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The New York Sun

30 Years Of Keeping Watch Over Ghosts And Crypts At St. Mark's Church


17 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC. All rights reserved. 

Jimmy Fragosa hates the hustle and bustle of New York City, so when he has to go farther, or faster, than his feet or bike can take him, he eschews subways and buses for the calm quietude of a New York City taxi.

Despite his aversion to noise and crowds, Mr. Fragosa, 44, doesn't come from the country or the suburbs. He's a native New Yorker and he's lived in an apartment on the Lower East Side for 40 years. He's worked close by, at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, for the past 30. When he came to St. Mark's in the summer of 1975 along with 16 other kids through the Preservation Youth Project, he scraped the old, faded paint from the fences that surround the church, the second oldest in the city after St. Paul's Chapel.

"It was crazy," he said. "We had a chisel and a hammer and a hot summer's day and stuff sticking on you. It was the worst job I'd ever had, like a chain gang." But he stuck around as a repairman, working after school and on the weekends. In 1986 he was promoted to sexton, which formally put him in charge of taking care of the church building and property.

St. Mark's was constructed to serve as the family chapel of Peter Stuyvesant, who is buried in the churchyard. Ever since he was laid to rest there in 1672, ghost tales have persisted; believers claim the final Dutch governor haunts anyone who disturbs his grave. One of the tales is as recent as the 1960s: The then-sexton visited the chapel late at night only to flee in wild alarm at the sight of the approaching apparition of a flame-eyed and timber-toed Stuyvesant.

Asked about supernatural forces at St. Mark's, Mr. Fragosa said, "We've been on television - ghost mysteries and stuff like that - but I personally haven't seen it, to be honest with you."

When a crypt collapsed from the pressure of a tree's root in 1991, Mr. Fragosa saw skeletons, bones, and old, rotted coffins. Seeing such debris through the rubble was enough for him and he refused to go down and prod further. Afterward, the catacomb like vaults were sealed to keep the ghosts in and robbers out. St. Mark's, owing both to its location in the Bowery, recently gentrified but historically a cradle of squalor, or to stories of buried treasure, has always had problems with the thieving type. So, now the vaults can only be opened with

jackhammers, and the church itself has had a security system for decades.

Mr. Fragosa was there for the famous fire of 1978 that almost destroyed the entire church.

"They were welding some drain sprouts for the gutters from the roof, and a little spark got in because they were using a torch, an oxy-acetylene torch, and it was a hot July day, and the timber was dry and a little spark got in and it went up like a match.... There were about 16 of us here. And the fan of the steeple was on and that's why people didn't see the fire because it was actually drawing into the steeple from the roof. It was amazing. The firemen were here within, probably 10 minutes... I've never seen a fire rage like that. The timber was 200 years old."

The damage from the fire and the water that ultimately extinguished it was extensive, and several years went by before St. Mark's reopened.

Despite supplementing its income by renting out space to the Ontological Theater, the Poetry Project, and Danspace Project, St. Mark's has always been short on cash. Mr. Fragosa said there haven't been any substantial repairs since the early 1980s and at present, the church needs a new roof for which there are no funds. It is expected to cost $40,000.

The church's philosophy behind renting out space to artists, said Mr. Fragosa, has been one of, "if we can get them in to see the show, maybe they'll start coming to church or even donate money." But the congregation remains small. "Unfortunately we're down to 70 people," he said. "I wish we could pinpoint why, why we don't get people here. I personally feel that there aren't a lot of Episcopalians around here."

Mr. Fragosa's mother is from Puerto Rico and he grew up in the Catholic church. Over the years Mr. Fragosa has had opportunities to transfer to other churches but has opted to stay at St. Mark's. "I love it because everyone's nice here," he said with a smile.

It seems that everyone feels the same way about him. Those involved with St. Mark’s, from radicals to artists to parishioners, know who he is - and that includes celebrities. Just the other day he met Julianne Moore and David Duchovny, who were at St. Mark's filming a wedding scene for the film "Trust the Man."

"I've met a lot of movie stars here. ... but I don't ask for autographs or anything like that," said Mr. Fragosa. "I just try to talk to them like people and welcome them here."

Asked if he has an especially fond memory of St. Mark's, Mr. Fragosa doesn't hesitate: "My first paycheck was great," he laughs before adding more seriously, "when I got paid my first check it was so rewarding ... I was 14 years old, then."

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