Much of the area of Manhattan known today as the Upper West Side was once a country village called Bloomingdale (an Anglicization of the Dutch name Bloomendal, meaning “vale of flowers”). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy residents of downtown Manhattan built summer houses in Bloomingdale to escape the city and its outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever. The village was reached from lower Manhattan by the Bloomingdale Road, which opened in 1703 and followed an old Indian trail from what is now 23rd Street to 114th Street. In 1806, several parishioners of Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan founded St. Michael’s Church to serve the summer residents of Bloomingdale. This congregation built their church, a small wood-frame building, on a hill east of Bloomingdale Road, at what is now Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. At its consecration in 1807, it was the only Episcopal Church between lower Manhattan and Yonkers. When this first church building burned down in 1853 it was swiftly replaced with a new sanctuary, consecrated in 1854.
On the south side of St. Michael’s Church, between the building and 99th Street, was the churchyard where parishioners were buried. The first recorded burial in St. Michael’s churchyard was in 1809, when Joseph Armstrong, the two-year-old son of the church sexton, was laid to rest here. In the following years, about 500 burials were made in the churchyard where many members of the church’s more prominent families—such as the DePeysters, Weymans, Wagstaffs, Hazards, and Windusts—had family vaults. Bloomingdale farmers, shopkeepers, and other local households that were members of St. Michael’s congregation also were buried in the churchyard. The last known interment was Abraham Valentine Williams, the 25-year-old son of Dr. A.V. Williams, a former warden of the church, in 1873.
From its founding, St. Michael’s was committed to social service, establishing numerous ministries for the poor and disenfranchised. Although burial in their churchyard was reserved for members of their congregation proper, they provided a burial place for the poorer members of their community at a small cemetery a short distance north of the church. In 1828, the church vestry appropriated for this purpose a little over an acre of ground at Clendining Lane, a site between present-day 103rd and 104th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. Known as “St. Michael’s upper ground,” there were 185 interments in this cemetery until its closure in 1854.
In the early 1850s, Rev. Thomas McClure Peters, rector of St. Michael’s, recognized the need for more burial space for the church and for the many charitable institutions with which it was connected. In 1852, he found appropriate land for a cemetery in Queens, where sections were set aside for St. Michael’s parishioners and burial of the poor. Over time, St. Michael’s Cemetery broadened its scope to provide burial space for other churches and institutions and individuals and families of all faiths. It is still owned and operated by St. Michael’s Church today.
As St. Michael’s developed its new cemetery in Queens, urbanization was making its mark in Bloomingdale and would eventually lead to the obliteration of the parish’s Manhattan burial grounds. Opening of streets through the area in the 1870s carved away at both sites, which are described in an 1879 New York Times article. The churchyard, depicted as “cool and breezy” and “well shaded by great trees,” was by that time only half its original size, “the remainder having been taken from it by the opening of Tenth [Amsterdam] Avenue.” “Though many of its headstones bear the marks of extreme age, and are in some cases crumbled and moss-grown,” the article continues in its description of the churchyard, “they all stand upright, and no intruders are allowed to deface them or trample over the well-kept mounds of the graves.” The Times piece also portrays St. Michael’s parish burial ground at 103rd Street as a pleasant site, “well shaded with trees and still containing a few old gravestones,” though diminished when a portion was taken when 104th Street was opened.
In 1890, St. Michael’s removed the remaining graves from their 103rd Street burial ground to their cemetery in Queens and the site was redeveloped (New York City Housing Authority’s Frederick Douglass Houses complex covers the site today). By this time the congregation had outgrown their 1854 church building and decided to build a new church on the existing property, including the churchyard area. Some of the old graves and vaults were opened at that time by their owners and the remains removed to St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens or elsewhere. However, most of the remains were left in place and lie today beneath the chancel and the southern half of the nave of the present St. Michael’s Church, completed in 1891.
Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); Bromley’s Atlas of the Entire City of New York, Pl 25-26; Annals of St. Michael’s: Being the History of St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, New York for One Hundred Years 1807-1907 (Peters 1907); Bodies in Transit Register X:1881-1894, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Some Old Grave-yards,” New York Times, May 18, 1879, “Old St. Michael’s to be Rebuilt,” New York Herald,” Nov 10, 1889; “For a Handsome New Church,” New York Times, Sep 30, 1890; “Unearthed by Boys at Play,” The Sun, Apr 3, 1892; “Tombs Under the City,” New York Times, Aug 2, 1896; “St. Michael’s Church: Two Centuries and Onward,” St. Michael’s Church, May 2012; St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Parish House and Rectory Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 2016); “Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City(Meade 2020)