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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.

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…

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

10 responses to “More Evidence of Historic Cemetery Under Endangered Church

  1. I’m impressed by the workmanship of the stone wall, and that it has lasted so much longer than many new and flimsy constructions.

  2. Superb deductive work, Andrew! –I think you’ve conclusively proved that the wall belonged to the old Catholic Cemetery.

    The single greatest mystery concerning the old cemetery pertains to its most notable burial; that of Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 – 1838) famous for being Mozart’s librettist for all his operas, and who also founded the first opera company in America; the New York Opera Company –precursor to the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan, and for being Columbia University’s first professor of Italian literature.

    Like his collaborator, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the present-day location of Da Ponte’s grave is unknown. Upon his death in 1838 he was interred in the Old Catholic Cemetery on 11th St. When the cemetery graves were disinterred in 1909 and moved to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, Da Ponte’s remains were not among them. While today, there is a memorial stone honoring Da Ponte at Calvary, his actual grave has never been found.

    There is an excellent chance that Lorenzo Da Ponte still lies buried today somewhere on the site.

    Given the enormous stature of De Ponte in musical history, together with his role as one of the first Italian-American superstars, it’s essential that a proper archaeological investigation of this National Register-worthy site begin immediately.

    It also just occurred to me that the presence of Little Italy ‘East’ in this part of the East Village –of which many traces still remain –can largely be attributed to a Catholic Cemetery that vanished in 1909; many of the carved headstones here were probably supplied by skilled Italian immigrant craftsmen working in neighboring stoneyards.

    Theodore Grunewald


    Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)

    The Phoenix
    By Anthony Holden
    The Guardian
    January 6, 2006

    Find A Grave: Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749 – 1838) Memorial at Calvary installed 1987

    Nights at the Opera- The life of the man who put words to Mozart.
    By Joan Acocella
    The New Yorker
    JANUARY 8, 2007

    For Mozart’s Librettist, a Queens Fanfare
    By George James
    New York Times
    October 21, 1987

  3. I have lived on this block for 33 years and remember the wall you referenced as the the church wall as being more than 15 feet tall. Around 2000 much of the wall was unstable and the top half was removed. I have much more information about it and would like to share it with you. Please contact me. Daniel Nauke

  4. Wow mr. steiner what a nice piece of history you bought. The chapel beautifully catches the morning light. The bells in the towers sound and look great. Fix the pipe organ. That will sound great too. Maybe restore the lower level basketball gym. Peter 321 eadt 12 #8

  5. I have lived on East 12th Street for almost 40 years; and first made a post about the cemetery on ancestry.com in 2008. The one story garages were pulled down in the early 80’s. The lot stood empty for several years until a film company transformed the western part of the lot into a park for their shoot. The community worked hard for it to remain a park after the filming was over. The stone wall was repaired only a few years ago, prior to the work, the wall had a rather jagged irregular top. Here is a link to a wonderful site dedicated to cemeteries in NYC, the article appeared in 2010.


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