Tag Archives: Morrisania

Ursuline Sisters Burial Grounds

The Ursuline Convent and Academy, East Morrisania, by Edward Valois, ca.1868; lithograph issued by George Schlegel (MCNY)

On April 11, 1892, the remains of 25 women were exhumed from a property along Westchester Avenue in East Morrisania and transported about five miles north for reburial in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx. In life, the women were members of a sisterhood rooted in 16th century Italy where Angela Merici founded the Ursuline Order, the first Roman Catholic institute dedicated to the education and spiritual development of young women. Extending their presence throughout Europe and into North America, the Ursulines established a strong identity as educators and founded communities and schools for the education of girls wherever they went. The Ursuline Convent and Academy at East Morrisania, established in 1855, was the first successful Ursuline community in New York—a previous attempt to establish an Ursuline convent in Manhattan in 1812 attracted no postulants, and disbanded in 1815.

An 1887 map shows the East Morrisania Ursuline Convent and grounds, which extended from Jackson St to St. Ann’s Ave

The Ursulines thrived at East Morrisania, which was, in the mid-19th century, a rural suburb about nine miles north of the city. The Ursuline Convent and Academy was a picturesque locale, as described by a visitor who attended commencement exercises at the institution in 1862:

[The] Convent stands on an eminence which slopes gently down to a grassy plain and spacious grounds stretch around it on every side, allowing ample room for the pupils to exercise and recreate themselves in. On account of its elevated position it is visible for miles, forming quite a feature in the landscape, and imparting an air of antiquity and Catholicity to the scene.

By the 1870s, the Ursuline community at East Morrisania included about 40 professed nuns and 20 novices and postulants, and their girls’ academy attracted 70 pupils a year. Half of the community’s nuns taught at the academy, while the other sisters handled the convent’s domestic and administrative affairs. Nuns who died at the convent were interred in a burial ground on the community’s 8.5-acre property, situated on the north side of present-day Westchester Avenue between Jackson Street and St. Ann’s Avenue. It is not known exactly where within the property the burial ground was located.

This excerpt from an 1870 U.S. Census schedule for the Town of Morrisania is a partial list of the nuns living in the Ursuline Convent at that time.

Among those interred at the Ursuline burial ground at East Morrisania were Sister Agnes Boyce, native of Ireland, who died at the convent in 1874, aged 39; Sister Teresa Fuekenbusch, native of Prussia, died 1873, aged 35; Sister Florian Gilooly, from Wisconsin, died 1883, aged 28; and Sister Clotilda Lowenkamp, from Maryland, who died in 1890 at 30 years old. Tuberculosis was the most common cause of death among the young nuns laid to rest in the community’s burial ground.

The opening of the new Ursuline academy at Bedford Park is announced in this 1892 advertisement

As the area surrounding the Ursuline Convent at East Morrisania became more populated and industrialized, the community planned a move to a less-developed part of the Bronx. The Ursulines purchased a 10-acre property in the Bedford Park neighborhood in 1887 and moved the school and convent there in 1892. The East Morrisania property was subdivided and sold off to developers and burials exhumed from the site were reinterred in designated grounds at the Bedford Park location. By 1906, however, all burials from the Ursuline property at Bedford Park were transferred to a plot the order acquired at St. Raymond’s Cemetery. Although the Academy of Mount St. Ursula continues to operate today at Bedford Park, the convent there closed in 2007 and most of its members relocated to the Ursuline convent at New Rochelle.

Detail from a 1900 map depicting the Ursuline Convent and Academy at Bedford Park

Sources: Robinson’s 1887 Atlas of the City of New York, Vol 5, Pl 7; Sanborn’s 1900 Insurance Maps of the City of New York, Vol 13, Pl 38Bodies in Transit Register X:1881-1894, Municipal Archives, City of New York; United States Census, 1870 & 1880, FamilySearch; Sadliers’ Catholic directories, 1873-1896; “Religious Reception,” Metropolitan Record, Feb 2, 1861; “St Joseph’s Ursuline Academy,” Metropolitan Record, July 26, 1862; “Academy of Mount St. Ursula” [Advertisement], Eastern State Journal (White Plains), Aug 27, 1892; St. Angela Merici and the Ursulines (O’Reilly 1880), 389-390; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 256-257; Ursulines of the Eastern Province

Bensonia Cemetery

A view of Bensonia Cemetery in 1898 (NYPL)
A view of Bensonia Cemetery in 1898 (NYPL)

An 1870 newspaper article describes Memorial Day observances held in Bensonia Cemetery:

Yesterday morning the members of Post Oliver A. Tilden, No. 96 of Morrisania, assembled at 6 o’clock, and marched to Bensonia Cemetery. Following the procession, with a wagon filled with flowers was the colored body servant of Capt. Tilden, who was during all the campaigns of the war in the field. The Post was under the command of Wesley Farrington. On their arrival at the cemetery, the men, numbering about fifty, formed a hollow square about the grave of Capt. Tilden with a solitary woman mourner in the inclosure. Commander Farrington then made a short address to his comrades and those gathered there, when he deposited on the monument a handsome wreath of white flowers. Chaplain Geo. G. Chase then made a short, appropriate prayer, after which he and the rest of the members of the Post each laid their floral gift on the grave. They then proceeded to New-York to take part in the parade and floral decorations at Cypress Hill Cemetery.  (New-York Tribune, May 31, 1870)

Bensonia Cemetery was established in 1853 as a community burial ground for the Town of Morrisania, which was then a part of Westchester County. In 1874 Morrisania was annexed by New York City and today comprises a portion of the South Bronx. Bensonia Cemetery was located along St. Ann’s Avenue, extending from Rae Street to Carr Street. Developed by James L. Parshall, one of the original settlers of Morrisania, the cemetery was a picturesque spot, densely shaded by elms, poplars, and evergreens.

Oliver Tilden, who was born and raised in Morrisania and enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, was buried at Bensonia after he was killed in combat near Chantilly, Virginia, in September 1862.  Tilden was the first soldier from this neighborhood to give his life for the Union during the Civil War.  His remains were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in 1878.

It is unknown how many other individuals were interred at Bensonia before it was closed to burials in 1868.   About a third of the cemetery was taken in 1870 when St. Ann’s Avenue extended through the site and a large number of disinterments were made at that time. More burials were disturbed in 1893, when German Place was laid out along the west side of the graveyard. By the turn of the century, only about two acres remained of the original Bensonia Cemetery, and the abandoned property, with just a few gravestones still standing, had become a dumping ground for neighborhood refuse. In 1908 Bensonia was taken by the city for public use and the graves were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery. Public School 38 (now called the South Bronx Educational Complex) was built on the site in 1921.

Bensonia Cemetery in 1867.
Bensonia Cemetery in 1867 (Beers 1867)
Bensonia Cemetery in 1898.
Bensonia Cemetery in 1885 (Robinson 1885)
A present-day view of the Bensonia Cemetery site.
Present-day view of the former Bensonia Cemetery site (NYCityMap)

Update: Construction workers uncovered remains from Bensonia Cemetery when digging at South Bronx Educational Complex in Feb. 2020

Sources: “Decoration Day,” New-York Tribune, May 31, 1870, p. 1; “Suited for a Park Park Site: Bensonia Cemetery Now a Dirty Waste,” New-York Tribune, April 8, 1900, p. A4; “Do You Remember,” by Bill Twomey, Bronx Times, Nov. 25, 2009; Captain Oliver Triangle, NYC Parks & Recreation ; Annual Financial and Statistical Report of the Board of Education of the City of New York 1922 p. 147; Beer’s 1867 Plans of Westchester, West Farms, Morrisania, Westchester Co. and Part of New York County; Robinson’s 1885 Atlas of the City of New York Pl 34; NYCityMap; Construction Workers in Mott Haven Dig Up Human Remains Believed to be Over 100 Years Old (News12, Feb 5, 2020)