The Historic Graveyard Tour at St. James Episcopal Church in Hyde Park is now in its seventh season, drawing curious locals and serious history buffs into a live docudrama highlighting chosen “residents” of the 200-year-old cemetery. Each year, a few of these notable deceased are featured, with actual live actors and talented church members playing the roles. Their claims to fame and their connections to the Hudson Valley are retold with robust fervor and great animation. With scripts written by Father Chuck Kramer, Deirdre Mae Micker, Bev O’Halloran and Dyan Wapnick, and costuming created by Carol Vinall, the characters are vividly portrayed in all their long-ago exuberance.
The tours were originated in 2010 when the church members were planning some way to mark the bicentennial of the parish in 2011. Father Chuck said, “We were looking for ways to honor the storied history of the parish. We thought of graveyard tours because it’s such a great space, and there are such colorful people with well-known stories buried here. And their lives are well-documented.” He talked about the many now-deceased parishioners who have had biographies published on their lives, which makes the research fascinating.
The annual cast of characters gets chosen by committee. “Sometimes we literally walk through the graveyard. Maybe we see an interesting stone or something. We’ve accumulated names of people we’re chomping at the bit to do. The first year we knew we wanted to do the founders of the congregation; that made sense. They were the big movers and shakers of their day. But we’ve tried to not only have old rich folks, as it were. We’ve done teenagers or people of more humble origins, including slaves and the janitor of the parish.”
They’ve reenacted many notables, such as people who were involved in the Continental Congress and the Roosevelts’ White House cook. “This year, a secretary of the Treasury – who hated FDR, by the way. Most years we try to have one priest involved, because there are a lot of priests buried here. It reminds people that this is a churchyard, not just a cemetery. Everybody here has acted out of their faith to a degree. They were involved in things or have done things with an eye toward God.”
The lineup of characters this year includes Emily Moulton Rogers Brent (1878-1940), who was born in Hyde Park with notable ancestors in her line. She was a Manhattan socialite and supporter of women’s suffrage. The sentiment on her gravestone: “She was very lovely.” Brent will be played by Kirstin Horn. Deirdre Mae Micker will portray Maud Stoutenburgh Eliot (1869-1944), author, poet and historian who was once the chair of the National Council of Girls’ Clubs and was always an active supporter and worker for Sheltering Arms, a social service agency in New York that served the needs of arriving immigrants.
Elbridge Gerry (1837-1927) will be played by Peter Bedrossian. Gerry graduated from Columbia College and was admitted to the bar shortly after that. He worked for several years with the SPCA, and helped found the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Lydig M. Hoyt (1821-1868) was the son of a wealthy merchant, his claim to fame is that he hired a fledgling architect/landscaper, Calvert Vaux, to build his home next to his father-in-law, the owner of Mills Mansion. Hoyt is being played by Nicholas Salyer.
Ogden Livingston Mills (1884-1937) served in the New York State Senate and the US House of Representatives and was appointed Secretary of the Treasury by Herbert Hoover. With his sister Gladys Mills Phipps, Ogden formed a thoroughbred horseracing partnership called Wheatley Stable, which bred the famous Seabiscuit, and later Bold Ruler, sire of Secretariat. Mills is being portrayed by Charles Barnett.
All proceeds of the Tour benefit the ongoing ministry of St. James Episcopal Church, such as keeping the building running and paying salaries. “We have separate outreach committees to raise funds for certain projects. This fundraiser is primarily for the ongoing operations of this parish. We have about 200 people in the congregation. It’s a large physical plant – five buildings and ten acres to care for – for a small number of people.”
When asked if the church is registered as an important historical building, Father Chuck explains that it has had to be rebuilt twice, most recently for a horrific fire that destroyed all the stained glass, the organ and much of the interior. So it’s all too new to qualify for historic registry. As for the cemetery, he says “We don’t have space to sell new plots, but there are several families who bought plots years ago and have not used them yet. I’ve done many funerals here, but we can’t sell new plots. In 2003 we opened up a columbarium.”
“This tour is great family fun,” he says. “A lot of families bring younger kids. Teenagers come and have a great time. The Methodist Church brought their youth group, and one of the kids said, ‘I learned more in an hour than I did in a whole year of History class!’ Five of our six actors have done the tour several years in a row. That’s important. They know what they’re doing, and they have fun. Entertain, educate and inspire: Those are the main things we want people to come away with. They go away wanting to make the world a better place. We have one group that comes back every year, and they have a tailgate party in the parking lot. It’s marvelous.”
He mentions a few things to remember about protocol in the graveyard. “Our graveyard is open all the time, and people come. I live right next door, so I watch out, and I’ve only had to chase anybody away once: a bunch of teenagers who wanted to jump around on the roofs of the mausoleums. For the most part, people are very respectful. We simply ask people to recognize that it’s sacred ground. A lot of the gravestones are very old, and some are broken. It doesn’t take much to topple one over. A hundred and fifty years ago they were using thin, soft stone, and it just doesn’t hold up very well. We try to repair or put it someplace where it will be preserved. We ask people not to lean against them.”
Other commonsense tips for enjoying the tour: This is a walking tour with limited lighting, conducted off-path through the churchyard. Although it is not appropriate for wheelchairs, strollers or walkers, a golf cart will be available at no charge for the 7 and 8 p.m. tours. (Reserve in advance when you purchase your tickets.) Wear clothing and shoes appropriate for a cool October evening and the uneven terrain.
The tour takes about an hour and will run, come hell or high wa…Oh, wait, make that “come rain or shine”; these are Episcopalians, after all. A severe weather cancellation notice will be posted on the website with a makeup date, should the abovementioned high-water condition ensue. Bring a flashlight. Bring the kids. Park for free. Step back in time.
St. James Historic Graveyard Tours, Fridays/Saturdays, October 7-22, 7/7:30/8 p.m., $17/$7, reservation only, St. James Episcopal Church, 4526 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park; (845) 229-2820, www.stjameshydepark.org, www.eventbrite.com/e/st-james-historic-graveyard-tours-2016-tickets-26703910114?ref=ebtn.