We Hardly Knew Ye
St. Mary’s Cemetery, Saint John, N.B., An Enduring Presence
By Ruby M. Cusack
Although the wind was howling and a storm was brewing, Mum insisted we go to church. Since there were so few people in attendance, in my opinion it was not worth the effort for the minister.
I wonder if Father Ffrench felt that way when he celebrated his first Mass in Saint John in 1813, as he noted that there were “not more than twenty adult male Catholics in the place, not including soldiers from the garrison”.
But by the next year, 1814, the simple wooden structure named St. Malachy’s Church was built on the centrally located corner of Leinster and Sydney Streets and for twenty-five years, it was the only Catholic Church in the vicinity.
Immigration from Ireland began as a trickle in the early 1800s and quickly accelerated to a steady stream. In 1821, 176 baptisms were recorded and in the year 1841, there were 1010 baptisms. In 1853, under Thomas Connolly property was purchased on a rocky hillside on Waterloo Street, which was considered quite far removed from the city’s centre. A thirty-acre lot on the south side of the Botsford Mill Road located not even in the city but in the parish of Simonds was purchased from Arthur McLean. Although the road frontage was only four hundred and fifty feet, the land reached far back, almost to the shore of Little River.
At a general meeting of the Catholic congregation, a series of rules were drawn up, stating it was to be intended exclusively for Roman Catholics, to consist of two parts - purchased lots and free ground. The lot fee was one pound and a ten-shilling burial fee must be paid. It is interesting to note that no headstone could be erected until all purchase money of the lot and the burial fee be paid. No monuments could be erected on free ground.
The first lots were purchased on July 15, 1853, by Michael Meloy, Edward Lawlor, Patrick Caples and John Gallagher. The cemetery was officially opened on August 21, 1853. According to a newspaper account of the event, eight thousand people crowded close to the steps of the small chapel at the back of the cemetery to listen to the two-hour “discourse” by the Archbishop and to participate in the procession that wound its way through the cemetery, pausing for prayer at various locations where crosses had been set up for that purpose, during the all day ceremony.
Actually the first recorded burial was of Michael O’Regan, which took place on July 17, 1853 several days before the consecration.
For the next twenty-five years, the cemetery was known simply as “the New Catholic Cemetery” and when the Bishop opened another cemetery on Westmoreland Road in 1878, it became the “New Catholic Cemetery” and St. Mary’s became the “Old Catholic Cemetery” though it continued to be used, and new lots sold there until 1930. In June of 1927, both cemeteries were officially named, “St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s”.
Mary Kilfoil McDevitt, the author of We Hardly Knew Ye: St. Mary’s Cemetery, An Enduring Presence states: “Though the Cemetery contains the graves of many once prominent citizens, for the most part the people who are buried there are ordinary men and women, with no particular claim to fame. Indeed, the “genealogical trails” of untold thousands of Irish Canadians and Irish Americans lead eventually to the windswept knoll where the more than four hundred tombstones of St. Mary’s stand guard over little pieces of Ireland.”
“We Hardly Knew Ye” gives an insight into the Irish Catholic Community of Saint John at the mid nineteenth century and can be ordered from the author, Mary Kilfoil McDevitt, Archives, Diocese of Saint John, One Bayard Drive, Saint John, N.B., E2L 3L5. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruby is a genealogy buff. Readers are invited to send their New Brunswick genealogical queries to her at email@example.com. When E-Mailing please put Yesteryear Families in the Subject line. Please include in the query, your name and postal address as someone reading the newspaper, may have information to share with you but not have access to E-mail. Queries should be no more than 45 words in length.