The Newtown Pentacle

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It’s National Pepperoni Pizza Day, in these United States.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Positively cinematic, First Calvary Cemetery in the Blissville of Queens is. The Roman Catholic Church acquired Laurel Hill, found along the troublesome Newtown Creek, from the Alsop family back in 1848. The Alsops had held the land since 1648, when a fellow named Thomas Wandell acquired it from the Dutch colonial authorities. Wandell, an associate of Oliver Cromwell’s who had fallen out of favor with the Lord Protector, died in 1691 and the land passed to his nephew Richard Alsop (who died in 1718). The last Alsop who actually worked the land died in 1837, and it was a distaff member of the family who was a member of Manhattan’s “Knickerbocracy” that sold it to the church.

The Church sent armies of laborers to Blissville, who altered Laurel Hill into its current shape, installed a drainage system, and by 1860 or so there were as many as fifty interments a day taking place here.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

There are a few simply gorgeous structures in First Calvary Cemetery (ultimately, there are four Calvary Cemeteries in Queens, with the other three found over in Woodside) such as the Almirall Chapel.

Archbishop Farley had returned from a visit to Rome in 1908 with the intention of creating a new funerary chapel at Calvary which would also host an ossuary for the nuns, monks, and priests of his diocese. Architect Raymond Almirall designed the structure pictured above, which is one of the earliest poured concrete buildings in New York City. The dome of the chapel is forty feet across and eight eight feet high. Atop it is a statue of “Christ the redeemer” designed by a female sculptor (her sex is mentioned as it is quite significant that a female was chosen for this commission during the particular time period) named Merro Beatrice Wilson. The Almirall Chapel sits atop a shaft which leads down a hundred feet to a partially completed cruciform vault where the bones of Farley’s priests and nuns lie.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The real show stopper at Calvary Cemetery is the Johnston Memorial. Erected in 1873, at a cost of $200,000 (that would translate to about $4 million in modern terms) the Johnston Memorial, like the Almirall Chapel, forms a centerpiece of the section it’s found in. There were three Johnston brothers, who operated a very successful milliners business on Manhattan’s “Lady’s mile,” specifically on Fifth Avenue and 22nd street. Brother Charles died in 1864, and brother John left the world in 1887. The remaining Johnston brother, Robert, went mad with grief and fell into poverty. He died in a barn on the grounds of a an upstate nunnery, during a thunderstorm, in 1888.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Johnston memorial is well appointed with some exquisite carvings, and luckily the brothers sprang for granite rather than marble. The marble monuments all over Calvary Cemetery have the appearance of melting ice cream, due to the former presence of an acid factory in nearby Maspeth. A marble frieze over the entrance to the mausoleum, however, displays the characteristic damage from exposure to Newtown Creek’s corrosive atmospherics which one can see all over the cemetery’s acreage.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Calvary sits upon, and in, Laurel Hill. A natural prominence left behind by the glaciation process, Laurel is one of the foothills which lead through Maspeth towards the beginning of the terminal morraine of Long Island, which truly begins at another Roman Catholic cemetery called Mount Olivette. This “Y” shaped ridge of actual bedrock is what the elluvial shoals of the landform of Long Island are supported by, and they continue all the way to eastern shore with the the two branches of the Y terminating at Montauk and the Hamptons.

The view from Calvary is astounding, and I always remark that “you can see the whole soup bowl” of NYC’s inner harbor from up here. You used to be able to see a lot more, but… y’know… luxury towers and the real estate guys.

As a note, burial in First Calvary is quite desirable for Roman Catholics. Accordingly, the price of a grave hereabouts is astronomical, making this – from a square footage vs pricing ratio POV – the most valuable real estate in all of Long Island City.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Adorning the dome of the Johnston Mausoleum, in addition to the statue of Jesus at its top, are granite renderings of four angels who gaze out at the sky from the cardinal points of a compass.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

To the east, the industrial zone of West Maspeth is hard to miss. The Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the Koscisuzcko Bridge are just out of frame in the shot above.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As mentioned above, Calvary Cemetery is positively cinematic. It’s where Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Spider Man’s Uncle Ben, were buried in the movies. It’s also where Vito Corleone was interred in the Godfather movie. The place is seen regularly in television and movies as a set piece when you need a New York City backdrop for a funeral.

You never know what you’re going to find at Calvary Cemetery in the Blissville section of Queens, along the fabulous Newtown Creek, I always say. Bring a camera, and wander around the place without a plan, see what Calvary wants you to see. It’ll still be there the next time you come back, this history book etched in stone.


Upcoming Tours and events

The Insalubrious Valley of the Newtown Creek Walking Tour,
with Atlas Obscura – Saturday, September 23rd, 11 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

Join us on the wrong side of the tracks for an exploration of the hidden industrial heartlands of Brooklyn and Queens, with Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman details here.

Exploring Long Island City, from Luxury Waterfront to Abandoned Factories Walking Tour,
with NY Adventure Club – Saturday, October 7th, 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.

Long Island City is a tale of two cities; one filled with glittering water-front skyscrapers and manicured parks, and the other, a highly active ground transportation & distribution zone vital to the New York economy — which will prevail? With Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman details here.


“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

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Written by Mitch Waxman

September 20, 2017 at 1:30 pm

One Response

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  1. Thanks. Informatively written and nicely photographed. Always appreciate your Calvary posts.

    georgetheatheist . . . momento mori

    September 20, 2017 at 2:07 pm


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