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.
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.