Sunday, July 3, 2022

The rich history in my parish cemetery

Perhaps it's fitting in some way that I share this little story on the eve of the Fourth of July.

About a week ago, on Monday night, I took a ride to my church, St. Mary's in Hales Corners, Wisconsin, for Eucharistic Adoration. When I arrived, which was shortly after 8pm, I was told that Eucharistic Adoration ended early (it usually goes until 9pm) because of an unidentifiable burning smell throughout the church. Not wanting to go back home right away because I had already ventured this far, I decided to take a stroll through the parish cemetery, which I had not yet visited up to this point since joining the parish this past December. I'm so glad I did this.

St. Mary's, which is located in Hales Corners, Wisconsin and a part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, was founded in 1842. Its cemetery, which is still open to new burials, has at least one burial in it that dates back to that year. As I walked through this beautiful, peaceful space, the only living person in it, I noticed many burials dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. Now, many of these stones, which are naturally worn from 150+ years of exposure to the elements, don't list the person's birth year, only the year of his or her death. But the age of the person at the time of death is listed. Doing the simple math in my head, I quickly realize that some of the people laying before me were born at the end of the 1700s. How genuinely fascinating, that fact alone, was to me.

I also noticed that many of these people laid to rest in the mid-1800s were from Ireland, a testament to the parish's strong Irish roots. The parish's first priest, not surprisingly then, was Irish, as well. Many of these stones list the county in Ireland from which each person or family had come.

I was just in awe by all of this. As I continued to slowly make my way through the cemetery on this warm evening, the bright sun slowly fading with each passing minute, I couldn't help but reflect on both the individual lives laying before me here, and the collective history and heritage truly shared by all of us - a continuity that brings us all together, that unites all the ages, right on down to the present day. Who were these people, I wondered? What were their struggles and hopes? Their fears and dreams? What did they do for a living? What got them through that long and difficult journey across the Atlantic to settle here, starting completely over with nothing? How did they make it? What life lessons did they pass down to their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews? If they could talk with us today, what life lessons would they share with us? Have any of their descendants or other relatives ever come into my life? If so, did they have an impact on my life, hopefully positive?

The plant life in this sacred place is as lush and beautiful as these original stones that each share a life's story with us in just a few simple words, a reminder that they were here. They existed. They lived. They hoped. They struggled. They worked. They succeeded. They sacrificed. They experienced immense joy and sorrow. They mattered. They are a part of us and our own stories. The trees are as old and as strong as the souls at rest here, towering over us like the individual and collective legacies they left behind.

And the words I saw written many years ago on a display devoted to the eternal realm and to all of those who have gone before us at a gallery night art show in downtown Milwaukee came to mind: "What you are, we used to be. What we are, you will be."

A safe, blessed, and Happy Fourth with friends, family, and neighbors!

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy my previous post on Myles Keogh, an Irish warrior that fought for the Pope in Italy and then came to the United States to fight for the Union in the Civil War (1861-65), including at Gettysburg. He met his death at just 36 years old in 1876 while fighting Sioux and Cheyenne warriors in Montana at what became famously known as Custer's Last Stand, and then had his remains shipped to New York for burial.

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