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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.