“The Silent City” is how the Providence Visitor referred to St. Patrick’s Cemetery in 1889. At the time, it was estimated that at least 21,136 members of the Irish community of Rhode Island were buried in the ten-plus acre site on Smith Hill in Providence.1 Two years later, Richard M. Bayles suggested that upwards of 40,000 members of the Irish Catholic community were interred there. He also made note that there were no new lots to be had.2 Burials continued after that time, although slowing considerably when the “new” Catholic cemetery, St. Francis, opened in Pawtucket in 1871.
Often called the “Old Catholic Cemetery,” St. Patrick’s was the earliest Catholic cemetery for the city’s Irish population and one of the oldest in the state.
A cemetery is a record of a community’s loved ones, but it is much more than that. St. Patrick’s is a lesson in the well-being of the community’s members, their struggles, their successes and their failures. It also offers insite into how the members of the early Irish community viewed their place in the world.
Walking among the stones in St. Patrick’s, one is struck how the early Irish identified themselves. It was important, if you could afford a stone, to indicate what parish and in which county in Ireland you came from. In rare cases, a townland, a very small parsel indeed, was listed. This suggests to me that that first generation would have preferred to be back home in their old communities. Some actually made the trip back to Ireland after the famine. For most, however, that was a dream beyond reach.
After all, these people left rural communities where, for all their difficulties, the slower life allowed them to spend time with friends and family. In contrast, these folks were living in crowded and noisy tenements, where violence was a common occurrence. In addition, from a young age, as early as six or seven, children went to work in factories where the noise level resulted in deafness and where the long hours and proximity to dangerous machinery led to poor health in the best circumstances, and in injury and death in worst. For example, on the morning of September 28, 1876, the Providence Morning Star reported that “Maria Cox, a ten-year-old daughter of Mr. Patrick Cox, living on Mineral Spring avenue (sic), caught her right hand in some machinery at the Wollen-mill, at the ‘Springs,’ on Friday noon, mangling it severely. Dr. Whitney was called and found it necessary to amputate the second and third fingers.”3
By The Numbers
On January 12, 1889, Charles Kelly, superintendent of St. Patrick’s Cemetery, submitted an essay to the Providence Visitor, summing up the cemetery by the numbers. A copy of the article was discovered among the pages of the cemeteries records.
The first interment was that of Frederick Conlon. One shouldn’t be surprised that Frederick was killed on the job at the Cranston Print Works, given the long hours and dangerous working conditions that prevailed during that time. Frederick was thirty-six years old. At the time, Frederick was living with Ann Conlon, listed as a widow and a dyer, as well as Michael and Peter Conlon, also dyers.
In the small world that was and is Rhode Island, Frederick worked for the Sprague family. His death occurred less than four months after the murder of Cranston Print Works owner, Amasa Sprague. Infamously, three Irish brothers were tried for the murder. With no real evidence to go on, John Gordon was found guilty and put to death on February 14, 1845.
Kelly lists the number internments over the first forty-five years that the cemetery took bodies. The number of internments spiked in 1854, known for years after as the “Year of Cholera.” The numbers spiked again beginning in 1863, in no small part as a result of the Civil War. Many of Rhode Island’s young men went off to fight that war, only to return in a coffin.
Civil War Casualties
The Irish community in greater Providence, like the Yankee community, suffered tremendous loss in the war. Among those listed, if not buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery are John McKenna, who lost his life at Andersonville prison camp and is buried in a mass grave there.
Another man is John H. Deegan. John was born in Boston, the son of Joseph Deegan, who was born in Queens County, Ireland. John was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Virginia on May 12, 1864.
James T. Farley, whose family came from the parish of Crosserlough, County Cavan, died at Petersburg, Virginia on July 26, 1864. He was twenty three years old.
Additional veterans included James McKiernan, Co C., 14th U.S. Infantry, Henry Porter, Company D, 1st Connecticut Cavalry, and J.J. Reilly, U.S. Navy.
Edward Monahan, born in Pennsylvania in 1845, served in Company C, 2nd R.I. Volunteers, and was interred in 1910. A rare Englishman in St. Pat’s, Robert Stubb, was born in 1846, volunteered in 1863 and served in the 4th R.I. Volunteers.
Not all who died during the Civil War did so by being shot. The stone of Cornelius O’Neil reminds us equally insidious evil took so many more. A member of Rhode Islands Veterans (company designation is gone from the stone) died April 23, 1864 “of disease contract in the __service during the Great Rebellion. Aged 49.” His stone also suggests something else. Because sign-ups were so successful in Rhode Island, there was no need to draft Rhode Islanders into the service. Irish volunteered for two reasons: Patriotism for their new county, or because they needed the work to survive.
John Mulligan, Company C., 3rd Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, James Kennedy, Company 1, S.D. Rhode Island Heavy Artillery and William Fisher, U.S. Navy are also memorialized at St. Patrick’s. Owen Reynolds, a member of Troop C, 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, died on May 25, 1862. Like most, Owen was young, just twenty-three when he was killed.
James McCabe, just twenty years old, died at Rappahannock Station, Virginia, on November 11, 1863. A member of Company C, Second Rhode Island Infantry, his stone reads,
“Dearest Mother think of me that’s gone, Thy eldest son in wealth. Thank God I left two more behind, May God spare them their breath. Two sisters yet remain to thee, I loved them next to thee, And when you all together sit, Be sure to pray for me.”
Many of the veterans survived the war by many years. William H. Johnson spent nineteen years in Providence after the war, dying in 1884 at the age of forty two. James H. Wilde was another veteran of the Civil War who died in 1900 at the age of sixty-one. Another who died that same year included Terrance Smith, Company F, 12th Rhode Island Volunteers.
The Stone Masons
The status and well-being of those interred in St. Patrick’s is evident in the quality of the stone used. For that matter, any family who could afford a stone was better off than most. Of the 21,136 burials recorded by 1888, precious few had stones. Many of the stones that did exist are buried, broken or unreadable. Of the ones that are extent, there are four types of stone employed: Marble, granite, limestone and in one rare case, slate. Many of the earliest stones, those from the 1840’s and 1850’s are of a poor quality limestone. These are the stones whose stories wash away with the years. Marble and granite mostly came later with the growing affluence of members of the community.
A number of firms in Providence and nearby Pawtucket were responsible for the stones carved for St. Patrick’s. Early on, the community had to go outside the community for the work. began One such firm was Tingley Brothers. Syvanus Tingley, a native of Massachusetts, was born in 1783 and was doing stone work in Providence in the 1840’s. Syvanus carved the stone for Edward McKenna, the young man killed when the Providence Dying Company building collapsed during a wind storm in 1846 (see “The Long and Uneven Fight for Equality: Providence, R.I., 1841).”
Another Yankee who carved stones for the Irish community was Stephen Brooks. Brooks, who was born in Massachusetts in 1821, had a business on Eddy Street in the city from at least the 1850’s to the 1880’s.
As Irish immigrants and their children learned new skills, they began to take on the work.
An Irishman who created a very successful stone business in the city was John Burns. John was born in Ireland about 1834 from Scots born parents (likely from an earlier migration out of Ireland to Scotland). He and his Irish born wife, Anne, had at least three children. Their son, John P., followed his father into the business.
Many stones speak of the harshness of life for these early immigrants. For Sarah McKenna, a young widow, the stone she had made for her family tells a heart-breaking story. In a very short four year period, Sarah McKenna lost three three young sons and her husband. In 1862, her ten month old son, Peter, died. Three years later she lost son, Owen. He was just two years and five months old. And then, less than a year later, she lost her son Willie, aged eight months. Five days before Willie’s death, her husband, John died at just thirty-six. Worn from the poor quality limestone marker is the parish in which John was born. But one can just make out the county, Tyrone.
Another stone tells of Patrick Wallace and his wife, Ellen Donovan. Patrick, a Mayo man and the first sexton of the cemetery, died at age thirty-two, just two months before 29 year-old Ellen.
Just as in Old St. Mary’s Cemetery in Pawtucket and St. Mary’s in West Warwick, two other very old cemeteries, the counties of Tyrone and Monaghan have the most representation, by far. These were the folk who came from the parishes that bordered the Blackwater River. Roscommon in the Connaught and Cork in the south are also particularly well represented, with stones from nearly every other county of the island.
One stone that clearly ties the Tyrone and Monaghan community together is that of John McGuigan and his wife Mary. John was born in 1805 in Tyrone, while Mary was born two years earlier, just over the border in Truagh, Monaghan.
Stories Lost and Found
The loss of stones is not just from the limestone melting. One that stands in my mind is that of a woman named Catherine McKenna, the same name as my great-great-grandmother. I found this stone a month ago. Standing upright, but buried deep, I returned a week later with my cousin, Jeff Poulton, to see what we could learn. With proper tools to dig (I had unsuccessfully tried it the previous week with a wine key), we discovered a sad truth. Someone, to give Catherine dignity, had taken her fallen stone and reinserted it into the ground, giving it a cement base. Above the base, the stone reads, “Catherine McKenna, Daughter of,” and there it ends. The cement base covers the rest of the story. In a community whose most common surname was McKenna, Catherine becomes nearly an anonymous person.
Still, to stroll through Old St. Patrick’s is have a conversation with the generations that preceded an Gorta Mór and the generations that followed, and who made greater Providence home. You can see the sadness in the deaths of their children, as well as the adults whose lives were cut off much too early. You can also see the pride of their fallen heros, and the success of many that is told in beautiful stone that centuries from now will still be read.
Perhaps The Silent City is not so silent after all.
Although burials slowed considerably with the opening of St. Francis Cemetery in the 1880’s, an ocasional internment still takes place. In fact, the latest was just last month, in August 2014.
1 From the Providence Visitor newspaper, January 12, 1889.
2 Bayles, Richard M., History of Providence County, Rhode Island (vol. 1). New York” W.W. Preston & Co., 1891. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~rigenweb/Providence/article294.html
3The Providence Morning Star, September 28, 1876, from the Scott Molloy Collection of newspaper clippings, University of Rhode Island Library. Although there is no indication that Maria Cox was buried in St. Patrick’s, her plight was typical of a great many who were buried there.
Much of the information on those listed here came from federal and state census records, as well as city directories of Providence.