(From the NY Daily News -- Queens Neighborhoods --
March 23, 1998)
An Emerald Street Far From Home 'Irish Famine Cemetery' Tells Story of Migration. By Elaine Machleder
Irish Famine Cemetery
People in the neighborhood call it the "Irish famine cemetery,"
said Deborah Van Cura, president of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.
If passerby at 21st Street and 26th Avenue, south of Hoyt Avenue are
careful observers, they can glimpse through a gate and discover tombstones
inscribed in memory of people such at Margaret Kelly, Rose Murphy, Bridget
Christy and Rose Muldarry. The Astoria cemetery lies next to the site
of the original Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the second Catholic Church in
Queens which moved a few blocks away in the 1870s
Since its separation from the church, the cemetery has become an overlooked
piece of the neighborhood's history.
Reinaldo Azuaje, Our Lady of Mount Carmel archivist, and afternoon receptionist,
said "The cemetery is visible but abandoned. It's a forgotten place."
Emerald Street, later renamed Van Alst Street, (now 21st Street) was
the heart of an Irish enclave 150 years ago in an area surrounded by wealthy
descendents of Anglo-Saxon and Dutch settlers.
"Irish went there to serve the wealthy," said Vincent Seyfried,
a member of the board of the Queens Historical Society.
Some of the Irish immigrants gained employment in the silk factories
and the greenhouses in Astoria, as well as household work in the beautiful
mansions of the wealthy.
Mass was first celebrated in Astoria in 1835 at the home of a Mr. Tobin
by the Ireland-born Rev. Michael Curran, pastor of St. Paul's in Harlem,
according to a history of the church found in the parish archives. Curran
travel ot Astoria from New York in the East River's Hell Gate Ferry.
By 1841, thee were sufficient Irish resident in Astoria to warrant the
building of a Catholic Church, and James and Mary Ann Shea, a New York
teacher and his wife, donated two plots of land where the original frame
building stood. A Mr. Anderson, an Episcopalian gentleman, also donated
half lot and the Riker family donated the lot north of the church for
burial purposes. The Rev. Curran became pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
By 1871, the church congregation mushroomed so that its original building
was no longer adequate. The cornerstone of the church's current building
was laid nearby as Newtown Avenue and Crescent Street, separating the
cemetery from the new church edifice.
A lot of the immigrants buried there were born in Ireland, and may have
come over in 1847 to escape the Irish famine.
"Everybody buried in the cemetery is Irish, except for one man,
an Italian gardener who worked there," said Seyfried, adding that
there are about 150 plots at the cemetery.
He said he pored over issues of the Long Island City Star, a 19th Century
weekly, read the obituary notices and copies them for his records. The
graveyard was used from the 1840s to the 1890s. Then after a long interval,
the last interment took place in 1927.
One lifelong resident of Astoria, Dmitrius Partridge, 43 , of Partridge
Realty, said he remembers running thought the cemetery as a child, Many
of his neighborhood friends were Irish, but he did not recall knowing
anyone who had a relative buried at the 21st Street Cemetery. "About
20 years ago the weeds were so overgrown that couldn't see the tombstones,"
Partridge said. The city threatened to take over the land if it wasn't
Said Seyfried: "In the 195s and '60s the cemetery became a jungle.
It's not next to the present church and so it's easily overlooked."
It was neglected and forgotten until 1983, when according to church record,
the Diocese of Brooklyn began to maintain it. It cleared the land, picked
up many of the toppled stones, and gated the area.
Seyfried said that many stones have disappeared. Partridge said he remembered
that four or five year go, some tombstones were found in Socrates Park
on Vernon Boulevard. "I don't know what happened. I wouldn't be surprised
if they came from there."
Seyfried said he suspects some of the stones are not over the right graves.
"But nobody knows or cares."