The creation of the Presbyterian Cemetery was a reaction to the devastating yellow fever epidemic that hit Alexandria in 1803, resulting in the death of hundreds of its inhabitants and surpassing the capacity of the local town and church burial areas.
In 1804, the town’s local council implemented a regulation preventing the sale of additional burial spaces within the town past March of that year. Five years later, in 1809, a further law was enacted that prohibited any more burials inside the town limits.
The Meeting House identified a suitable location for a new burial site at The Spring Garden Farm. This spot was in an open area in Fairfax County and along the boundary between Virginia and the District of Columbia, as the town was part of the District then. Presently, the cemetery is incorporated into the City of Alexandria, situated within the historic and still operational Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, comprising 13 cemeteries that span 82 acres.
On the 22nd of June, 1809, an agreement was made between church members and Philip (the son of Lt. Col. Philip Marsteller, who passed away in 1803 and was interred in Old Christ Cemetery) and Christina D. J. Copper Marsteller (1773 – January 5, 1815). Upon Christina’s death, she was laid to rest in either Section 41:29 or Section 42 of the cemetery, for an annual fee of $45.00. There’s evidence that burials were taking place in the cemetery prior to 1809, as some of the grave markers date back to 1803.
The property was fully purchased by the “Presbyterian Congregation of the Town of Alexandria” on February 6, 1813, for the sum of $450.00. This acquisition was officially recorded in the Fairfax County deed book M2 on page 311.
Several of the individuals who were original signatories to the contract were eventually interred in the cemetery. This includes Elder Thomas Vowell (October 24, 1769 – October 15, 1845) in Section 42:61, Hugh Smith (May 23, 1769 – October 22, 1856) in 41:30, Andrew Jamieson (1749 – July 6, 1823) in 41:2, and Joseph Harper (who died in 1809). Harper is believed to be buried in the cemetery, though the exact location of his gravesite remains unknown.
Additionally, three more congregations in the town—Christ Church Episcopal, St. Paul’s Episcopal, and Trinity Methodist—also established their own graveyards on the same parcel of farmland. They accomplished this by purchasing land from the Marstellers.
Dwindling Membership Closes the First Presbyterian Church doors.
In 1899, the First Presbyterian Church disbanded due to declining attendance, and its possessions were transferred to the Second Presbyterian Church. The ownership of the cemetery, however, was assumed by the Washington City Presbytery, and it was not handed over to the Second Presbyterian Church.
Despite the fact that the cemetery was neglected and not formally cared for, individuals continued to bury their loved ones there, and plot owners took personal responsibility for maintaining its appearance. An example of this occurred in 1903 when Martha Vowell Smith (March 2, 1839 – March 18, 1926), also known as Maggie, installed an iron fence around the cemetery following the death of her mother, Sarah Gosnell Vowell Smith (October 6, 1813 – March 16, 1902). Along with the addition of double gates, Maggie also placed cast iron signs at the entrance, inscribed with the words “Presbyterian Cemetery 1809” in gold letters. This iron fence and the gates remain intact and continue to encircle and guard the cemetery to this day. The use of iron in the fence resonates with a historical belief that iron could ward off spirits, a notion that led to its frequent use in old cemeteries. Similarly, spiked fences were often used in many cemeteries with the intention of containing the spirits of the deceased within the grounds.
Trustees of the Cemetery
In 1923, the Circuit Court of Alexandria designated Trustees to oversee the management of the cemetery, granting them legal ownership. This occurred even though the “Alexandria Presbyterian Church” retained the official ownership document. Among the appointed trustees were Edward Lonsdale Daingerfield (November 5, 1847 – October 14, 1925), whose resting place is Section 25:7 marked by a cross with an angel, Erastus Worth Hulfish (September 1848 – September 4, 1930) in Section 25:14, and Ernest Linwood Allen (November 1856 – June 15, 1939) in Section 13:3.
In later years, the group of trustees was expanded to include David Nicholas Hulfish (1884 – September 27, 1961), memorialized in section 25:14 as a cenotaph, Orlando Henderson “Lanny” Kirk (November 18, 1880 – March 23, 1960) in Section 18:20, and Gilbert Jefferson Cox Jr. (February 8, 1895 – August 12, 1978) in Section 36:11. These individuals were entrusted with the care and maintenance of the cemetery, reflecting the community’s ongoing commitment to honoring and preserving the final resting place of its citizens.
Management by the Second Presbyterian Church
On June 23, 1950, the leadership body known as the Session of the Second Presbyterian accepted the responsibility of overseeing the “Old Presbyterian Cemetery.” Among those selected to manage this historic burial ground was Josiah Stickley Everly (April 29, 1901 – May 14, 1982), who was a funeral director and the proprietor of the Wheatly Funeral Home located at 807 King Street. His son, John Clark Everly (November 18, 1933 – October 10, 2011), took on the role of the administrator for the Presbyterian Cemetery. Both Josiah and John were ultimately interred at Ivy Hill Cemetery.
Two additional trustees from the Second Presbyterian Church were appointed to care for the cemetery: Joseph Hazel Newell (April 5, 1890 – March 10, 1973) and Robert Goodacre Whitton (January 31, 1906 – April 17, 1986). Both of these men were later buried within the grounds of the Presbyterian Cemetery. Their joint stewardship exemplified the ongoing dedication and connection of the church community to the care and preservation of this important historical site.
The Old Presbyterian Meeting House reopens its doors!
On June 12, 1949, the Second Presbyterian congregation experienced a growth in membership in the aftermath of World War II, leading to a need for additional space. However, the existing location had no room for expansion. To resolve this challenge, a new Presbyterian congregation was established at the site of the old First Church. This newly formed assembly was christened the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, reflecting both its historical roots and the continuation of the Presbyterian tradition in the community.
The Reverend William R. Sengel
In 1960, The Reverend William R. Sengel took on the role of pastor at the Meeting House and embarked on a 26-year mission to reclaim the Presbyterian Cemetery under the Session’s authority. His systematic approach began with becoming a trustee himself, gradually replacing the other trustees with members from the Meeting House congregation. His dedicated efforts culminated in success in 1993 when the cemetery was finally brought back under the church’s control. After serving as the pastor for many years, Sengel retired in 1986 and was honored with the title of pastor emeritus of the Meeting House. His leadership and determination have left an enduring impact on the community and the church’s legacy.
Cemetery “reaffirms” its relationship with the Meeting House.
In 1998, the leadership acknowledged the profound connection between the Church, the Cemetery, and the Session of the Meeting House. This recognition led to a significant milestone, and by 1999, The Alexandria Presbyterian Cemetery was officially incorporated into the ministry of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. The integration marked a symbolic union, reflecting the intertwined history and shared values of these spiritual and community landmarks.
A Board of Directors replaced trustees.
Among those interred in the cemetery are Reverend William R. Sengel and three trustees who played significant roles in the church community. These individuals include William Richard Auman (1892 – 1974) in Section 18:22, Jeannette Josepha Drew Smalling (July 24, 1923 – August 28, 2008) in Section 44:138, and Sherman Curtis Hildreth (November 9, 1917 – February 11, 2012) in Section 2:2:5. Their final resting places within the cemetery serve as enduring tributes to their contributions to the spiritual life and heritage of the congregation.
Alexandria’s Second Presbyterian Church dissolves.
On October 6, 2002, the Second Presbyterian Church of Alexandria was forced to close its doors, as the small congregation of just 30 members was unable to sustain its operation. The National Capital Presbytery, the governing body that oversees multiple churches in the region, subsequently sold the church’s land and building to developers. The funds generated from the sale were then utilized to support various charitable organizations, ensuring that the legacy of the church continued through acts of philanthropy and community support.
Recognizing the need for dedicated oversight of daily operations, the Cemetery Board sought an individual who could manage various tasks at the cemetery, such as selling plots, transferring grave ownership, planning and coordinating burials, marking graves, issuing work permits, and maintaining the grounds. Fred Morhart, a member of the Meeting House, temporarily assumed these responsibilities until December 31, 2000.
On January 1, 2001, Bob Ellis, another member of the Meeting House, was appointed as the cemetery’s first “official” Superintendent. During his 14-year tenure, Ellis implemented many positive changes, including constructing a Columbarium at the west end of the property, which was completed in February 2008. With this addition, the cemetery adopted the new name, “The Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium.”
Ellis’s dedication to enhancing the cemetery’s appearance and function left a lasting impact on the site, and he became well-regarded for his contributions. Upon his retirement on December 31, 2014, he left behind a legacy of thoughtful stewardship and improvement, ensuring the cemetery continued to serve as a dignified resting place for the community.
On January 1, 2015, David Heiby, a member of the Meeting House, was brought on board to manage the cemetery. His appointment marked a continuation of the tradition of involving congregation members in the care and oversight of this significant community landmark.
The Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium today!
Today, the Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium spans 7 acres and continues to function as an active cemetery. With over 1000 burial plots and a Columbarium featuring 192 spaces available for purchase, it accommodates various interment options. Each space within the Columbarium has the capacity to hold two small urns. The cemetery forms a part of the larger 82-acre Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, comprising thirteen individual cemeteries. Since its inception in 1796, the complex has been the final resting place for more than 35,000 people, reflecting a rich tapestry of history and community in the region.
Sources of Information
McGroarty, William Bucker. The Old Presbyterian Meeting House at Alexandria, VA 1774 – 1874. Richmond, Virginia, The William Byrd Press, Inc. 1940.
Pippenger, Wesley E. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volume 1, Family Line Publications, Westminster, MD, and Heritage Books, Inc., Bowie, MD. 1992.
Van Horn, Hugh M. The Presbyterian Cemetery Alexandria, Virginia 1809 – 2009. The Arlington Press, Arlington, Virginia for the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. 2009.
Dahmann, Donald C., Archivist and member of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. The roster of Historic Congregational Members of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Updated 2022.
See the official website of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House for information on the church’s history.
Archives of the Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium. Maintained by Superintendent David Heiby.