Even as New York’s Catholic population grew from no more than 200 at the end of the Revolutionary era to 400,000 by the mid-19th century, there was but one official cemetery for Manhattan’s Catholics, each closing in turn as it reached capacity. The first was around St. Peter’s in Barclay street, the second at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the third on 11th Street, and, in 1848, Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Parishes throughout Manhattan were expected to bury their dead in the authorized cemetery and were prohibited by the diocese (archdiocese after 1850) from establishing graveyards adjacent to their churches or elsewhere.
But Manhattan’s early German Catholics were eager to have their own burial places, separate from the Irish that dominated the designated cemetery for the diocese/archdiocese. Several German Catholic parishes established cemeteries, or attempted to do so, and were censured for their defiance and their burial grounds closed. One of these was the Church of St. John the Baptist on 30th Street, whose trustees opened a cemetery on property they acquired in 1848. State Senator Erastus Brooks provides an account of this cemetery in an 1855 editorial letter:
On 123d and 124th streets, there is a burial ground covering eight lots, belonging to the Church of St. John the Baptist, built on 30th street. The owners were Germans. They built a church and selected a suitable place for the burial of their dead. For some time, without restraint from the Archbishop or others, they were permitted to inter the members of their congregation in these grounds, which were sacred both to the memory of the dead and to their friends. The Archbishop interposed, and prohibited the use of the grounds for this purpose.
The congregation, in a spirit of German independence, continued to bury their dead there, notwithstanding the prohibition of the Archbishop. It was then announced by authority from the pulpit, that burial services would not be permitted there any longer. Still the congregation persisted in exercising their rights as men, and in discharging their duty to the dead. For a time the dead were buried without the usual funeral ceremonies or services. The Archbishop in the exercise of his highhanded power, then took the Priest from the congregation, and, as a consequence, the Church had to be closed, and was closed for some time.
An 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows this German Catholic Cemetery and implies that it extended the entire block bounded by 123rd and 124th Streets and 7th and 8th Avenues (now Adam Clayton Powell and Frederick Douglass Boulevards). However, other documentary evidence and historical accounts indicate the cemetery was confined to a parcel at the middle of the block (indicated by arrow on the map detail above). No evidence has been found of the number nor names of those interred there.
As noted in Senator Brooks’ letter, the archdiocese interdicted St. John the Baptist for their cemetery, as well as for other disagreements with church authorities, and the parish was consistently troubled until it was reorganized under the control of Capuchin Franciscan friars in 1871. In 1869, the remains from the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street were removed to Calvary Cemetery. The property was subsequently sold to help fund a new church building for the resurrected St. John the Baptist parish; this building still stands at West 30th Street. Apartment buildings are at the former site of the German Catholic Cemetery on 124th Street.
Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); “Catholic Cemetery and Catholic Burials,” New-York Freemans Journal and Catholic Register, Aug 23, 1851; The Controversy Between Senator Brooks and † John, Archbishop of New York…(Tisdale 1855); “Special Notices,” New York Herald, April 4, 1869; The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 (Dolan 1975); Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); Ennis Francis Houses 1A Documentary Report (Geismar 2010)