More Evidence of Historic Cemetery Under Endangered Church

Just prior to yesterday’s rally and press conference to save historic Mary Help of Christians Church from demolition (see press release HERE and pictures HERE), GVSHP came upon information that the church and much of this block were actually built upon a long-forgotten 19th century cemetery, New York’s third, and at the time largest, Catholic cemetery.

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May 22 demonstration to save the church

We and our allies called upon developer Douglas Steiner to preserve the church buildings (made famous by long-time neighbor Allan Ginsberg) and instead build upon the open yard to the east of the property which he also owns — which has no historic buildings, and which, unlike much of the rest of the block, is not located on top of the former burial ground.

Had it not been for the diligent research of writers like David Dunlap, any knowledge of the historic cemetery having been located on most of this block might have been lost, as all present-day evidence of its existence had long been erased.

Or so we thought…

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A remnant of the former cemetery on the site?  As viewed from 12th Street.

But returning to our East 11th Street offices after yesterday’s rally, we saw something on the block we had seen many times before, but now, armed with the knowledge of the former cemetery’s existence, viewed in an entirely new light.

On the western side of the block, running between what is now called Open Road Park and the rear walls of the properties which line the 1st Avenue end of the block, is a mysteriously out-of-place stone wall.  And this wall just may be the  western wall of the long-vanished cemetery.

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The same wall, from the 11th Street side.  The rears of the 1st Avenue buildings, built in 1867, are behind.

While we cannot establish this definitively, this seems like the most likely explanation for the existence of this incongruous wall.

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An 1857 Perris map of the block.

First, while the original cemetery boundaries extended from just west of the properties lining Avenue A all the way to First Avenue (see above), by 1867 the First Avenue frontage of the cemetery had been sold off and tenements built.  So where this stone wall now stands was, from 1867 on, the boundary between the cemetery and the residential structures to the west (see below).

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1867 Dripps map (sheet 7).

And  quite frankly, when you think about it, it looks like a cemetery wall (though under normal circumstances this would probably not be the first thing to occur to you).  In fact, if you look at the walls surrounding the two surviving 19th century cemeteries in the East Village, Marble Cemetery and New York City Marble Cemetery, they have very similar-looking stone walls separating them from the surrounding residential properties, just as the East 11th Street/Old St. Patrick’s Cemetery probably once did.

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New York City Marble Cemetery wall; NYC Marble was established in 1831, just two years before the 11th Street cemetery.

And while early 19th century stone construction typically had less mortar (the material between stones) than what you see here, a cemetery wall could have been built here in the late 19th or even early 20th century.   While the cemetery opened in 1833, where the wall is located did not become the western boundary of the cemetery until the 1860’s, and thus there may not have been a wall here prior to then.  The cemetery remained on this site until 1909, so the wall also could have been built as late as the first years of the last century.

After the cemetery closed in 1909, the land was divided up and much of it sold.  The eastern section became Mary Help of Christians Church (1917) and School (1925), which we are now rallying to save; the central section became what is now J.H.S. 60; and in 1919, a 1-story bus garage was built on the western end of the site, which remained there through the 1950’s and possibly later.  After the bus garage was torn down, it became a city park, playground, yard for the school, and community garden — today’s Open Road Park.

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NYPL digital archives image (ID: 711125f ) of East 12th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A from 1920 shows Mary Help of Christians Church (l.), J.H.S. 60 (m.), and the one-story garage which was built over the former cemetery.

The old stone wall we see today seems unlikely to have been built as part of the utilitarian, 1-story bus garage which occupied the site after the cemetery was closed.  Given the parapet on the top of the wall, it seems clear that it was built not as part of an enclosed structure (i.e. there was never a roof or floorplate on top of it), but as a wall separating an open area to the east (where the cemetery was located) from the other properties to the west.  And it also seems improbable that this somewhat archaic-looking wall was built on the site after that , in the late 20th century.

So in addition to the possibility of below-ground remnants of the 11th Street cemetery remaining on this block, it seems quite possible that an above-ground remnant is also still there — the cemetery’s western wall.

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Andrew Berman has been the Executive Director of GVSHP since 2002.