The forgotten history of a Victorian-era Irish cemetery in Saint John
As many as 16,000 people are buried in St. Mary's Cemetery, mostly in unmarked graves
St. Mary's Cemetery, overlooking the sprawling Irving Oil Refinery, is tucked away on the south side of busy Loch Lomond Road.
Saint Johners drive past it every day without giving it a second glance.
Few realize the graveyard is among the oldest Irish Catholic cemeteries in Canada — the final resting place of as many as 16,000 men and women who helped build the city of Saint John, including some who were originally buried on Partridge Island.
The cemetery "goes back 160 years, at least," said Marijke Blok, secretary of the city's Irish Canadian Cultural Association.
A few notable Victorian Saint Johners, including Honoria Conway, founder of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception, and French consul Israël Landry — are buried there.
But the vast majority are nameless "labourers who built the parishes — and rebuilt when the Great Fire [of 1877] happened," Blok said.
Most of the graves are unmarked and overgrown with bushes.
The headstones that remain have been heavily damaged by years of vandalism, harsh weather and pollution.
But as of January 2019, a preliminary effort has been launched to secure the future of the historically significant site.
Among oldest Irish cemeteries in Canada
When St. Mary's was founded in 1853 by a resolution of the congregation of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, it was located outside the city limits in the rural Parish of Simonds.
It was the only Catholic cemetery in the region until 1878, when St. Joseph's Cemetery opened on Westmorland Road.
Between six and eight thousand people attended the consecration ceremony at St. Mary's, the New Brunswick Courier reported in the summer of 1853.
The back section of the cemetery was "the free ground" — unconsecrated land used for the burial of unbaptized infants, people who died by suicide, and others believed to be cut off from the sacraments of the church.
At the edge of the free ground was a small, wooden chapel, which housed a small library on its upper floor. The chapel burned to the ground in 1859.
There are no known written descriptions or diagrams of the 5.7-hectare site's original layout, local historian Mary Kilfoil McDevitt writes in We Hardly Knew Ye, a book about St. Mary's Cemetery.
The property stretched from Loch Lomond Road — then known as Botsford Mill Road — almost to the Little River.
The last lot in the cemetery was sold on Sept. 8, 1930.
Many victims of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s who died en route to Saint John, including those who died of cholera at the quarantine station on Partridge Island, were re-interred at St. Mary's "after the danger had passed," Blok said.
In 1994, the Saint John branch of the cultural association erected a Celtic cross on the site to commemorate, according to the inscription, those "nameless and forgotten, many of them once prominent citizens, but for the most part, ordinary men and women with no particular claim to fame, but whose offspring still comprise a major portion of the population of modern day Saint John."
Within about two years, about 30,000 Irish immigrants came to Saint John, Blok said.
"The enduring Irish presence in the city is a testament to the courage and the tenacity of the immigrant generation and to the commitment of their descendants in preserving their legacy," the inscription on the cross reads.
The relatively isolated location has made the cemetery attractive to vandals.
In the 1960s, the entrance and staircase of a large vault belonging to the McGuiggan family was closed off with concrete to keep out trespassers.
In the summer of 2003, on two separate occasions, someone knocked over a total of 88 headstones — some up to 150 years old — causing over $100,000 damage.
While some stones were repaired more than a decade ago, in 2019 many of the monuments are again toppled and damaged.
"I happened to stop by St. Mary's a couple of weeks ago and it was pretty heartbreaking to see the condition of the cemetery and the stones," said Dave Barnes, who runs a business restoring of gravestones, cenotaphs, and other monuments.
Barnes — whose great-grandmother, like many of the people in the cemetery, hailed from County Cork — wants to give those buried in St. Mary's the final respect they deserve.
"If money were no object, I would like to clean up all those stones and see a hedgerow lining the driveway — and maybe some nice wild Irish roses around the perimeter," he said.
"It was pretty tough times being Irish in 1853. There was a lot discrimination."
In late January, Barnes launched a crowd-funding campaign with the goal of raising $55,000 to cover the costs of restoring the remaining stones.
The plan has not yet been approved by the Catholic Diocese of Saint John, which owns the property, according to Bishop Robert Harris.
"These people weren't treated with the utmost respect when they were alive, but they certainly deserve better as a final tribute," Barnes said.
"I'd like to see them get that."