Cemetery of the Week #75: St. Paul’s Chapel churchyard

Exterior of St. Paul’s, with the bell tower and obelisk

Saint Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Churchyard and Vaults
209 Broadway
New York, New York 10007
Telephone: (212) 233-4164
Founded: 1766
Size: a small city block
Number of interments: approximately 1000
Open: Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Chapel opens at the equivalent time each morning, but closes an hour later.

Standing in the shadow of the new World Trade Center at the southern tip of Manhattan, St. Paul’s Chapel had seen a lot of changes since it was founded as a country church in 1766. When Andrew Gautier built the chapel in the Georgian Classical Revival style, it was surrounded by farmland and orchards.

In 1776, fire swept through Manhattan, destroying Trinity Church farther up Broadway. St. Paul’s was saved by a bucket brigade, which makes it the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan and the only remaining colonial-era church in New York City.

After his inauguration in April 1789, George Washington came here to pray. His pew has been preserved beneath the earliest known painting of the Presidential Seal.

The chapel’s steeple was added in 1794. Reports of the time called St. Paul’s the “most elegant and imposing church edifice in the city.” Its bells were added over a number of years, but the first was installed in 1797. In 1831, they tolled for former President James Monroe, whose funeral service was performed inside.  He was buried for a while in the New York Marble Cemetery, then later moved to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia.

The exterior of St. Paul’s Chapel, with the Montgomery monument

Permanent New Yorkers has a very brief listing on St. Paul’s Churchyard, but says it is the final resting place of Revolutionary War hero General Richard Montgomery. His monument is on the outer wall of the chapel, facing Broadway. Montgomery was the first American officer to die in the Revolutionary War, killed during the Battle of Quebec in 1775. The Continental Congress ordered his monument, making it the first public memorial in the States.  Decades after his death, his bones were removed from the garrison in Quebec and reburied under the chapel’s portico.

Also remembered here is Irish patriot Thomas Addis Emmet, who was exiled for trying to free Ireland from outside rule, a crime for which his brother was hanged. Emmet’s grave says that he suffered for his country, but found a new home in the US. He served as the Prosecutor General of the State of New York, defending Robert Fulton’s steamship patents in court. He is buried in the graveyard of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery.

A green space in the city.

Actually buried in the graveyard are lesser known patriots, including the man who forged George Washington’s combat sword, the chief doctor during the Revolutionary War,  soldiers who served in the Revolution, and the printer who founded the New York Journal.

A sign relates the story of George Frederick Cooke, an actor who died in 1812. In life, he was best known for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which was viewed by an audience of 2000 in New York. His protégé, British actor Edmund Keane, erected Cooke’s tombstone in the churchyard. In 1821, his skull was stolen from his coffin. The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries (my review is here) reports that, “Cooke is said to wander around St. Paul’s Churchyard, looking for his head….Some believe that his skull is used in stagings of Hamlet.”

Broken tombstones

The Graveyard Shift also estimates that burials ended in the cemetery in 1823, when a ban was passed on interring anyone south of Grand Street. However, interments in the vaults probably continued until 1851, until those were banned as well. The stones in the pretty, tree-shaded graveyard are in bad shape, whether the slate has broken over the years of winter or the images have been rubbed away.  Grave rubbings of the fragile stones are now forbidden.

After surviving the fire of 1776 and the intervening years of change and acid rain, St. Paul’s Chapel escaped destruction once again when the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11, 2001. Although its graveyard was drifted with debris from the towers, the chapel served as a shelter for 14,000 volunteers who slept in their clothing in the pews as they combed through the wreckage for survivors, then victims. The rescue workers were fed, offered counseling, and given a place to rest, free of charge, at St. Paul’s. These intense eight months are commemorated by an exhibit inside the chapel called Unwavering Spirit.

The World Trade Center rises again.

The congregation continues to work for peace and serves as a place of pilgrimage for all people.

Useful links:

St. Paul’s homepage

St. Paul’s Stands, a slide show of the 9/11 damage of the churchyard

Tombstones of St. Paul’s Churchyard

New York City Cemetery Project listing

Historical images of the Chapel and Churchyard

The CemeteryRegistry.us listing for St. Paul’s Churchyard

Cemetery Travel links:

My recent visit to St. Paul’s

My first visit to St. Paul’s, in April 2002

Graveyards of Colonial New York City on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #41: Trinity Churchyard

Cemetery of the Week #65: the African Burial Ground