The consecration of the new Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, Long Island, by the Right Rev. Rev. Dr. Loughlin, Bishop of Brooklyn, on Sunday, 12th inst., is perhaps one of the most solemn and interesting rites we have had occasion for some time to record. The ceremonies commenced by a procession of St. Michael’s Catholic Schools of the village, and the St. Vincent of Paul and St. Michael’s Benevolent Societies attached to the parish, from the convent grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The girls in white, with blue sashes, and the boys in white pants and blue jackets, made a most attractive appearance in marching to the cemetery, nearly two miles distant. (Metropolitan Record July 25, 1863)
Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery was founded in 1862 when the trustees of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church of Flushing—the oldest Catholic parish in Queens—acquired six acres of land on the south side of North Hempstead Turnpike (today’s Booth Memorial Avenue). Originally established as a parish burial ground, the cemetery grew to 55 acres that were open to Catholics throughout Queens and Brooklyn. Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery still serves the Catholic community of the diocese, handling about 1,000 interments per year in in-ground burials and above-ground community mausoleums.
Among the estimated 80,000 people laid to rest at Mount St. Mary’s are several U.S. congressmen; mafioso Louis DiBono; punk rockers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan; and Bishop Edmund J. Reilly, a native of College Point, Queens, who served as auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn from 1955 to 1958. Victims of great tragedy are here as well. Six members of the Polish Catholic Fliss family—father, mother, and four children—were interred at Mount St. Mary’s after a fire consumed their home on Alley Pond Road in Bayside, Queens, on March 24, 1930. (See the heartbreakingly similar story of the Sanders family in my Mount Lebanon post). More recently, retired NYPD officer Cesar Borja was buried at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery on January 27, 2007. Once seen as a symbol of September 11 rescue workers’ health problems, Borja died from a lung ailment he believed was caused by his service at the World Trade Center site.
Sources: Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 29; “A Brief History of Mount St. Mary Cemetery in Flushing, New York,” The Promise 11(1), May 2009; Mount St. Mary Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer, Oct 28, 1862; “Consecration of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, L.I.,” Metropolitan Record, July 25 1863; “St. Michael’s Cemetery Question,” Newtown Register, June 29, 1899; “Cemetery Desecrated,” Brooklyn Times Union, Apr 22, 1904;“Boy Escaping Fire, Sees 6 Kin Buried,” Brooklyn Times Union, Mar 27, 1930; “His Saddest Day,” Daily News, Mar 30, 1930; “Weeks After a Death, Twists in Some 9/11 Details, New York Times, Feb. 13, 2007; The 9/11 Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Atkins 2011)
In 1839, an act of the New York State legislature authorized the town of Flushing, Queens, to tax its inhabitants for the “purpose of purchasing a suitable piece of land for a public burial ground.”The sum of $500 was to be collected to purchase property for the cemetery, which was to be deeded to the supervisor of the town of Flushing and “used as a public burial ground for said town.”A roughly triangular area of farmland in the southeastern part of Flushing was acquired for this purpose and was used as a public cemetery until 1898, when Flushing consolidated into the City of New York and the site became city property.
Located north of present-day 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th Streets, Flushing’s three-acre public cemetery served as a burial ground for the indigent and unknown and for those dying of contagious diseases. When first established, it likely also served as a general community cemetery where any local resident without a private family burial ground or church plot could be buried; this use was superseded in 1853 by the opening of the large, privately-owned Flushing Cemetery immediately opposite the public burial ground, on the south side of 46th Avenue. By the late 19th century, Flushing’s town cemetery was used primarily as a potter’s field and as a burial ground for the local African American community.
At a meeting of the Town of Flushing’s board of trustees in May 1895, a committee described their visit to the town cemetery, where they found it “sadly in need of attention.” Fences were down, the grounds were overgrown with weeds, and graves were dug haphazardly “wherever the gravedigger happened to first strike his spade.” Coffins were found two or three in a grave and sometimes no more than three feet beneath the surface.A year later, the Long Island Democrat reported that conditions in the town cemetery had “by no means improved…Bodies are indiscriminately buried only 6 to 12 inches below the ground just as in previous years.”In 1914, the abandoned cemetery site was acquired by the Parks Department and later converted into a public park and playground known as Martin’s Field.
Though an estimated 1,000 individuals were interred in Flushing’s town cemetery between 1840 and 1898, only four gravemarkers were found at the site in 1919 when it was surveyed by the Queens Topographical Bureau. Identifying the site as the “Colored Cemetery” the Topographical Bureau recorded the inscriptions on the marble tombstones of Willie Curry (d. 1874), Alfred Bunn (d. 1876), George Bunn (d. 1887), and James Bunn (d. 1890). The Bunns were of Native American ancestry and were members of Macedonia A.M.E. Church, a hub for Flushing’s nineteenth-century African American community.
There is no evidence that the burials in the Flushing town cemetery were removed when the site was converted into a public park, but human remains have been disturbed during the process of building facilities there. In 1936, “bones galore” were uncovered during excavations for a children’s wading pool, when neighbors “saw workmen pulling bones out of the ground.”In addition to human remains, the workers found pennies placed on the eyes of the dead—a burial practice also observed in excavations of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan.
Rediscovery of the Flushing town cemetery began in the 1990s during planned renovations at Martin’s Field, when local activist Mandingo Tshaka drew attention to its previous history. Documentary research confirmed the park was a former public burial ground and that human remains likely were still present at the site. The Parks Department, spurred by community involvement, took steps to protect and recognize the former cemetery. Renovations completed in 2006 included a paved area with a central stone inscribed with the site’s history, and a recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the four headstones remaining here in 1919. The park was officially renamed “The Olde Town of Flushing Burial Ground” in 2010, and has since been listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. In October 2018, city officials unveiled a $1.6 million plan to reconstruct the commemorative plaza and other features of the site, to better honor those laid to rest here.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 78; Laws of the State of New York, 62nd Session (1839), Chap. 205; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 46-47; Report on Phase 1A Archaeological Documentary Research in Advance of the Reconstruction of the Martins Field Playground, Flushing, Queens, New York (Stone 1996);“Not a Pauper,” Newtown Register, Feb 7, 1884, 7; “A Public Disgrace: The Town Cemetery Shamefully Neglected,” Flushing Journal, May 24, 1895; Long Island Democrat, Sep 1896, 3; “Flushing Residents Object to Local Potter’s Field,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 4, 1910; “Coins from Dead Men’s Eyes Are Sold by WPA Workers,” Long Island Daily Press, Jun 19, 1936, 1; “Old Burial Grounds Now Used as Modern Play Area,” North Shore Daily Journal, Jul 15, 1936, 3; “Forgotten Cemetery to Be Restored,” New York Times, Jun 22, 1997; “Above, an Old Playground; Below, Graves for the Poor,” New York Times, Apr 2, 2000; “At Last, Justice,” Whitestone Times, Jun 3, 2010; “Mayor Wants Flushing Burial Ground Revamped,” QNS.com, Nov 30, 2017; “Mayor de Blasio Visits The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground,” Office of the Mayor—News, Oct 26, 2018; The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground (NYC Parks); Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy
In 1811, the African Methodist Society in Flushing acquired land on the north side of Liberty Street (later 38th Avenue) just west of Union Street, to establish a church. Erected in 1837, the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church became the nucleus of a historic African American enclave that flourished in downtown Flushing into the mid-20th century.
Part of the Macedonia A.M.E. Church property was used as a burial ground that served the local black community throughout much of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the small graveyard had fallen into disuse and burials were disturbed during church construction work on at least two occasions. When an extension was added to the church in 1903, burials were uncovered to the east of the existing building; these were reinterred in a corner of the churchyard.
In 1931, church officials removed some 200 bodies from the burial ground at the rear of the church when a new wing was added for a social hall and gym; at the same time, unsuspected burials were encountered during foundation work underneath the church. Church officials planned to transfer the remains from the church property to a plot at Flushing Cemetery; however, the transfer was not permitted because the church did not have proper documentation for the deceased. The remains from the burial ground were subsequently reinterred below the church building.
Little is known about specific individuals who were laid to rest in the Macedonia A.M.E. cemetery since church burial records were lost in the early 20th century. One newspaper, reporting on the 1931 disinterments at the site, said many were “the remains of prominent figures in the history of Flushing’s colored population of the past century.” Still in the collective memory in 1931 was the grave of Jesse Major, whose tombstone, carved in the shape of an open bible, once stood next to the graveyard’s front entrance. “Violets and buttercups grew on Jesse’s grave when they grew on none other,” said members of the congregation who recalled seeing the grave and its flowers around the turn of the century, when “no boy would dare tread on the grave overshadowed by the ‘Good Book.’”
Among the prominent figures likely interred in the Macedonia A.M.E. Cemetery was Rev. Edward C. Africanus, a pastor at Macedonia and a teacher at Flushing’s Colored School. As noted in the Cyclopedia of African Methodism, many considered Africanus “the most talented minister in the New York conference” of the A.M.E. Church. When he died in Flushing in 1853 at age 33, Africanus was described as as one who “towered high as scholar and pulpit orator.”
When the city decided in the 1950s to create a large municipal parking facility in the area surrounding Macedonia A.M.E., the church was allowed to stay at its site largely because its demolition would have further disturbed the human remains interred at the site. Though the church was spared, it became an island in a sea of cars—much of the black community that had surrounded Macedonia since the early 19th century was displaced to make way for the parking field that encircled the church. Still standing at its original location, today Macedonia A.M.E. is the third oldest church in Flushing. The parking facilities surrounding the church are currently being redeveloped into Flushing Commons and Macedonia Plaza.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 70;“Civil Rights of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 15, 1866; “200 Skeletons Unearthed: Remnants of Bodies Buried in Flushing Exhumed to Make Way for Church Building,” North Shore Daily Journal, Sep 12 1931, 1, 5; “Graveyard Under Flushing Church Revealed As Reason for Fight on Parking Lot Project,” Long Island Star-Journal, July 13, 1949, 13; Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment Report for the Flushing Center Project, Queens, New York(Historical Perspectives, Inc., 1988); Cyclopedia of African Methodism (Wayman 1882), 13; History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Payne 1891), 303-304; City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (Hanson 2016), 55-56, 167-169
When English Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1657, they were unwelcome among the Dutch but found acceptance in some of the English settlements on Long Island, especially at Flushing in present-day Queens. Soon many were holding Quaker meetings in their homes, attracting the attention of Dutch civil authorities. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued an order forbidding colonists to allow Quakers into their houses, Flushing town leaders delivered the Flushing Remonstrance, one of the earliest documents proclaiming religious freedom in America. In 1662, Stuyvesant arrested John Bowne, a prominent figure in Flushing’s Quaker community, for holding services in his home. Bowne successfully appealed to the Dutch West India Company and Stuyvesant was ordered to permit all faiths to worship freely. With religious toleration now the law of the colony, Flushing’s Quakers could hold their services without fear of disturbance and continued to meet at Bowne’s house twice a week for thirty years.
In 1676 Bowne provided land for a burial ground for Flushing’s Quaker community, and in 1694 a meetinghouse was built on land adjacent to the Quaker cemetery. For more than 300 years, the Flushing Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has worshipped at this old meetinghouse, situated at 137-16 Northern Boulevard in what is now a bustling commercial area in downtown Flushing. The cemetery, located behind the wood-shingled meetinghouse, is the oldest Quaker burial ground in New York City and is the final resting place for many early Quakers and prominent local families, including the Bownes, Hicks, Farringtons, and Lawrences.
No one knows how many are buried in the one-acre graveyard since there are no burial records and the early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones—their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used in the 19th century, they were designed to be simple and modest—typically small, plain stones with little more than a name or initials. About 130 tombstones are visible in the graveyard today, recording individuals who died between the 1820s and the 1890s, when the cemetery closed to new interments. After a period of neglect, the graveyard is now nicely maintained and blooms with indigenous flowers and bushes. Old elm trees and oaks shade the perimeter and help set the place apart from the teeming urbanism that surrounds it. This peaceful oasis is a reminder of a time when Flushing was a leading center of American Quakerism and the nation’s struggle for religious freedom.
In 2014 the gravestone of Wilson Rantus, a prominent African American figure in pre-Civil War Queens, mysteriously turned up in the backyard of a Queens College professor’s home. How or why the 153-year-old marble tombstone ended up in the professor’s yard near the college’s Flushing campus was never ascertained, but it is known that it originally stood in the Rantus Family Cemetery that was nearby. In 1853, Troy Rantus established a burial ground on the family farm that was located in a community called “Head of Vleigh,” just south of today’s Queens College. The cemetery was actively used by the descendants of Troy Rantus into the early 20th century, and was referred to by a number of names including “The Burying Ground of the Family of Troy Rantus the First,” “Troytown Cemetery,” and “The Colored Burying Ground of South Flushing.” The last known burial in the cemetery was in 1911, when James A. Brooks, a 37-year old Queens mail carrier and son of Sarah Rantus, was interred there.
Although records show the family burial ground was the final resting place of at least a dozen members of the Rantus family, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919 only two headstones were present—those of Wilson Rantus (d. 1861) and James Rantus (d. 1903). Wilson Rantus was an educated African American farmer and activist who had large landholdings in both Flushing and Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-1800s. He took part in the struggle for equal voting rights in New York State, fought for educational rights for black children, and was a financial backer of Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-African magazine and newspaper. The inscription on his gravestone was partially transcribed in 1919:
WILSON RANTUSDied May 13, 1861Aged 55 yearsJesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosomFly, while the raging billows roll…O, receive my soul at last
In 1952, a home building company obtained permission from the Rantus heirs to remove the bodies from the family cemetery so the company could have clear title to develop the land. At that time, no gravestones remained in the 52-by-84-foot plot, which was described as a “a long-forgotten Negro burial ground” at the southwest corner of 149th street and Gravett Road. The company reportedly removed the human remains “with care and respect” and transferred them to a plot in the Terrace Hill section at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Mainstay Cooperative Apartments now stand on the former site of the Rantus Family Cemetery.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 57; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 60-61; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, James A. Brooks, 10 Jun 1911; “Builders Seek to Remove Bodies from Burial Ground in Flushing,” Long Island Star-Journal, Oct 24, 1952, 26; “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader,” Long Island Forum 25(7) July 1962, 143-144; African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens (Queens Public Library 2008), 12-15; “Queens College Professor Discovers Tombstone of Abolitionist,” New York Daily News, Jun 9, 2014; “Tombstone of 19th century Queens Abolitionist Will Be Placed at His Burial Site, New York Daily News, Jun 11, 2014; “Historic Headstone of 19th Century Abolitionist Will Be Reviewed by Conservationist at Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 12, 2014; NYCityMap