Tag Archives: Williamsburg

Catholic Cemetery, Williamsburg

The Catholic Cemetery on North Eighth St and First St (now Kent Ave) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1868

In 1840, Rev. James O’Donnell bought a parcel of land on the northeast corner of North Eight Street and First Street (now Kent Avenue) to establish the first Roman Catholic church in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A small frame church was erected in the center of the property and the land all around it was reserved for a cemetery. The church, called St. Mary’s, was dedicated on June 27, 1840. This humble wooden building served the 500 Catholics of the parish, which at that time had a vast territory stretching from Hallett’s Cove on the north, Myrtle Avenue on the south, the East River on the west, and Middle Village on the east.

The number of Catholics in the parish grew quickly, and soon the little church was too small for the congregation. Fr. O’Donnell’s successor, Rev. Sylvester Malone, secured ground on Wythe Avenue near South Second Street for a new parish church, which opened in 1848. To avoid confusion with St. Mary’s parish in Manhattan, the diocese renamed the parish after Sts. Peter and Paul when the new building was dedicated. Sts. Peter and Paul parish endures in present-day Williamsburg, now worshipping at McCaddin Memorial Hall on Berry Street.

A newspaper announcement of the opening of the Catholic church and cemetery in Williamsburg in 1840

Many pioneer Catholics of Williamsburg were laid to rest in the burial ground on North Eighth Street, which the parishioners of Sts. Peter and Paul kept on using for some time after they relocated to their new building and their original church building in the middle of the cemetery, St. Mary’s, was torn down. The last known burial here was in 1855. The Catholic cemetery with its headstones was for many years a Williamsburg landmark, but after it closed it became an eyesore, the graves overgrown with grass and weeds, the stones broken and their inscriptions obliterated.

In 1890, Bishop Loughlin of the Brooklyn diocese ordered the removal of the old Catholic cemetery at Williamsburg. The parish requested people who had relatives interred there to arrange for transfer of their remains; those that were unclaimed were dug up and reburied at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens. Once cleared, the former cemetery ground was sold and a factory was built on the site. In 2007, the property was redeveloped for residential use; the luxury condo building North8 is now on the site of Williamsburg’s first Catholic cemetery.

Excerpt from an article about Edward Neville, buried in the Catholic Cemetery in Williamsburg in 1855. Neville was the proprietor of Williamsburg’s Kings County Hotel; the discovery of his body in Gowanus Bay after a two-week disappearance created a sensation in November 1855.
A 2018 aerial view of the North8 condo building that is now on the former site of the Catholic cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Higginson’s 1868 Insurance Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 67; Kings County Conveyances, Vol 93 p504-507, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Memorial of the Golden Jubilee of the Rev. Sylvester Malone (Malone 1895); The Eastern District of Brooklyn (Armbruster 1912); The Catholic Church in the United States of America (Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “A Village Churchyard,” Historical Records and Studies 7 (Meehan 1914); “Burial of Mr. Neville,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 26, 1855; “Coroner’s Inquest on the Body of Mr. Neville,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 26, 1855; “Body Found,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Mar 6, 1856, [The Body of Sarah Lake], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 26, 1882; “An Old Landmark Doomed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 27, 1890

Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery

Monument marking the Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery reburial grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Feb 2018 (Mary French)

A large granite marker sits atop a rise in the northwest section of Cypress Hills Cemetery, where it marks the reburial ground for bodies exhumed from a Brooklyn cemetery during the winter of 1874-1875. The cemetery was located on Humboldt, Withers, and Frost streets in Williamsburg, on land acquired in 1844 by the trustees of the Cannon Street Baptist Church of Manhattan. Founded in 1840, the Cannon Street Baptist Church was near Broome Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

This detail from an 1852 map of Williamsburg shows the Cannon Street Baptist Chuch Cemetery

The Cannon Street Church used their Williamsburg cemetery as a burial ground for their congregation which, at 700 members in 1846, was one of the largest and most powerful in Manhattan. They also opened it up as a burial place for other Baptist churches and, according to an 1874 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, “the graves were quickly bought, and it became a popular place of interment. Indeed, it became such a favorite that in the poor ground they had to pile in corpses from seven to twelve feet high in each grave.”  By the late 1850s, the cemetery was full and interments were discontinued. As it was no longer a source of revenue for them, the Cannon Street Church let the cemetery go to ruin and it became a pasture ground for neighborhood animals.

One of the few headstones transferred from the Cannon Street Baptist Cemetery to the reburial ground at Cypress Hills (Mary French)

In 1864, Cannon Street Baptist Church acquired property for a new church at Madison and Gouverneur streets and decided to sell their Williamsburg cemetery. In that same year, they were authorized by an act of the New York State legislature to remove the dead interred in their cemetery, “and deposit the same in any cemetery in the county of Kings or in the county of Queens authorized by law to make interments.”  However, it was not until a decade later, when Cypress Hills Cemetery was awarded the contract for the removal project, that bodies were disinterred from Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had a reporter observe the exhumations and published a list of about 200 names identified from headstones and coffin nameplates, including some of those found in the cemetery’s 100-x-75-foot “colored” section. The rest of the hundreds of graves in the cemetery were unidentifiable (no burial records having been located) and the bones exhumed from them were “huddled into the same box with the ones in the next grave, there being in many instances the remains of twenty human beings in one box.”

The cemetery property was quickly redeveloped after the disinterment process was completed and the remains reburied at the one-acre ground at Cypress Hills. In the following years, excavations for cellars during housing construction at the site uncovered at least 12 more bodies that had been overlooked during the 1874-1875 removal. The Cannon Street congregation, which renamed itself East Baptist Church when it relocated to Madison and Gouverneur streets, disbanded in 1896. Their former cemetery property is covered by residences today.

A view of the Cannon Street Baptist Church reburial ground at Cypress Hills Cemetery, Feb 2018 (Mary French)
Snippet of Cypress Hill Cemetery map showing location of the Cannon Street Church Cemetery grounds
2018 aerial view of the former Cannon Street Church Cemetery site in Williamsburg (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the city of Williamsburgh and town of Bushwick (Field 1852); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 125 p135-139, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; [East Broome Street Baptist Church], Baptist Advocate, Aug 15, 1840; “Cannon Street Church,” Baptist Advocate, Feb 13, 1841; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Careless Burial,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1858; [Legislature], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1864; “Board of Health,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 21, 1874; “An Old Burial Ground to Be Sold,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 1, 1874; “Desecration,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 3, 1874; “Human Remains Exhumed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 24, 1878; “Thrice from the Tomb,” New York Herald, Dec 22, 1878; “Incomplete Removal of a Cemetery,” New York Tribune, Aug 13, 1879; “Skeletons,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 12, 1879; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “East Baptist Church to Go,” New York Times, Aug 9, 1896; Cypress Hills Cemetery (Duer & Smith 2010)

Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, Williamsburg

The Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1868

In 1860, one of New York City’s Jewish newspapers published the following announcement: 

To the Jewish Congregations in this City – A Burial ground in Williamsburgh, L.I., belonging to one of the Congregations of this city, is to be sold for assessment arrearages. As it is the resting place of a number of departed Israelites, immediate efforts should be made to avert the threatened sale.

The burial ground in question occupied a lot on South Third Street, between Tenth and Eleventh streets (today’s Keap and Hooper streets) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was owned by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim (Gates of Heaven), a group of German Jews that broke off from Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, first meeting for worship in a building on Attorney Street and later having a synagogue on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side. Five days after Shaar Hashomayim was incorporated on June 24th, 1839, the congregation purchased the 120 x 25 foot lot in Williamsburg from Abraham Remsen for $400 and subsequently used it as a cemetery. Unpaid assessment notices for the property—denoted as “Jews’ Burying Ground”—appear in Brooklyn newspapers throughout the 1860s, but this issue must have been resolved as Shaar Hashomayim retained ownership of the property.

An 1868 insurance map shows the location of the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery between Tenth (Keap) and Eleventh (Hooper) streets

In 1874, The Jewish Messenger described the “old Hebrew burying ground” on South Third Street, which “has been used by the juveniles of the neighborhood for the past few years as a playground. They have shamefully defaced some of the gravestones, and even carried away several. It is now over 20 years since a burial has been made there, and it seems strange that no one apparently having an interest in this ground ever visits or makes any repairs.” By the 1880s, the cemetery had become “a wilderness of weeds” and “a dumping ground for refuse and filth,” according to reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

An excerpt from the deed for the 1839 purchase of the property by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim

The disposition of remains from the South Third Street cemetery is unclear, but it’s likely Shaar Hashomayim removed them to burial plots acquired at Cypress Hills Cemetery for remains exhumed in 1875 from another cemetery the congregation owned at 89th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. In 1889 Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sold their former burial ground in Williamsburg to Westcott Express Company and the property was redeveloped; today a boutique condominium building is on the site. In 1898 Shaar Hashomayim merged with another Manhattan congregation, Ahawath Chesed; the combined congregation subsequently renamed itself Central Synagogue and continues today at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Higginson’s 1868 Insurance Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 82; Brooklyn Land Conveyance Abstracts, Section 8 Block 2424 (Center for Brooklyn History); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 148 p125-126, Vol 298 p262-264, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “To the Jewish Congregations in this City,” The Jewish Messenger, Jun 1, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Tenth Street Opening,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jun 6, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Assessment Notice,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 5, 1864; “Local Items,” The Jewish Messenger, Jul 31, 1874; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “The Aldermen,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 28, 1887; “Cong. Shaar Hashomajim,” The Jewish Messenger, Sep 20, 1889; The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996), Central Synagogue—Our History