Tag Archives: Queens cemeteries

Evergreens Cemetery

An 1893 photo of the ivy-clad administration building at Evergreens Cemetery, originally built as a chapel

It was still morning, and the quiet of the huge Evergreen Cemetery was broken only by the idling engine of Otis Chance’s big yellow backhoe. The machine was parked at the edge of the cemetery’s Ascension Section, a few yards from Yusef Hawkins’ grave, a few hundred yards from where Michael Griffith, victim of the Howard Beach racial attack, was buried on the day after Christmas in 1986. Otis Chance dug both of those holes in the sandy Queens earth. “I even carried Michael Griffith’s coffin,” he said. “You don’t always know who they’re for, but the foreman told us yesterday this one was for Hawkins,” said Chance, a 34-year-old black man who owns and lives in a house in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg section. “It’s a tragedy, a damn shame, nonsense, stupidity,” he said, shaking his head. “It was the same way with Griffith—it didn’t make any sense, what happened. You feel so bad, so sorry for the families.” (Daily News, Aug 31, 1989)

A view of Manhattan from Evergreens Cemetery, Apr 2016

Evergreens Cemetery is a non-denominational burial ground created in 1849 that spans 225 acres along the Brooklyn-Queens border. Prominent landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing designed the grounds, and the results were described as “a perfect rural cemetery” by one 19th-century guide to New York City cemeteries. The wooded landscape includes winding paths traversing an undulating terrain, high points that offer scenic vistas of the Manhattan skyline and Jamaica Bay, and a picturesque Gothic Revival chapel designed by architect Alexander Jackson Davis in 1849/50  (now used as an administration building). 

Celestial Hill, an early Chinese burial ground at Evergreens Cemetery, Mar 2018 (Mary French)

Evergreens is the resting place of over 526,000 people of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds; among the notables interred here are dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, jazz musician Lester Young, and world chess champion William Steinitz. Distinctive plots include the Seaman’s Grounds, which hold the remains of more than 1,200 sailors; Celestial Hill, one of the early burial grounds for New York’s Chinese immigrants; and the Actors Fund Plot, where 500 members of the entertainment industry are interred. Also of note is the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Memorial, a haunting monument to several victims of the 1911 Triangle factory fire buried here; the victims’ names, unidentified for a century, were uncovered in 2011 through the persistence of researcher Michael Hirsch and have been added to the memorial.

Yusuf Hawkins’ grave at Evergreens Cemetery, Mar 2018 (Mary French)

The graves of Michael Griffith and Yusuf Hawkins—both victims of late-1980s racial attacks—are in an area of modest graves on the northern side of Evergreens Cemetery. Unlike older sections of the cemetery that are named for pastoral features such as Sylvan Dell, Lake View, and Hickory Knoll, these newer sections are named for biblical themes. In the Redemption section is the burial place of 23-year-old Michael Griffith, killed in 1986 when he was struck by a car as he was chased onto a highway by a group of young white men in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens. Three years later, 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins was laid to rest in the nearby Ascension section after he was shot to death during an attack by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The peacefulness of the gravesites of these two young men is a stark contrast to the anguish and civic unrest that followed their deaths, one of the worst periods of racial tension in New York City’s history.

Monument at the center of the Seaman’s Plot, Evergreens Cemetery , Mar 2018 (Mary French)
Location of Evergreens Cemetery Brooklyn-Queens border (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of Evergreens Cemetery

Sources: The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); The Eagle and Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle…(Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1893); Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 (Rousmaniere 2008); The Evergreens Cemetery—The Cultural Landscape Foundation; The Evergreens Cemetery; “When Jack Tar Dies in Port—A Final Resting Place in the Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Times, May 28 1893;  “He’ll Bid Yusef His Last Farewell,” New York Daily News, Aug 31, 1989; “100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete,” New York Times, Feb 20, 2011; “The Story Behind HBO’s Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn,” Time, Aug 13, 2020; OpenStreetMap

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery

Detail from an 1874 map of Astoria, arrows denote the original Our Lady of Mount Carmel church and adjoining cemetery at the corner of Van Alst Ave and Trowbridge St (today’s 21st St and 26th Ave) and the new parish church built in 1871 at Newtown Ave and Crescent St

The second Catholic church in Queens was established in the historic township of Newtown in 1841, at the corner of Trowbridge Street (26th Avenue) and Van Alst Avenue (21st Street) in Astoria. Originally known as St. John’s Church, the small wooden edifice was later known as St. Mary’s and, finally, Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Vacant land adjoining the church was used as a burial ground for parishioners, mostly Irish immigrants who worked in local silk factories and greenhouses or were employed in the households of wealthy families who had their country homes at Newtown. The church was situated at the heart of Astoria’s Irish enclave, and this Celtic heritage can be seen on historic maps that sometimes identify Van Alst Avenue as Emerald Street.

View of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1931 (NYPL)

By 1871, the parish had outgrown their original building and laid the cornerstone for a new church edifice nearby at Newtown Avenue and Crescent Street, where Our Lady of Mount Carmel is now. The old church building was used as a Sunday school and housed the Redemptionist Mission Catholic congregation before it was demolished around the turn of the century.

The old parish cemetery continued to be used into the 1920s, but, for unknown reasons, the title to the cemetery was not transferred to the new church and by the second half of the 20th century its ties to the parish had been forgotten. Without any maintenance, the graveyard became so overgrown that the tombstones were no longer visible. Around this time, people in the neighborhood began to call it the “Famine Cemetery,” referring to the immigrants who came to this country to escape the Irish potato famine. Lacking a formal name for much of its history, old records refer to the site by various names, including St. John’s Cemetery, St. Mary’s Cemetery, and Mount Carmel Cemetery.

Tombstones in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, 1998 (Newsday)

The Diocese of Brooklyn took over maintenance of the site in 1983 and the property’s ownership issues were eventually resolved. Known today as Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, it is intact at the northwest corner of 26th Avenue and 21st Street in Astoria. Inside the 82 x 188-foot site are about 80 tombstones dating from 1844 to 1926, and the names on them are exclusively Irish. “In memory of Patrick Crawley, who departed this life Nov. 5, 1855, a native of County Louth,” reads one memorial. “In memory of John O’Rork, native of the parish of Culmullin, Co. Meath, Ireland,” reads another. Many more graves here are unmarked, and the actual number of interments is unknown since the early burial registers were lost in a fire.

As part of their 175th-anniversary celebrations, on September 15, 2016, Our Lady of Mount Carmel held a mass at their old parish cemetery. With over 100 people in attendance, this “graveyard mass” commemorated church history and honored the lives of its first parishioners.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery, June 2010 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Out Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery

Sources: Map of Long Island City, Queens Co., N.Y. (Dripps 1874); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); History of the Diocese of Brooklyn, 1853-1950 (Sharp 1954); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); The Graveyard of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, Astoria, Queens (Fagan 1999); “The Church in Astoria,” Irish American, Mar 13, 1875; “Obituary—Rev. James Phelan,” Irish American, Mar 13, 1880; “Died,” New York Herald, Apr 12, 1892; “Patrick Evers,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 24, 1926; “Old Cemetery in Deplorable State,” Irish Echo, Dec 6, 1975; “Irish-Americans Ask for Restoration of 19th-Century ‘Famine Cemetery’,” Daily News, Aug 19, 1983; “An Emerald Street Far From Home: Irish Famine Cemetery…” Newsday, Mar 17, 1998; “Beyond the Grave: A Restored Famine Cemetery…” Newsday, Mar 17, 2002; “‘Graveyard’ Mass Remembers Astoria’s First Parishioners,” The Tablet, Sep 21, 2016

Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

View of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)

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.

An 1891 map shows Mount St. Mary’s original six acres on the south side of North Hempstead Turnpike (today’s Booth Memorial Ave)

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.

The Fliss family arrives for burial at Mount St. Mary’s on March 26, 1930. Eleven-year-old Stanley Fliss, the sole survivor of the fire causing the death of his parents and four siblings, is at left, with head bowed (Daily News)
Old tombstones in the original section at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, May 2011 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

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)

St. Michael’s Cemetery

A large stylized cross and rows of small plain crosses mark the Community of St. John the Baptist plot at St. Michael’s Cemetery, where early sisters of this order of Episcopal nuns are buried. (Mary French, Aug 2021)

In 1852, Rev. Thomas McClure Peters acquired seven acres of farmland in Newtown, Queens, to establish a new cemetery that would provide graves and dignified burials for the poor. Rev. Peters, the rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, had devoted himself to mission work in the city’s almshouses, prisons, and hospitals, and among its poorest and most disenfranchised communities. He developed an understanding of the needs of these communities and believed it was possible to run a cemetery on business principles and at the same time furnish the poorer classes of the city with burials at a price within their means. Once he had the cemetery laid out and functioning successfully, Rev. Peters turned it over to the corporation of St. Michael’s Church, which owns and manages it to this day.

St. Michael’s Cemetery gradually added more land over the years to reach its present size of roughly 88 acres in the area bounded by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Grand Central Parkway in East Elmhurst, Queens. Various churches and charitable institutions acquired sections within the cemetery, public grounds were set aside for free and low-cost burials, and private lots were purchased by individuals and families. St. Michael’s Cemetery still serves a diverse constituency and is the final resting place of roughly 175,000 people from all classes, religions, and ethnicities.

Robert Kellner monument at St. Michael’s Cemetery, 1983 (Jackson & Vergara)

The older family plots at St. Michael’s are predominately German and the dark gray markers here are frequently ornamented with statues depicting angels, lamenting females, and other classical imagery. Also here is a life-sized statue of a Doughboy adorning the gravestone of 24-year-old Cpl. Robert L. Kellner, who was killed on the battlefield of the Argonne Forest, France, in 1918. Later sections have markers with Italian and Greek-lettered names, while more recent monuments carry Chinese and Korean inscriptions. The cemetery’s crematorium, opened in 2005, accommodates the needs of the city’s large Hindu population.

The burial place of St. Michael’s most renowned resident—African American composer and pianist Scott Joplin—is found amid the modest markers and unmarked graves in the cemetery’s public grounds. Dubbed the “King of Ragtime,” Joplin experienced a brief period of fame at the turn of the 20th century, but his career was cut short by mental health issues and he died in poverty in 1917 at age 49. His family was too poor to provide a stone or marker for his grave, and Joplin faded into obscurity as his music waned in popularity.

Plaque marking Scott Joplin’s grave at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Aug 2021 (Mary French)

In 1973, the Academy Award-winning film The Sting stimulated a revival of ragtime and renewed interest in Joplin when his 1902 composition “The Entertainer” was used as the film’s theme music, topping the musical charts for months. The following year, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) installed a bronze plaque at Joplin’s unmarked grave at St. Michael’s. In 2004, St. Michael’s began holding annual ragtime concerts on its grounds in Joplin’s honor, and in 2017 added a memorial bench at the gravesite to commemorate the centennial of his death.

1983 photo showing wreckage of once orderly rows of tombstones at St. Michael’s Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara)

During the 1970s, St. Michael’s fell into disrepair because of budget cuts and a lack of maintenance and experienced a period of intense vandalism and neglect through the 1980s. Intruders toppled hundreds of tombstones throughout the cemetery and  weeds and underbrush completely enveloped the monuments in some sections. At one point, the lack of adequate fencing allowed motorbikes and even cars to drive among gravesites in the cemetery’s southern corner. But a large-scale renovation in the early 1990s restored the historic cemetery to its past beauty, and today it is well maintained and continually expanding through the construction of community mausoleums.

Another modern addition at St. Michael’s is a collection of memorials devoted to the city’s first responders who lost their lives on 9/11 and before. The most striking of these is the Christopher Santora memorial, honoring 76 firefighters who lived or worked in Queens that died on September 11, 2001. The memorial’s centerpiece is a black marble slab bearing an etched image of Santora, the youngest firefighter to die at the World Trade Center on 9/11. These memorials to the city’s service members are a continuation of St. Michael’s mission to create places to remember and celebrate lives.

The Christopher Santora/Sept. 11 Firefighters Memorial at St. Michael’s Cemetery, Aug 2021 (Mary French)
Location of St. Michael’s Cemetery in East Elmhurst, Queens (OpenStreetMap)
Vintage photo showing reporters gathering for the interment of mobster Frank Castello’s casket in the family mausoleum at St. Michael’s Cemetery, February 21, 1973

View more photos of St. Michael’s Cemetery

Sources: 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); St. Michael’s Cemetery – About; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989); King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, 2nd ed (Berlin 2016); “Our Cities of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 28, 1895; “Costello & Legend are Buried,” Daily News, Feb 22, 1973; “A True Note at Composer’s Grave,” Daily News, Oct 7, 1974; “Requiem for the Cemetery?” Daily News, Nov 8, 1974; “Queens Vandals Topple Markers on 300 Graves,” New York Times, Apr 5, 1980; “Seek to Stop Cemetery’s Decline,” Daily News, Jan 11, 1983; “700 Stones Overturned at Cemetery,” New York Times, Aug 10, 1991; “E. Elmhurst Biz Plots for the Future,” QNS.com, May 19, 2004; “Memorial to Firefighers Who Died on 9/11 Is Dedicated,” Queens Gazette, Sep 16, 2004; “New Final Home Underway in Boro,” Queens Tribune, Jun 10, 2010 “Queens Cemetery’s Attempts to Expand on Park Land in Limbo, Daily News, Aug 15, 2013; “Visit to a Historic Cemetery,” CSJB Newsletter, Spring 2013; “Three-Story, 18,800-Square-Foot Mausoleum Coming To St. Michael’s Cemetery, Woodside,” New York Yimby, June 29, 2016; “Joplin Tribute Draws Hundreds of Admirers,” Queens Chronicle, May 23, 2019

Rapelje Cemetery, Astoria

A view of Rapelje Cemetery from 20th Street, July 2021 (Mary French)

Residents of an apartment building near the northwest corner of 20th Street and 21st Avenue in Astoria, Queens, are probably unaware that an old burial ground is preserved within the grassy courtyard of their complex. The property is part of a tract of land that once belonged to Jacob Rapelje (1714-1776), a great-grandson of Joris Jansen Rapelje, one of the earliest settlers of New Amsterdam.

Jacob Rapelje House, northeast corner of Shore Blvd and 21st Ave, 1922 (NYPL)

Jacob and his wife Catherine lived with their family at what was then known as Hellgate in Newtown township, where Jacob was town supervisor for 18 years. The Rapelje home overlooked the East River, standing at what is now the northeast corner of 21st Avenue and Shore Boulevard. To the east of the house was their family burial ground, which now lies within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex. Property documents for the complex—part of a vast development built in 1948 to help relieve the postwar housing shortage—specifically exclude “the Burial Ground known as the Rapelje Cemetery” from the property and provide the precise location of the 52-foot x 63-foot parcel.

A 1965 tax map delineates the boundaries of Rapelje Cemetery

No tombstones are present at the site today, but a 1904 article in the Brooklyn Times Union describes markers that once stood there. At that time the little burial plot was “in a field some distance back from the Shore road,” on property owned by Mrs. George A. Trowbridge. About a dozen weather-beaten tombstones were clustered alongside a large rock and surrounded by a group of trees. Although the inscriptions on many of the headstones were illegible, others were remarkably clear and easily read. Among these were stones, inscribed in Dutch, marking the graves of Jacob Rapelje, who died in May 1776 at age 62, and his wife Catherine, who died two months later, aged 55 years. Nearby were the graves of their daughter Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff (1755-1787), her husband George Brinkerhoff (1738-1802), and other members of the Rapelje family.

This 1927 photo of Rapelje Cemetery shows the tombstones of Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff and her mother Catherine Rapelje (NYCMA)

Also present in 1904 were headstones marking the graves of Capt. Ichabod Sheffield (1780-1830) and his parents, Isaac and Wealthy Sheffield. Capt. Sheffield, whose tombstone recorded that he was born in Stonington, Connecticut, and “For the last thirty years has been a respected owner and shipmaster from the Port of New York,” made international news for his involvement in an incident during the Barbary Wars of the early 1800s. Sheffield was captain of the schooner Mary Ann, captured by Algerian pirates in the Straits of Gibraltar on October 26, 1807. The operations of his vessel taken over by nine pirates, including a boy, Capt. Sheffield and his crew were captive for three days when they determined to retake the Mary Ann. Following a struggle in which they threw four of their captors overboard and set four others adrift in a boat, Capt. Sheffield brought the Mary Ann safely into Naples with the boy on board with his crew. Notice of the hostilities was immediately sent to American consuls and shipmasters throughout the Mediterranean and Capt. Sheffield became well known for his bravery.

A 1919 survey identified four tombstones at the site

By 1919, when the Queens Topographic Bureau surveyed the Rapelje Cemetery, Capt. Sheffield’s tombstone had disappeared, as had Jacob Rapelje’s and most of the other headstones in the plot. Four gravemarkers were found at that time, and only one—Sarah Rapelje Brinkerhoff’s—was legible. All are gone now, and nothing identifies the site as a burial ground or memorializes those interred there. Currently owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the plot is nicely landscaped with trees and other plantings and protected on three sides by hedges and a wooden fence.

Another view of Rapelje Cemetery in July 2021, facing toward 20th Street (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing location of Rapelje Cemetery within the Astoria Terrace Gardens apartment complex (NYCityMap)

Sources: The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852); “Graves of Ancient Worthies on Shore Road,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jul 2, 1904; “Rapalaye Home in Astoria Recalls First L.I. Resident,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jan 22, 1928; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); The WPA Guide to New York City (Federal Writers Project 1939); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Vol 6 (United States Office of Naval Records 1944); Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (Allen 1905); “FHA Financing for New Apartment Unit in Astoria,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 28, 1947; “First Families Enter Astoria Housing Project,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 27, 1948; Astoria Venture Corporation property agreement dated July 1, 1977;  Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)