethel A.M.E. He also is notable as an associate of David Ruggles, the leading African American abolitionist of antebellum New York City. Copeland’s name appears alongside Ruggles’ in notices published in several national anti-slavery newspapers. They were among the men who announced the “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America” to be held in New Haven, Connecticut, in September 1840 to form “a bond of union the will secure simultaneous action for reform in the hallowed cause of human freedom.” Later that same year, Copeland was on the committee “introducing to favorable notice” the Mirror of Liberty, an African-American magazine edited and published by Ruggles.

Uriah Copeland made his living as a farmer and carpenter and in the late 1850s he managed the Benjamin S. Collins estate in the Town of Pelham. In the 1860s, Uriah and Zilpah Copeland relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, with their surviving children. Broken tombstones marking the gravesites of the children they lost when they lived in the Bronx remain in the Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope Cemetery. These poignant relics mark short lives and convey loss, but also serve as reminders of the family’s role in local history and provide links to the early African American church and cemetery that they helped establish.

Uriah Copeland, one of the founders of Bethel A.M.E. church, was among the African American activists who announced this meeting in 1840

Commemorative monument at the Bethel A.M.E. plot, Mount Hope Cemetery (Mary French)

A 2018 aerial view shows the former site of the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery on Unionport Road in the East Bronx

View more photos of the Bethel A.M.E. reburial plot at Mount Hope Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 24-27; Blacks in the Colonial Bronx (Ultan 2012); “Plants and People, Remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage,” Bronx River Sankofa, March 6, 2014; “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America,” The Liberator, Jul 10, 1840, 2; “The Mirror of Liberty,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, Nov 5, 1840, 87; “Country Seat to Let or For Sale” New York Times, Apr 15, 1858; Ancestry.com

West Farms Soldier Cemetery

A view of the West Farms Cemetery and the Presbyterian church building, ca. 1885 (MCNY)

A keen-eyed observer passing by one of the buildings of the Lambert Houses, a massive, low-income residential complex near the Bronx Zoo, will find an odd detail. Bolted to the 1970s-era, orange-brick structure at the corner of Boston Road and East 180th Street is a mangled metal sign, its faded hand-painted lettering offering guidance to “West Farms Soldier Cemetery, Bronx Landmark, 1 Block West.”  How and why this marker was placed on one of the megastructures at this troubled complex is a mystery—and one that will be lost as the Lambert Houses are currently being demolished and redeveloped. In any case, this curious public notice offers a delightful link between the modern, urban Bronx neighborhood of West Farms and the old rural village that is its namesake.

Located at the corner of East 180th Street and Bryant Avenue, the burial ground known today as West Farms Soldier Cemetery is an oasis of calm near the edge of the Lambert Houses. Although 40 veterans of four wars—the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I—are interred here, the soldiers are only a part of a long and varied history of this cemetery, which served as a churchyard and a community cemetery beginning in the early 19th century.  

In 1814, the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of West Farms—then a “flourishing little village” of about 300 inhabitants, located 12 miles from New York City at the head of the Bronx River—acquired two parcels of land on Samuel Street (now 180th Street) to establish a church. The church, surrounded by a graveyard, was built in 1815 atop a hill on the north side of Samuel Street, about 200 feet west of the old Boston Post Road. The trustees designated part of the second parcel of land, located on the south side of Samuel Street, “a graveyard for strangers and black slaves.”

Detail from an 1868 map showing properties on Samuel Street (today’s 180th Street) owned by the West Farms Presbyterian Church

As West Farms began to grow in the 1820s, John Butler acquired a parcel on the east side of the Presbyterian churchyard to establish a larger cemetery to serve the West Farms community. Butler subdivided this parcel into burial lots that he sold directly to buyers. Though originally two separate burial grounds, over time Butler’s cemetery and the adjoining Presbyterian graveyard came to be seen as one site. By the early 20th century, some 200 individuals had been buried in the West Farms Cemetery, including 35 Civil War veterans. Most distinguished of these is Captain William J. Rasberry, who led his men into the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, and died there, in 1864. The Rasberry family lived along what is today East 178th Street in West Farms.

West Farms Presbyterian Church and the adjoining cemetery are depicted in this 1901 map

The area surrounding West Farms Cemetery had developed into a bustling urban community by the early 1900s. With the changing times, the West Farms Presbyterian Church abandoned its hilltop sanctuary and moved to a new building constructed on the church-owned lot on the opposite side of 180th Street. This building, Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church, still stands today.  The original church building was used as a gymnasium and recreation hall until it was destroyed by fire in 1948. 

Grading and widening of streets in West Farms during the first decade of the 20th century disturbed graves in the cemetery next to the old Presbyterian church building as well as in the forgotten paupers’ burial ground on the south side of East 180th Street. When the public learned that soldiers graves were being neglected and desecrated in the West Farms Cemetery, a committee was founded to protect the site. The committee re-dedicated the cemetery as the West Farms Soldier Cemetery in 1910, and raised funds to improve the property, erect a Civil War monument, and have soldiers’ remains transferred to West Farms from burial grounds at Fort Schuyler and from the Potter’s Field at Hart Island. The final interment at the West Farms Cemetery, of World War I veteran Valeriano J. Tolosa, took place in 1929. The city assumed possession of the cemetery in 1954 and designated it a historic landmark in 1967.  Today the roughly one-acre site, surrounded by an eight-foot-high iron fence, is under the care of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

West Farms Cemetery after the Civil War soldier’s monument was dedicated in 1910; the tombstone of William Rasberry can be seen to the right and below the soldier monument (NYPL)

A view of the Civil War monument at West Farms Cemetery, June 2014. The bronze statue that stood atop the monument was stolen in 1976 (Mary French)

Stones marking veterans’ graves at the West Farms Cemetery, June 2014 (Mary French)

The Sun Apr 27 1882 p1 copy
West Farms Cemetery was a churchyard and community cemetery as well as a burial place for veterans. “Queer Old Miss Hullin” was interred here in 1882 (The Sun, Apr 27, 1882)

2018 Aerial
A 2018 aerial view of the West Farms cemetery. Part of the Lambert Houses complex is located just to the east; Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church is opposite the cemetery on 180th St

View more photos of West Farms Soldier Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 13; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the borough of the Bronx, Vol. 2, Pl. 8; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912), 281, 392; The Borough of the Bronx…(Cook 1913), 143-145; “Description of West-Farms,” Daily National Intelligencer, Apr 28, 1813;“Workmen Unearth Skeletons,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 26, 1900; “Dug Up Human Bones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 16, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 14, 1900; “Cutting Through a Cemetery,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1900; “Robbed of His Grave,” New York Times, Mar 5, 1909; “Veterans at Unveiling,” New York Tribune, May 30, 1910; “Take Soldier Dead from Pauper Field,” New York Times, May 29, 1916; “134 Year Old Building of Bronx Church Burns,” New York Times, Jan 11, 1948; “City Will Acquire Soldier Cemetery,” New York Times, May 6, 1954; Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1967); Archaeological Monitoring at the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery (Parsons Engineering 2000); “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 267-280