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St. Matthew’s cemetery goes on the market

St. Matthew’s Church in Woodhaven had its final mass Sunday, which deconsecrated it as an official house of worship and put the fate of the nearly century-old building in jeopardy — along with an even older cemetery out back.

“There were a lot of tears,” said Alan Smith, who was baptized at the Episcopal church and attended the ceremony.

Smith’s mother was married in the church and attended services as a child with Smith’s grandparents. Like Smith, many parishioners had been attending services for generations.

But others have been on the property for even longer.

The cemetery in the back of the church — called the Wyckoff-Snediker Cemetery, the Lott Family Cemetery or the St. Matthew’s Churchyard depending on who you ask — was originally a resting place for Dutch settlers, according to Smith.

The cemetery actually had no affiliation with St. Matthew’s until the church bought it from the city in the 1960s to protect it from vandals, he said.

“Many people thought it was a churchyard. It never was,” he said. “If you thought about it, most of the names are Dutch, the farmers here were Dutch, it could never be a churchyard of an Anglican church because it just wouldn’t make sense.”

Dutch settlers to the region were predominately Protestant or Catholic, and likely would not have been buried at an Episcopal church.

There are more than 100 headstones in the half-acre cemetery, Smith said, and some of the earliest date back to 1792.

Smith is part of the Queens County Historical Society and spent at least six years restoring the cemetery.

He is unsure what will happen to the cemetery, but according to the state attorney general’s office and a nearby real estate lawyer, the church will not have an easy time selling it.

“Basically, the law says any church who has a cemetery needs a court order to approve the sale,” said Forest Hills attorney Robert Kaplan. “More than likely, the court will not approve it.”

And according to the attorney general’s office, the only exception to the rule is if another cemetery or church buys the property.

A spokesman for the Diocese of Long Island, which ran the church, said that other churches have already expressed interest in the property and that the diocese would follow any necessary steps in order to comply with the law.

But in addition to the people buried out back, there were nearly 40 urns of ashes stored inside, according to the Rev. Canon Kris Lee.

The diocese has attempted to contact the families of the people interred in the columbarium, but will move all unclaimed cremains to Grace Episcopal Church, at 151-17 14th Road in Whitestone next Thursday.

The diocese will not be maintaining the cemetery, according to Lee.

The cemetery has been overgrown ever since a disagreement between Smith and the rector at the church.

Other former parishioners have said the Rev. Tracey Williams did not get along with many in the congregation and was partially responsible for the decline of the church.

“It did not have to go down so quickly,” said one longtime member who no longer attends services at St. Matthew’s. “He is one of the main reasons why people left.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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