York chapel honors 19th century sisters

By Juan Soto

A Jamaica father devastated by the deaths at a young age of three of his four daughters in the 19th century decided to build a chapel in their memory.

Nicholas Ludlum, a wealthy hardware merchant, erected the gable-roofed, stone wall temple next to Prospect Cemetery after buying 3 acres of land to expand the burial ground in 1856. The cemetery was founded in 1668.

Named the Chapel of the Sisters, the Romanesque Revival temple, as well as the graveyard, deteriorated with time in the 20th century. Vandals toppled gravestones, used the two stained-glass rose windows of the structure as a target and set fires.

But after decades of abandonment, efforts to restore the cemetery and the 40-by-40-foot temple got underway in 1999. Less than 10 years later, the $790,000 restoration of the Chapel of the Sisters was completed. It included new wood windows, doors and floors, and, of course, the reinstallation of the two rose windows.

“We had to do detective work to figure out how the windows of the chapel were,” Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, said. “We had some glass and took it from there.”

The New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Greater Jamaica Development Corp. and the Prospect Cemetery Association headed the efforts to revitalize the chapel and the burial ground, next to the York College campus, at 94-20 Guy R. Brewer Blvd.

Cate Ludlam, president of the Prospect Cemetery Association, found out in 1989 that she had ancestors buried at the sacred ground in 1989.

“I was invited to a meeting of descendants, and I have worked in the project as a volunteer since then,” said Ludlam.

“I love seeing the chapel fully restored,” she added. “It is a dream come true.”

The Chapel of the Sisters is now called the Illinois Jacquet Performance Space, in memory of the jazz saxophonist who lived in southeast Queens. He performed, among others, with Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.

It has hosted since 2009 York College’s Jazz at the Chapel concert series.

“All of the sudden, the Ludlum sisters are listening to jazz,” said Breen.

Cornelia Ludlum died in 1837 at age 13, Mary Cecelia died in 1828 at age 1 and Mary died in 1855 at age 20.

Once the chapel was restored, it was time to revitalize the burial ground. Over the years, the project included the removal of the vegetation and the restoration of hundreds of the toppled headstones.

“The cemetery is a living record of the history of Jamaica as well as the history of the birth of our country,” said Ludlam.

The first documented burial that took place at the site was in 1709, with the last one in 1981.

Egbert Benson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, is buried there. His tombstone did not escape the hands of vandals.

So far, approximately 1,900 burials have been identified, including historic figures such as capital J.J. Skidmore, who fought the British on Long Island.

Prospect Cemetery “is miraculous,” said Ludlam. It is an “oasis of green with a wealth of art and history.”

Reach reporter Juan Soto by e-mail at jsoto@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.