The students of St. Thomas the Apostle’s History Club hope that most residents in Woodhaven will know all about the Wyckoff-Snedicker Family Cemetery by the time they are finished exploring its history.
The cemetery is nestled behind the beautifully restored All Saints Church at 85-45 96th Street. For over a century the parish was known as St. Matthew’s, but after it closed in 2011, it sat dormant until last year when All Saint’s moved in from Richmond Hill. They have masses on several weekdays and multiple services on Sundays (visit them at allsaintsrh.org or call 718-849-2352 for a complete schedule).
In the early days of Woodhaven, most settlers had to travel to East New York to bury or visit their dead. In those days, such a round trip would take a whole day. The residents needed something closer, and in 1785 two families – the Wyckoffs and the Snedickers – each gave land for the purpose of creating a cemetery.
Officially, the cemetery lists 136 tombstones, but over the years stones with simple hand carvings have been discovered meaning that the land probably holds a few hundred souls at least.
After the last known burial in the late 1800s, the cemetery has had periods where it has been neglected. Even back in the 1930s, the Leader Observer ran articles calling for better care of this historic burial site. In the mid-1960s the cemetery was auctioned off and purchased by St. Matthew’s for $600.
However, it was eventually neglected again before church parishioners and members of the Queens and Woodhaven historical societies conducted a two-year restoration in the 1990s. Working from a very detailed decades-old survey, the group was able to refurbish the land, returning existing gravestones to their original plots.
Sadly, the land has not been cared for since that time, and over the past few years it was the subject of complaints from neighbors and local historians.
Enter All Saints Church led by the Rev. Dr. Norman Whitmire Jr., who oversaw a thorough clean up at the end of 2013 with an eye towards turning this piece of land into something the entire community could enjoy.
At the same time the St. Thomas the Apostle History Club, led by Ms. Patti Eggers, expressed interest in exploring the history of the church and its historic burial ground. That led to Reverend Whitmire opening the gates to the students last week on the last day of their vacation.
They wandered about, respectfully quiet, looking for the names they had chosen to research. Using decidedly modern tools such as Ancestry.com, the students were armed with a little bit of knowledge about the names on the tombstones.
It was a treat to watch as one by one, students found the names they were looking for.
Two of the younger students, Sean Eggers and Brandon Roldan, working from an 80-year old map, found who they were looking for – Isaac Ditmars – resting under a simple rock with the inscription I.D. They were so excited that they did a little happy jig in celebration. I’m pretty sure Isaac would have been pleased that his old bones brought two kids such happiness 250+ years after he died.
That is the magic of the old historic cemetery behind All Saints. The students went in looking for names and what they found were people. People who lived on the very same land we call home. And in those moments of discovery, the residents of the Wyckoff-Snedicker Family Cemetery came alive to the students of St. Thomas the Apostle’s History Club.