The St. James’ Episcopal Church graveyard tour is more than just a walk around a cemetery. It is a lantern-lit journey through the history of Hyde Park and some of the local figures who have shaped that history – and in some cases, the history of the United States. The Halloween-themed, family-friendly event was designed to engage the faith community in the area, says The Reverend Chuck Kramer, Rector of St. James. “I’ve tried to model this so we remind people that this is a place of faith, even with all of the history,” he says.
The tour was first conceived in 2010 to attract more people to the church, and since its inception, five other locations have gone on to host similar tours. Still, Reverend Kramer believes this tour stands out from the rest for not only being the first of its kind, but for its quality. “For a tiny little congregation and graveyard, we probably have the highest density of interesting people [buried here],” he says. “We have the guy who invented the plunger, and the guy who created Child Protective Services.”
Commemorating the Great War
Each year has a theme that presents itself, according to Kramer. This year’s theme is the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I, with local figures who were engaged in the European conflict. Kramer himself plays one of those figures, Ogden Livingston Mills, the former Secretary of Treasury under President Herbert Hoover. Mills’s family was one of the wealthiest in the Hudson Valley, and a rival of the Roosevelt family. While he was a state senator in New York, Mills left his office to serve as a captain in the U.S. Army during the Great War.
Kramer, who admits to acting only once before, in a play in eighth grade, stepped up to the challenge of playing a role in the tours after a few actors dropped out. Up until then, he only had control over the scripts for each tour, as he was and still is one of the scriptwriters for the event. “One of the difficulties with actors is that sometimes they get sick or get stuck in traffic,” he says. “One year, one of the actresses was sick, and we didn’t know what to do, and someone asked me to write a role for myself. Luckily, there were a lot of priests buried here, and I know the history of them all. I had to be a priest because that was the only thing I had a costume for.”
Andrew William Gordineer, a local actor based in the Hyde Park area, took on the role of Private William T. White, who fought in the U.S. Army during World War I as well.
Representing the female effort in the war is Shannon Butler, the Town of Hyde Park historian, who portrays nurse and activist Ruth Morgan. Morgan was responsible for organizing flying squadrons of nurses and was one of five High Commissioners of the American Red Cross during the war. As Morgan, Butler details how she and her sisters were encouraged to follow their own paths and go against the grain of what was expected of a woman at the time. Her sister Margaret was a suffragette, and her sister Geraldine was known as the “First Lady of New Jersey” for her social activism in that state. “I’m a descendant of every prominent Northeast feminist, but that is not enough for a Morgan girl,” she says. “My mother taught her daughters to be more than ornaments of society.”
The church has a strong connection to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born in Hyde Park and maintained a residence there, which is now the home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. Roosevelt and his family attended St. James, and members of his family are buried in the cemetery. This year’s tour also honors the special connection to the 32nd President of the United States and his First Lady by featuring some of their close acquaintances.
Lester and Marge Entrup were a couple appointed to be houseman and cook for Eleanor Roosevelt toward the end of her life. A notable event occurred during a Memorial Day picnic at Roosevelt’s Val-Kill estate featuring Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1958. “We were told to make something Russian, and I only knew how to make Borscht,” says Marge, played by veteran actress Wendy Urban-Mead, “and guess what we had for dinner every night after that?” The Entrups were so close to the family that Lester was a pallbearer during Eleanor Roosevelt’s funeral in 1962. “We mourned as if we lost one of our own,” says Urban-Mead as Marge.
Gerald Morgan was a graduate of Yale College and war correspondent in Europe during World War I. He later became acquainted with FDR as a neighbor after his wife inherited the property next to the Roosevelts’ home. “Indeed, he once asked me to be on the Social Security Commission,” says regular tour actor Pete Bedrosian as Morgan. “I was a Yale man in a Harvard White House.” Kramer shares a story about Eleanor Roosevelt that was not mentioned during the tour: “Eleanor Roosevelt’s granddaughter died two days before John F. Kennedy was set to meet with the former First Lady to see if she would endorse him. As she’s grieving her granddaughter, JFK came to her. She was the powerbroker back then.”
The St. James Graveyard Tour will be taking place on Fridays and Saturdays this month until October 20. Tours last one hour and start at 7:00 p.m., 7:30 p.m., and 8:00 p.m., at St. James’ Episcopal Church, 4526 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY. For more information or to buy tickets ($20 adults; $10 children 12 and under), visit the parish website at StJamesHydePark.org online. The parish office will also take calls, at (845) 229-2820, for information about the tour, Tuesdays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. All proceeds benefit the on-going ministry and outreach of St. James.