Tag Archives: Trinity Church

St. Paul’s Churchyard

Rescue worker amidst debris in St. Paul’s churchyard following Sept 11, 2001 (FEMA)
Rescue worker amidst debris in St. Paul’s churchyard following Sept 11, 2001 (FEMA)

Located directly across from the World Trade Center site, St. Paul’s Chapel and churchyard stand in testimony to the church’s unique history and the special role it played following the events of September 11th, 2001.  The chapel, which is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan, was built in 1766 by Trinity Church to serve Anglicans living in what was then the northern outskirts of the city. Erected on the west side of Broadway, the chapel was positioned to overlook the Hudson River, with a great yard extending out in front of it.  St. Paul’s is known for its pew set aside for George Washington, who worshipped at the chapel during the years that New York City served as the nation’s capitol.

St. Paul’s churchyard is bounded by Broadway on the east, Church Street on the west, Vesey Street on the north, and Fulton Street on the south. It contains about 800 gravestones, and 30 vaults lie under the churchyard and chapel. Revolutionary War hero Major General Richard Montgomery is among the prominent individuals buried there.  In 1818, over four decades after his 1775 death at the Battle of Quebec, Montgomery’s body was interred beneath the Chapel’s east porch, where a monument to him had been erected by Congressional order in 1776. Burials in the churchyard discontinued after interments in lower Manhattan were prohibited during the first half of the 19th century, although occasional interments were made in the family vaults into the early 1900s.

St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard, 1852 (Dripps 1852)
An 1884 view of St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard (NYPL)
An 1884 view of St. Paul’s Chapel and Churchyard (NYPL)

Building 5 of the World Trade Center stood just across Church Street from St. Paul’s, and the Twin Towers were one block away. When the buildings collapsed after the September 11th attacks, St. Paul’s churchyard was covered with dust and debris and a few tombstones were broken, but overall remained relatively unscathed. It is thought that the trees in the churchyard helped shield the chapel, which suffered no physical damage.  For eight months after the attack, the chapel served as a relief center for recovery workers working at the World Trade Center site and became an impromptu shrine for mourners.

Following a $300,000 restoration, St. Paul’s Chapel reopened to the public in August of 2002 and the churchyard reopened a year later. The restoration project included conservation of the headstones, which were vacuumed and washed to remove corrosive particulates that had been embedded in the surfaces from the dust storm that accompanied the collapse.  Two inches of ash-filled topsoil were also removed and replaced with new sod. Today, the chapel offers exhibits and memorials that tell its part in the September 11 story, and the historic churchyard provides a contemplative place to view redevelopment of the World Trade Center site.

The World Trade Center site across Church Street from St. Paul’s Chapel, 2008 (NYCityMap)
Tombstones in St. Paul’s Churchyard, 2008. (Mary French)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; St. Paul’s Chapel; St. Paul’s Churchyard; Churchyards of Trinity Parish in the City of New York, 1697-1969 (J.V. Butler 1969), 54-78; Walks in Our Churchyards (J.F. Mines 1896), 130-151; “Polished Marble and Sacramental Scuffs,” New York Times, August 25, 2002; “At Ground Zero Oasis, a Path is Restored,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 2003; NYCityMap.

St. John’s Cemetery

A view of St. John’s Cemetery by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1860 (NYC Parks & Recreation).
A view of St. John’s Cemetery by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1860 (NYC Parks & Recreation).

In 1890, the City of New York selected St. John’s Cemetery, located on the east side of Hudson Street between Clarkson and Leroy Streets in Greenwich Village, as a site for a new public park.  The property, which was connected with St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Church, served as a burial ground from 1806 to 1852 and an estimated 10,000 individuals were buried there. Following a five-year legal battle with Trinity, the city secured the property under the Small Parks Act, a law passed by the state legislature in 1887 that allowed the city to acquire property for the creation of small parks in crowded neighborhoods.

St. John’s Cemetery served as a burial ground primarily for the poorer and middle classes, although some prominent individuals and members of well-known families, such as the Schermerhorns, Berrians, Leggetts, and Valentines, were also buried there. The cemetery had been in a dilapidated condition for many years by the time it was taken by the city in 1895, but in the first half of the 19th century it was said to be a pleasant, restful place, and Edgar Allan Poe reportedly roamed the burying ground when he lived nearby in the 1830s.  Helen Jewett, a prostitute whose 1836 murder became a media sensation, was briefly interred at St. John’s Cemetery; four nights after her burial, medical students stole, and subsequently dissected, her body.

When Trinity lost the battle to keep the cemetery property, their attorney stated, “We did not believe the city could take such property for parks, but the courts have decided otherwise, and if the city takes the ground it takes the remains also, and must make its own disposition of them.”  In 1896, the city announced that families wishing to remove relatives interred in the cemetery must do so by the end of that year; remains from only about 250 graves were removed before construction on the new park began in 1897.  In 1898, the new Hudson Park (renamed James J. Walker Park in 1947), opened on the site.  Remains beneath the park have occasionally been unearthed during construction work, as in 1939 when workmen encountered the coffin of six-year-old Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, who died in 1850.  One reminder of the old burying ground still exists – an 1834 monument to fallen firemen, one of the most prominent markers in the old cemetery, was preserved during the original construction of the park, and stands today along its north side.

St. John’s Cemetery (identified here as Trinity Church Cemetery) at Hudson, Clarkson, and Leroy Streets, 1852 (Dripps 1852)
Tombstones in St. John’s Cemetery, ca. 1895. The firemen’s monument can be seen at the right side of the photo. (NYPL)
The firemens monument at the north side of Walker Park is a remnant of St. Johns Cemetery. (Mary French)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Before They Were Parks (NYC Parks & Recreation); Walks in Our Churchyards (J.F. Mines 1896), 152-164; Literary New York (Hemstreet 1903), 148; The Murder of Helen Jewett (Cohen 1998), 299; Report of the Tenement House Committee…Jan. 17, 1895, 42-43; “What Will Become of These Bodies?,” New York Herald, March 20, 1893, 4; “Old St. John’s Cemetery,” New York Times Sept 13, 1896; The Mummy in Trinity Church (The Archivists Mailbag).