Volunteers help preserve history at hidden J.C. parish cemetery


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Stones bearing names once lost to history are being brought to light.

Volunteers have been probing a scenic precipice above the Missouri River in search of buried headstones marking the resting places of some of St. Peter Parish’s founding members.

“You have a lot of the early Catholic families that settled in Jefferson City,” said Nancy Thompson, an avid genealogist and organizer of a group that has been restoring old cemeteries in central Missouri. “I knew if we didn’t dig those stones up and set them, some of those names would be lost forever.”

The five-and-a-half-acre tract now known as St. Peter Cemetery #1 clings inconspicuously to the river bluff near West Main Street at Brooks Street, adjacent to the east side of the Heisinger Bluffs senior-living complex.

The first recorded burial in the tract was in 1854. The last was in 1885.

The much larger and more conspicuous “St. Peter Cemetery #2,” located on West Main Street between Heisinger Bluffs and St. Joseph Bluffs, opened in 1885.

After that, nature and benign neglect gradually overtook the older cemetery as immediate family members died or moved away.

It “has lately been studded with shade-trees and shrubbery, rendering it a beautiful though weird city of the dead,” Marcellus John Otto, who was a sophomore at Immaculate Conception High School, wrote in a 1939 essay for the Knights of Columbus.

“I noticed that some graves have gone down over the embankment, the tombstones only a foot or two from the edge,” wrote Mr. Otto. “This probably was caused by the blasting of rock on the adjoining property.”

“Hundreds pass it daily without stopping to reflect on the sacredness of that forlorn spot,” fellow I.C. sophomore Mary Ann Forck asserted in her 1939 essay. “One scarcely wonders at their indifference because an abruptly-cut bluff, tall weeds, and low dilapidated fences indicate that the ground is only another of the city’s ill-kept lots.

“And yet,” she continued, “there on that desolate area are interred more than one hundred and forty-four of the pioneer Catholic citizens of Jefferson City. ... Reason have we, then, to revere the ground whereon are buried the bodies of pioneer Catholics — those faithful men and women, who have blazed the trail for a strong faith and a burning Christianity in our own Jefferson City.”

Family ties

A bumper sticker on Mrs. Thompson’s car reads, “I brake for cemeteries.”

“I spend all my waking moments uncovering history on people in the cemeteries so I can share the information online,” she said.

She served on the Jefferson City Cemetery Resource Board for five years and spent a great deal of her free time restoring portions of the Woodland-Old City Cemetery on East McCarty Street and successfully nominating the cemetery for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s the oldest cemetery in town,” she noted. “That’s how I got started.”

She posts the information she finds while exploring and restoring old cemeteries on an interactive website called findagrave.com.

“I can share the information with other genealogists who are looking to find where their family members are buried,” she said.

She hopes other genealogists and cemetery documenters will one day help her fill in gaps in her own family history.

Three years ago, Mrs. Thompson joined forces with Darrell Strope and Darrell Schubert, who had been working to restore rural cemeteries in and around Cole County since the 1990s.

One of their notable collaborations was the restoration of the Rice-Sone Cemetery on Glovers Ford Road near the Capital City. The people at rest there include the widow of a Revolutionary War veteran and her three daughters.

“So there are 54 or 56 burials in there and only five tombstones still standing,” she recalled. “We had to cut down a bunch of big, big trees and clear out brush. The fence had to be repaired to discourage cattle.”

Mr. Schubert and Mr. Strope had fashioned special tools for probing the ground in search of buried headstones.

“They’re a stainless steel rod with a T-bar on top,” she said. “You can put your weight into it and poke into the ground and find tombstones by the sound you hear when you hit one.”

They carefully dug up the headstones they found, cleaned them, glued together any broken pieces, found the original bases or poured new ones, and stood the headstones back up on their bases.

Linda Dunbar, who was at that time regent of the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter, got involved with that project and wound up joining the group of cemetery-restorers.

Soon thereafter, Roger Hager joined the group, as did Denise Wingate, who wanted to spend more time with her dad, Mr. Schubert.

“They all do the heavy lifting,” Mrs. Thompson insisted. “I’m 83, so besides research, I draw the lighter duties such as cleaning tombstones and applying infill to repaired markers.”

The group has restored several small, rural cemeteries.

In many cases, families created cemeteries on the back corner of their farm. If that family eventually moves off the land, the cemetery will sometimes fall into disrepair and is lost.”

Last summer, the group probed and restored a cemetery on the property of the former Central Missouri Correctional Center (commonly known as Church Farm) on Highway 179 in Jefferson City.

The group found this project to be rewarding. The cemetery was in very bad condition. Almost all of the large tombstones were broken and fallen down. Some had obviously been pushed over the bluff.

They worked off burial records compiled by Thenia Bolton McHenry who had surveyed all of the cemeteries of Cole County in the 1930s as a project for the Works Progress Administration.

“That was really helpful,” said Mrs. Thompson. “She had recorded the people who were buried there in the 1930s. That gave us something to work off of.”

This spring, the group probed and restored the Arnhold Cemetery near Brazito.

They also identified the previously undocumented Farmer Family burial ground near Brazito.

Back for more

Mrs. Thompson located a Feb. 1, 1980, letter from Father John W. Buchanan, now deceased, indicating that St. Peter Cemetery was originally located at McCarty and Bolivar Streets. City officials persuaded the parish to move the remains of the people who were buried there to the current site of St. Peter Cemetery #1 in 1851.

Mrs. Thompson and Becky Mitchell in 2012 documented all the headstones they could find in St. Peter Cemetery #1 and posted photos of them on findagrave.com.

They discovered that several old tombstones had been incorporated into an outdoor altar local Knights of Columbus built in the cemetery around 1940.

The Knights had also used some of the stones to pave the area in front of the altar so Mass could be offered there several times a year.

With permission from Father Jeremy Secrist, current pastor of St. Peter Parish, the restoration volunteers began returning to St. Peter Cemetery #1 each week this summer to probe for buried headstones and set as many as possible back up.

“It’s been a monstrous undertaking,” said volunteer, Denise Wingate. “The ground was so hard, we couldn’t get a probe to go down more than a few inches until we finally got some rain.”

Copies surfaced of research documents relating to the cemetery, including the deed, plat maps and several of the 1939 research essays written by the Immaculate Conception High School students.

When Louis Menke submitted his composition in 1939, he had taken it upon himself to go out to the cemetery and record all the burials and all the suspected burials. The group has found this reference very helpful in identifying the worn tombstones.

They have also combed through archived newspapers in search of obituaries of people who were buried there but not recorded on Louis Menke’s list.

The group’s work has yielded further information.

While probing, they unearthed tombstones from two children’s burials that were previously unrecorded.

Mr. Hager found one and Ms. Wingate found the other.

“Both were under 2 years old,” said Mrs. Thompson. “People lost a lot of babies and children back then. These discoveries will probably fill in a blank slot on someone’s family tree.”

The group identified a small obelisk as belonging to James Watson, son of J. Christy and A.N. Watson, who was commissioner of the permanent seat of government.

They found a tombstone fragment belonging to Wendler Gehring, a Civil War veteran. They hope to re-mark that grave with a replacement marker from the Veterans Administration.

The volunteers set aside other fragments, hoping to find the rest and piece them together.

Dry bones

The old cemetery was kept in better shape after the St. Peter Cemetery Association was established in 1935 and the local Knights of Columbus council paid for repairs.

Although the association still owns St. Peter Cemetery #1, the groundskeepers at Heisinger Bluffs mow the grass and maintain the grounds.

This year, on the afternoon of Nov. 2, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls Day), Fr. Secrist and teachers led the eighth-graders of St. Peter Interparish School in a Rosary procession from school to St. Peter Cemetery #1.

With the students gathered around the outdoor altar, Fr. Secrist spoke of lessons to be learned in an old cemetery.

“Take a look at the names,” he suggested. “Some of the last names may be familiar to you. Take a look at the dates. And try to figure out what languages we have here, because it’s more than just English.”

He pointed out that all of the graves face east, in deference to Bible references to the Second Coming of Christ.

He acknowledged that cemeteries are often depicted as scary places and unholy ground.

“But when you stop and think of it, cemeteries are really the holiest ground, in addition to our churches, on this earth,” he said. “Because when you look around at all of these people, they are awaiting the Resurrection. All of them and all of us, we live and we die as the Lord’s people, in the hope that one day, we will rise in glory. So this is a place of hope!”

He led them in praying for the repose of the souls of everyone buried there and all who await the Resurrection.

“These are really our predecessors in the faith in this parish,” he noted.

Alan Lepper, executive director of the Catholic cemeteries of Jefferson City, noted that the last time such a large group gathered in St. Peter Cemetery #1 was probably for a burial over 100 years ago.

“God knows”

After probing the entire cemetery and piecing together all of the information they have, the group will now order 24 simple, granite markers for the currently unmarked graves.

They hope to have them in time to set them up in the spring.

“When it’s all said and done, you just want to remember your family,” said Mrs. Thompson. “So you’re preserving a piece of history that could very easily be lost.”

Fr. Secrist said St. Peter Parish is open to receiving contributions to help offset the cost of replacing lost headstones and building a suitable sign at the entrance to the cemetery.

He said he’s grateful to the volunteers for their hard work and research.

He’s looking forward to offering Mass at the outdoor altar someday, after work in the cemetery is completed.

Although the names on the headstones that were used to build the altar 80 years ago can no longer be read, he believes it’s an honor for these deceased parishioners to have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered on something that once marked their resting place.

“God knows where they’re buried,” the priest noted. “Every single one of them. And the Church will keep praying for them until the Lord returns to call us home.”