Editorial note: This is the fourth in a series that explores the art of New York’s cemeteries.
Calvary Cemetery in Queens is something of a shadow city to New York. With over 3 million interments (roughly the population of the city of Chicago, to give the staggering number a visual), it not only has more burials than any other cemetery in the city, but also in the United States. The views from within Calvary Cemetery can be startling, as walking up the central hill the skyscrapers of Manhattan mix with the crosses and worn granite on the horizon, an eerie melding of the world of the living with the dead.
Calvary dates its first burial to 1848, yet while it is nearly as old as the garden-style cemeteries of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, and Trinity Cemetery in Manhattan, its constituents have always been working class and its layout is therefore less elaborate. There are no bronze angels by 19th century masters or mausoleums for famous families whose names still mark the city. Instead, what is most affecting about the cemetery is the vast multitude of graves that dodge from decade to decade as you walk through the grass paths, and the way all these simple memorials capture the evolution of the population of the city. Many of the immigrants have both their birthplace and deathplace inscribed, the journey in between unwritten, and others from recent years have incredibly personal memorials from families who have left plastic flowers along with old footballs, stuffed animals and worn photographs. Few of the graves were art commissioned specifically for the deceased, like you might find in the more elite cemeteries, but there is the poignant clutter of all the similar angels and sorrowed ladies standing in crowds and gazing off stonily to their own private eternities.
Like Green-Wood, Woodlawn and Trinity, the creation of Calvary was necessitated by outbreaks of disease stoked by the overcrowded cemeteries in lower Manhattan, particularly an 1832 cholera outbreak that took the lives of roughly 3,500 and caused thousands of others to leave the city. At the time, there was little out in Queens in terms of urban settlement, so with its abundance of space it became the city’s cemetery center. The burial grounds still hold the highest elevations in the borough, and there are still more people who are dead than alive in Queens.
Calvary was established by St. Patrick’s Cathedral, whose trustees with the Archdiocese of New York purchased land in the Newtown Township in the area known as Blissville for a Catholic Cemetery to accomodate the burials that would no longer fit in its graveyard on Mulberry Street (they had yet to complete their new cathedral uptown on Fifth Avenue). The land was previously the farm of the Alsop family, and their 18th century Protestant graves are still contained within Calvary.
Over 150 years after its first burial and still under the operation of the Archdiocese of New York, Calvary has now expanded to four different sections, each named for a catacombs in Rome, with First Calvary, the oldest, being Saint Callixtus, Second Calvary being Saint Agnes, Third Calvary being Saint Sebastian and Fourth Calvary being Saint Domitilla. On an overcast, but humid, summer Sunday, I explored the roughly 365 acres of First Calvary, better known as Old Calvary, which has its entrance on Greenpoint Avenue just over the Newtown Creek from Brooklyn. Visitors first pass through an ornate metal gate with spiralled details, then by the surprisingly elegant Roman Vernacular Queen Anne-style brick gatehouse from 1892.
Along with the gatehouse, there is another architectural find within the cemetery: the chapel. I continue to be surprised at the masterful architecture in New York City that is something of a secret simply because it is inside a cemetery. The chapel was designed by Raymond F. Almarill, who also designed the domed St. Michael’s Church in Sunset Park and the Emigrant Savings Bank in Manhattan, and he spent a significant amount of time studying Italian mortuary chapels in working on this Romanesque-style church for Calvary. The dome goes up to 80 feet and is 40 feet wide, which was a great feat of concrete construction for its time, and it is topped by a statue of Christ reaching out his arms in a blessing, which was carved from a single block of limestone.
The chapel contains a catacombs below for the burial of priests, although it was never completely filled. When Calvary was at its most busy, with anywhere from 70 to over 100 burials a day, the church was an essential device in moving the funerals along without them colliding, with separate entrances for those arriving and those departing.
Among the millions of dead in Calvary are 21 Roman Catholic Union Civil War soldiers, whose sacrifice, along with the thousands who died with them in the war, is memorialized with an obelisk surrounded by four bronze statues sculpted by John G. Draddy, whose celebrated work on church altars included the Coleman Memorial in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. If you have been to Green-Wood Cemetery, you might remember that there is a nearly identical memorial, except its soldiers are cast in zinc instead of bronze, and Calvary’s are unfortunately in a much more deteriorated condition. However, this gentleman with the axe was recently restored by the New York Parks Department.
The Civil War soldiers were buried free of charge by the Archdiocese, and the church did the same for others who were not able to cover the costs, including many Catholic immigrants from the tenements on the Lower East Side. Otherwise it was $7 to bury a loved one, although sometimes Calvary allowed families to bury their own relations, particularly during a gravedigger shortage in the early 20th century. While these, like the majority at Calvary, where all marked with humble monuments if at all, there is one grave in Calvary that stands out like an ostentatious monolith. The Johnston Mausoleum is the largest personal mausoleum in the cemetery, and was built at a cost of over $100,000 by the 19th century Johnston brothers who owned J.C. Johnston fabrics on 22nd Street. The mausoleum was luckily built before the last of the Johnston brothers lost all the family fortune and effectively erased their name from respectable history, dying in a barn, insane and racked with pneumonia.
The dark granite Johnston tomb is easily spotted from the Long Island Expressway that runs along the edge of the cemetery. It and the BQE slice through the sections of the cemetery, which also jut up against busy Queens side streets and stop just before the slope down to the Newtown Creek, where once people would arrive by ferry from across the East River with their funeral processions. Despite all this traffic, Calvary still has an odd peace, its marble relics from the 19th century offering sudden moments of fading beautiful among the granite stones, its few trees and ankle-high grass making it still feel a bit rural even with the expressway and skyline so clearly in view.
As a cumulative collection of the funerary art from the 19th and 20th century, Calvary Cemetery is unrivaled in the city. Nowhere else are there so many graves representing the working class population, and as a Catholic cemetery there is an abundance of crucifixion scenes, carved crosses and statues of Mary and angels, showing the memorial art progressing into our standard idea of the American cemetery. There are few famous names in the millions, mostly now forgotten New York politicians and mafia dons, but overall this is a cemetery of the people, the majority of names unrecognizable as part of the wave of lives that stretch out just behind us in the city’s history.
Calvary Cemetery is open seven days a week. First Calvary Cemetery has its entrance at 49-02 Laurel Hill Boulevard in Queens.