A Great Start: Cemetery Cleanup To Be Held 2nd Saturday of Every Month
For nearly 100 years, the Wyckoff-Snedicker Family Cemetery on 96th Street in Woodhaven has been the subject of tales of neglect. Dating back to the 1920s, residents of Woodhaven complained that it was overgrown and the site of dumping. This burial ground is the site of the final resting place of many of our community's founders and earliest settlers, yet it has been tucked away like a secret for decades. Despite a thorough cleanup and restoration in the 1990s, the cemetery fell into disrepair again and was the subject of many complaints from neighbors in recent years.
With St. Matt's being deconsecrated in 2011, the future of the cemetery was unclear. The diocese vowed to maintain the property but while the church was empty the weeds flourished and it, once again, become a dumping ground. But in 2013 the church was reoccupied and rechristened as All Saints Church (Official Site / Facebook), under the guidance of Rev. Dr. Norman Whitmire, Jr. All Saints has joined up with the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society and St. Thomas the Apostle's Woodhaven History Club to clean up and restore this cemetery.
There will be a cleanup on the 2nd Saturday of every month starting at 9 AM, lasting about 3 hours. The next cleanup is scheduled for Saturday August 9th and the one after that is Saturday September 13th. Volunteers are welcomed and needed! This is a family-friendly event - and an educational experience for the children. Under the guidance of STA Teacher Patti Eggers (Woodhaven's Woman of the Year 2013) students are developing biographies of those who are buried there and sharing their experiences through journal entries. Students taking part in this project do not have to be students of St. Thomas, all students and young people are welcome to be a part of this. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or PAC75@aol.com for more information.
Now, on to the report -- here is what we faced when we walked into the cemetery on Saturday morning. The burial ground is over 250 feet long, adjoining the backyards about 12 to 14 houses. As you can see there is a lot of weeds and growth. That tree in the center of the picture is dead.
The southwest corner of the cemetery had become a dumping ground with bottles and cans and building materials strewn among branches and leaves and broken glass. This is the area you first encounter when you walk into the cemetery so one group tackled this while the other got to work on the weeds.
The southern end of the cemetery. To help get your bearings, if you walked through that gate you would be walking down an alley with garages on either side towards Jamaica Avenue. If you recall, next to the Cordon Bleu, there was an alleyway - that is how you would reach this spot.
From Google Street View - the alleyway on Jamaica Avenue you would walk up to reach that gate, though you'd have to walk up to reach that gate, though it's not that easy (nor recommended). When the city turned the property over to St. Matthew's in the early 1960s there was supposed to be a right of way in perpetuity, but right now the only way in is through appointment. Or - better still - come to one of the next cleanups!
As you can see, the growth is up against the backyards of the residents of 98th Street. This has not only been an eyesore, but a source of aggravation for these residents. Our goal is to make sure this piece of land is not a burden to these residents, but a nice clean quiet space next door. But there is a lot of work ahead of us.
Despite the neglect and the heavy growth the land is still quite beautiful. And with all of the shade the many large trees provide, it was quite cool to work back there even though it was a warm morning. We had a nice large cooler of ice water on hand.
Looking at the right-hand side of this picture you can get a sense of how far this burial plot stretches.
Here is an overhead view - all of those trees between those rows of houses, that's the cemetery (you can see the alleyway at the bottom of the picture). One interesting piece of information we discovered talking to Woodhaven Historian Allan Smith, it turns out that when he was a youngster, there was a footpath at the North end of the cemetery that went between the backyards of the houses on 96th and 98th Streets, all the way to Park Lane South. But over the years, as people began putting up fences, that footpath was lost.
The team got right to work clearing away most of the weeds by hand, pulling them out of the earth while another group started collecting fallen branches and twigs.
Clearings began to appear as the team lifted and cleared away the weeds. Some of the flowers that we did finds we attempted to replant in another section of the cemetery.
The volunteers hard at work. It should be noted that there was a lot of chatter and laughing - this was 100% a fun day for everyone involved.
We paused briefly for a group picture - as you can see we had a nice sized friendly group. Many of us did not know each other when the morning started but as the day wore on we all became friendly and left as friends.
The wheelbarrow came in handy! And you can see in this picture that we're starting to make progress.
The southwest corner involved a lot of bagging and dragging.
But slowly you can see that progress was being made.
The land was surveyed back in 1919 with a list of all inscriptions. Here, Patti Eggers reviews the map (known as our "Bible") with Assemblyman Mike Miller (who was very instrumental in helping us get rid of the debris - thanks, Mike!)
The "Bible" of this project. The students have been doing great research and have begun locating descendants of the cemetery.
The 1919 survey shows the location of all of the headstones - thus, the headstone the students found below (laying on its back) will eventually be able to be returned to its rightful place.
The students are extremely careful with the tombstones and their inscriptions. Again, this is a family-friendly project. If you have children, bring them along - they will learn about the history of the community and be a part of something really special.
The progress is becoming visible. Overall, we cleared about 20-25% of the cemetery. Still a long way to go!
The southwest corner is starting to look good! We found a few gravestones over there (if you scroll back up to the map, you'll see that there were 5 gravestones in that corner). One of the gravestones was completely underground, we have no idea how long it has been since it has seen sunlight.
In addition to clearing away weeds, we also took the opportunity to prune some dead branches off of trees.
Here is one of the gravestones we found buried under the earth.
Wow, now look at the southwest corner! Compare to the before image (inset). Next spring, we'll turn the earth, plant some grass seeds and this will be a beautiful spot. Fr. Whitmire properly sees this land as an asset and would love to get this looking beautiful and share with with the community.
The old branches and twigs were tied up in a bundle.
You couldn't even see the ground when we first walked in here - now look at it.
The old wood was cut up for easy disposal.
The back corner (on the left of this picture) contains the final resting place of the Wyckoffs. On the opposite end of the cemetery are the really old gravestones, we'll get to them in the next 2 cleanups.
The result of a hard morning's work. Overall we had about 38 volunteers and we gathered up 74 bags of weeds and garbage.
The southern end of the cemetery is looking a lot better.
This picture was taken 2 days later - looking north. Our goal that morning was to clear up to that large tree on the right - and we got past that a little bit. On August 9th, we hope to make it past the Eldert Family plot, a little more than halfway through the cemetery. We also have to expect that the land we cleared will have grown back a bit.
The debris was carried out to the curb on a rainy Monday afternoon, 74 bags in all. Thanks again to Assemblyman Mike Miller for helping us to coordinate with the Department of Sanitation to get rid of all of these bags.
We'll be back on August 9th at 9 AM - please think about coming down and spending some time in this historic location - make some new friends - and meet some new neighbors .... and some really, really old ones!
STA History Club Visits Historic Cemetery
2011 Tour of the Cemetery
Inside St. Matthew's
If you have any comments, or would like to suggest other projects, drop us a line at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photos by Joey Wendell