For most people, the old Wyckoff-Snediker Family Cemetery is nothing more than a plot of overgrowth behind a church on 97th Street. But for residents of Woodhaven, it is a key part of the neighborhood’s history, and hopefully its future.
The cemetery, located behind All Saints Church, is where 138 early Dutch settlers and their descendants lie. In operation from the mid-18th century until just before the dawn of the 20th, the graveyard is the final resting place of dozens of people with familiar last names — Wyckoff, Snediker, Elderts, and so on.
But in recent decades, maintenance at the cemetery has lapsed and overgrowth has damaged the graves.
Last summer, residents whose backyards abut the graveyard complained about the conditions, worried that unkempt trees and plants would damage their homes or backyards.
The church’s previous congregation left in 2011 and a new congregation, All Saints Episcopal, moved in last year.
This year, with the support of the new pastor, the Rev. Norman Whitmire, the Woodhaven Historical Society decided to do a cleanup at the cemetery. It was held this past Saturday.
What followed was something bigger and more exciting than organizers had expected.
“It was a great turnout,” said Ed Wendell, the historical society’s president. “We had a very mixed group: older people, young people, families. What really pleased me was how many parents have decided to do this project with their kids.”
Patty Eggers, a teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Woodhaven said many of her students have become dedicated to the project.
“They’ve really developed a relationship with the people buried there,” Eggers said.
Originally the students took part as a sequel to their documentary last year called “Woodhaven: Diverse backgrounds united in one history.” That project led to a film that included interviews with Woodhaven civic leaders and officials and a premiere at a nearby movie theater. Eggers said the project got students more interested in Woodhaven history.
As news spread about the cleanup beyond the St. Thomas history club, other students joined in.
“We had St. Thomas students there who weren’t part of the history club and we have two students who didn’t even go to St. Thomas,” Eggers said. “It looks like we’re really going to open this up to other kids in the neighborhood.”
The students have also begun creating family trees for the families buried in the cemetery. One 12-year-old girl even researched the family that used to own her home, whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery.
“They’ve really taken possession of it,” Eggers said.
Only about a quarter of the cemetery was cleaned last weekend and Wendell said the group will conduct monthly cleanups, even through next winter. The next event will be held Aug. 9.
“Eventually, some of the missing gravestones will be either replaced or smaller markers will be put in their place,” Wendell added.
Among those buried at the cemetery, are two brothers from the Ditmars family — the namesake of the boulevard in Astoria— who died in the American Revolution and a Union soldier who died in the Civil War on the battlefield in Virginia.
He would like to see the cemetery restored into a space that’s open to the public to come and learn about the site, its history and its importance to the neighborhood.
“That’s a long, long way off though,” he warned. “Right now we have a lot of work to do there.”
Eggers was left optimistic. She noted that having children as young as 12 taking part in the cleanup and taking the initiative to learn more about those laid to rest at the cemetery means they may have the time and energy to see a restoration project through and learn young to take pride in their neighborhood.
“If they care this much about their community now, then I think they’re going to take good care of Woodhaven into the future,” she said.