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.
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.
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