A Private Investigator’s Guide to Dutch Reformed Churches

When you do genealogy, you quickly discover that you have to become an expert on churches. Where were they located, where are they now, what happened to the buildings, who’s got the records? When it comes to Staten Island, which celebrated its 350th year in 2011, that’s a whole lotta church history to absorb.

Luckily, we have in our possession a handy-dandy guide to all of the churches that existed in Staten Island as of 1942. Now, this doesn’t give you all the churches that ever were, but having an inventory of extant churches at a specific point in time is a great reference. And it is a l-o-n-g list, which you will love if you are a genea-geek.

Anyway – the existence of this list is interesting, in and of itself.  It’s from the Guide to Vital Statistics in the City of New York, created by the Works Progress Administration for the City of New York.  It lists all the churches by borough, and describes the type of vital statistics each church held in its archives at that time – baptisms, marriages, etc.  In 1942, America was at war, and it seems they needed to run some background checks on people, but the Internet was down.

The volumes are primarily designed as an aid to governmental agencies or private individuals interesting in locating corroborative proofs of the facts of birth or marital status as required for military service or engagement in war industry.

How cool is that? Helping to blow the cover of enemy spies who were bent on infiltrating our armed forces based on a fake Staten Island baptismal certificate.

I think I was born too late. I hope I worked for the WPA in a previous life.

In any case, today is the beginning of a series in which I am going to list the churches from that document for you. (In the future, I’ll feature some individual churches in separate posts, with more detail).

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Moravian Cemetery

If you have ancestors buried in Moravian Cemetery – and believe me, you do if your family was on the island for any length of time – make plans now to reserve your space in special walking tours offered by historian Richard L. Simpson.  Simpson, whom my cousin and I met by accident during a graveside visit two years ago,  is a veritable fount of knowledge about Moravian and the people buried there.  This year, his tours celebrate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival in New York Harbor by visiting the resting places of early Dutch, French and English settlers.

Moravian is now offering genealogy look up services, as well, and I can personally testify that the service is quick and informative!

The Church of St. Andrew

One of the most beautiful cemeteries on Staten Island is at The Church of St. Andrew,  Episcopal Church.

Churchyard of the Church of St. Andrew, Staten Island.

Churchyard of the Church of St. Andrew, Staten Island.

If you are researching ancestors possibly buried here, you will want a copy of The Church of St. Andrew, Richmond, Staten Island;: Its history, vital records, and gravestone inscriptions, by  William T. Davis,  Charles W.Leng and Royden Woodward Vosburgh. I am lucky enough to own an original copy of this work, inscribed by Davis.

But maybe a better buy is another more comprehensive volume that includes the original Davis work as well as the records of two more churches. This more comprehensive volume is Staten Island Church Records [Records of the Dutch Reformed Church of Port Richmond, 1696 to 1772; United Brethren Congregation, Commonly Called Moravian Church, 1749-1863; and St. Andrews Church, Richmond, 1752-1808], edited by Tobias Alexander Wright.

The Church of St. Andrew has been digitized by Ancestry.com, and full page images are available.  This wonderful because you can see who’s buried near each other, and you are treated to the full epitaphs.  Staten Island Church Records is also available at Ancestry, but only in index form; without the full context it not as useful. I’m also not quite convinced that their search identifies for you which of the three churches the records came from. So I use a hard copy as well.

This church, founded in 1709, is still an active parish. See the Church of St. Andrew website for a brief description of its history.

Interpreting Tombstone Markings

If you are planning to visit a cemetery, particularly an older one, to find your ancestor’s graves, you may encounter unfamiliar words or abbreviations in the inscription.  These may hold important genealogical clues that you will want to follow up on.

Colonial Terms

A couple of unfamiliar terms that I’ve encountered are:

  • A.E. – an abbreviation for “age”
  • Consort of – indicates that a wife has died before her husband, who is named
  • Relict of – not as bad as it sounds, this indicates that a woman died a widow, and names the husband who died before she did.
  • In Nth year – indicates that the person had not yet reached the stated age; “in the 79th year of her age” would mean that the deceased was 78 years old at the time of death.

Abbreviations

Saving Graves has a guide to interpreting grave stone abbreviations that lists common acronyms for fraternal organizations and societies of which the deceased was a member.

Languages Other Than English

Carvings and Motifs

The ornamental motifs and carvings on a stone are often symbolic and can provide additional clues. Good resources for interpreting these are How to Interpret Gravestone Motifs and Symbolism on Gravestones. If it’s a veteran’s stone you’re interested in, the list of Permitted Religious Emblems on Government Headstones and Markers may be helpful.

Second Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Grave Yard

Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island (FASCI) has posted a concise history of the fate of the Second Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Church and Grave Yard, including a list of plot owners and some burials. This was compiled from a combination of records obtained from various sources.

Sadly, the cemetery property was subject to extensive legal wrangling, because although burial records and maps prove that the property was used as a cemetery, the corporation that ran it apparently did not properly record the land use. This left it legally vulnerable to redevelopment, which, inevitably, occurred.

If you have any information on this cemetery, FASCI invites your contributions or corrections.