Preservationists fighting to protect a historic East Village church happened upon a surprising discovery recently: The 100-year-old Mary Help of Christians church was built on top of an even older Catholic cemetery — once the largest Catholic cemetery in the city.
The discovery was made the day before community groups were organizing a rally in the hopes of getting developer David Steiner to agree to develop only the large vacant lot next to the church, and to reuse the church structure rather than tear it down.
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Steiner has apparently acquired permits to demolish the century-old church, its 150-year-old rectory, and a 90-year-old school connected to it, according to Andrew Berman with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.
"It doesn't mean they have to use them," Berman added. "But they do have them."
Berman said another reason to use the vacant lot for development is that it is the only part of the Steiner-owned land that was not built on top of the cemetery.
It is unclear whether there are still bodies below this stretch of East 12th Street: Berman said an exhumation was conducted in 1909 when bodies were supposed to be moved from this site to Calvary Cemetery in Queens, but "there is reasonable doubt" as to whether all of the bodies were successfully relocated.
"The number of bodies that were reported in the press as having been moved is significantly lower than the number of bodies that several reliable press accounts from the era said were buried there," Berman said. "Typically with cemeteries like this when they are closed down and 'moved,' oftentimes the movement is far from complete and it's common to find human remains were left behind."
"We believe that it's a possibility and one that should be explored before any excavation takes place," Berman added.
The church, for decades a nexus in the East Village's Italian community, was made famous by Allen Ginsberg, who lived across the way at 437 E. 12th St. and referenced the building's copper roof and cross in the poem "Fourth Floor, Dawn, Up All Night Writing Letters."
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat