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Cemeteries of the East Village, Part I

Archeologist Elizabeth D. Meade, PhD has created an amazing map of the hundreds of cemeteries and burial grounds, past and present, in NYC. Over 35 such sites can be found in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and Noho, although according to the map, none are still active. Dr. Meade created this map because “Cemeteries are important cultural spaces created by the living to facilitate their interaction with the dead. Though many modern American cultural groups designate cemeteries as sacred ground, cemeteries in New York City have historically been vulnerable to the pressures of urban development, the continued influence of colonial power structures, and other social and economic forces that have resulted in the redevelopment of burial grounds— with or without the disinterment of the human remains within.”

Today we look at three of these former burial grounds, all located in the East Village.

First German Methodist Episcopal Church Vaults

This building at 252 East 2nd Street was built as a church. It later became a wedding hall and nightclub called ‘The World‘ before reverting back to a church. It was demolished in 2002.

The burial ground farthest east opened in 1842 at 252-254 East 2nd Street, just west of Avenue C. According to the map, the First German Methodist Episcopal Church constructed these vaults in 1842 without knowledge that such vaults had been banned. The City granted the church permission to continue to use the vaults given the cost of their construction, but just a few years later many of the bodies were re-interred in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.

252 East 2nd Street is currently home to the East Side Tabernacle Church, while above it at 254 East 2nd Street sits a 47-unit condo completed in 2006. But the building that previously stood at 252 East 2nd Street had a very interesting history tied to many important movements in East Village history.

The current building at 252-254 East 2nd Street

Constructed in 1842 as the First German Methodist Episcopal Church, the Church moved to 48 St. Marks Place in 1902. Our research indicates that the building was then the location of The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York for many years. In 1820, the General Society opened one of the City’s first free public schools as well as the first circulating library for apprentices, both of which predate City public systems. It educated more than 150,000 tradesman and artisans throughout its history.

From 1980 to 1991 the building was home to The World nightclub.

Zoë Tamerlaine at The World

The World attracted a clientele that was economically, racially, and sexually diverse and included artists, celebrities, and fashion designers, such as Keith Haring, Madonna, Brooke Shields, Prince,and RuPaul. It was an early incubator of New York’s house music and club kid scenes and helped launch the careers of several prominent nightlife figures. Stars such as David Bowie, the Beastie Boys, The Ramones, Public Enemy, Neil Young, and many others also made appearances at The World. When The World closed, the church moved in. Pastor Abner Rosairo said. “When we came along it became a church and the original foundation said it was a church.”

Church of the Most Holy Redeemer Vaults

The church circa 1875, before the shortening of the bell tower

In the mid-nineteenth century, the block of East Third Street between Avenues A and B lay in the heart of “Kleindeutschland,” a large German immigrant community that began forming in the Lower East Side in the 1830s. The initial settlers of the block came largely from southern Germany; many were Catholic and attended service at the first German-language parish in New York City—St. Nicholas—located one street over on 2nd.  When St. Nicholas became overcrowded by 1844, New York Archbishop John Hughes approved the establishment of a second German parish, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, at 173 East Third, which still serves the neighborhood today. The Church includes crypts for priests affiliated with the church. The church was consecrated in November of 1852 and the most recent burial here occurred in 1941.

East Eleventh Street/Old Calvary Roman Catholic Cemetery

Church of Mary Help of Christians prior to demolition

A Roman Catholic Church formerly located at 440 E. 12th Street, Mary Help of Christians was demolished in the summer of 2013 to make way for new development. To try and preserve the site, there was an outpouring from the community in an effort to protest the demolition and save the historic structure. Many organizations, including Village Preservation, called for a complete archaeological review to take place on the former cemetery of the church as the church was formerly the site of the cemetery of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where thousands of people were buried starting in the early 19th century. This was only the third and at the time the largest Catholic Cemetery in New York. While the graveyard was moved to Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1909, it is not known if all remains were removed and cleared from the site or if some still lie in burial underneath.

Village Preservation Executive Director Andrew Berman at the Mary Help of Christians rally, May 22, 2013. Photo courtesy of The Villager.

But we believe a part of the cemetery remains. On the western side of the block just east of Madina Masjid Islamic Council of America is a mysteriously out-of-place stone wall that may be the western wall of the long-vanished cemetery. While the original cemetery boundaries extended from just west of the properties lining Avenue A all the way to First Avenue, by 1867 the First Avenue frontage of the cemetery had been sold off and tenements built. Click here to read more about this wall.

A remnant of what we believe to be the former cemetery on the site.

To explore the map further, click here. To read more about cemeteries and burial grounds in our neighborhoods, click here and here.

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