Nova Scotia

Volunteers resurrect Irish cemetery in Halifax

A volunteer crew in Halifax is attempting to rescue a graveyard that has been plagued by vandals.
Vandals have knocked over gravestones in the Halifax cemetery.
A volunteer crew in Halifax is attempting to resurrect a graveyard that has been plagued by vandals.

Holy Cross cemetery in the city's south end has had tombstones repeatedly destroyed by people who slipped under the fence at night.

Brian O'Brien said the 168-year-old graveyard near Fenwick Tower is a major historical site in Nova Scotia's Irish history.

"There are 25,000 people buried here and most of them of Irish descent, and that's one of the things that got us involved here initially," he said.

That includes Sir John Thompson, Canada's first Roman Catholic prime minister, who died in office in 1894.

O'Brien said his group, the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax, has restored 1,280 grave markers so far.

"Why they get their kicks out of smashing gravestones I do not know. I haven't got an answer to it," he said.

He pointed to one particular stone his volunteer team was repairing.

Brian O'Brien has been fixing the graveyard for five years. (CBC)
"This was three pieces that were lying over sideways on the ground. So we had to take everything out of the ground, go down 18 inches, put 3/4 inch cleared gravel under it. Tamp it down, and put the base back here and level it off," he said.

While he and his crew work for free, the retired doctor said the materials cost a lot of money. A new steel fence it built around the graveyard also added to the bill.

O'Brien said that means fundraising is an important part of the group's work. He said after five years of work involving 150 volunteers, the rows are standing much straighter today.  

"Look at this place now. This is a substantial improvement since day one, that's for sure. And we're very pleased with it. There's a real sense of accomplishment and we're having fun," he said.

Chapel built in one day

The cemetery also has a chapel that 2,000 volunteers famously built in one day. The Our Lady of Sorrows Chapel was erected on Aug. 31, 1843, but now needs repairs. 

"A couple of hundred thousand dollars if you want to do it up first quality into relation to how it was built," O'Brien said.  

The Diocese of Halifax owns the cemetery. Peter Brown, the financial administrator, said it has a limited budget to maintain its 180 buildings.   

"[Cemeteries are] lower down the list. Certainly we want to have tidy sites and respect the dead, but there are other things that come first," he said.

O'Brien got involved because of his own Irish heritage, but is now motivated by a wider sense of duty to everyone buried at Holy Cross.

"We owe these people. We live in Canada and we're lucky to be here. So we owe these people some debt of gratitude, and the only way we really can do it, the only way we can say 'thank you' is making their resting place respectable looking. It was pretty bad before," he said.

Nearly 300 people and organizations have made donations to the Holy Cross Cemetery Foundation.