The tombstones flanking the historical Christ Church Manhasset all have a story to tell and Phyllis Sternemann, the historian at the church, is on a mission to share the history that took place right here in Manhasset.
On its way to becoming an annual event, the Historic Cemetery Tour will be held for the second time at Christ Church Manhasset on Oct. 2 from 12 to 5 p.m. The first event was held in 2019 and the following year, it had to be canceled due to the pandemic.
“When we had it two years ago, everybody was so happy to learn about the cemetery,” Sternemann said. “Usually, people wait on that corner where the traffic light changes and they’re staring off into the tombstones. That’s why we put the banner there to let people see that [the tour] is coming up soon.”
The tour features lessons in history and even live performances from actors portraying the buried who left a legacy that still impacts the community to this day. “We’re hoping for a big turnout because there’s fun things for people to do as well,” Sternemann said. “Some of the characters are going to inspire people to do more research or ask some questions. We hope the children who come to the church with their families will learn something and get to say ‘wow I never knew that’ and that they’ll walk away saying ‘gee, I wonder about this other tombstone.’ And maybe next year that will be a featured tombstone.”
And once everyone is on campus in October, the Rev. Stephen Tamke added, they will be able to see the renovations happening inside the church, a historic building in of itself with priceless stained glass windows and a decades-old organ.
Populating the cemetery are many people who lived fascinating lives, including Singleton L. Mitchell, who surveyed the church in a record that is still used to this day; 3-year old Margaret Olivia Mcllvaine, whose father served in the Civil War and survived the Battle of Antietam; the Burdicks, both of whom survived the fire at the Hotel Burlington; and Cpl. Arthur H. Wright, who fought in WWI.
“In this area we have the Allens, then we have the Motts, the Sands, the Hewletts and all those are really historic families that have roots back to the Mayflower,” Sternemann said. “So, just having people know that ‘look, these people were active and alive around here even before the church was built.’ They used to go to St. George’s Church in Hempstead, which is 12 miles south of here. And that was their day.”
With Christ Church Manhasset being built in 1802, a service looked much different than it did today. Parishioners paid 50 cents to park their horses in the stables during service and families rented pews for themselves, keeping all their family Bibles and prayer books there.
It is unknown just how many people are buried at this cemetery. Sternemann said the church is currently in the process of registering the tombstones on a map, in a card file and digitally so that a deceased person can easily be looked up and found on the grounds if someone wants to find a grave.
“We’re finding out more and more with the research that we’re doing,” Sternemann said. “I have another team-mate that’s an archivist with me and we’re currently organizing the archives and that’s where we’re finding some of the information in order to put it into the cemetery tour, because each character is reenacted with true information about what their life entailed. We’re finding out all kinds of cool things.”
The earliest records of a burial on the grounds is 1827 to 1835 and to this day, the grounds are still an active burial ground. But many questions are left unanswered because of two separate fires in the church that took the building, and all the records, with it. The first church stood from 1802 to 1869, the second from 1869 to 1912 and the third version of the church, the present one, has been standing since 1912, the year someone recorded what was written on each tombstone then.
“We believe the first book [with the record of the burials] was burned in one of the fires when the church had a tragic fire and the whole church burned down,” Sternemann said. “Back then they didn’t have a separate building, like now we have the church building and then this is the administrative building. But when it was all in once place, that was the problem.”
To attend this historic adventure, which will also feature a bake sale, visit christchurchmanhasset.org.