Mysterious find: Irish immigrant's headstone discovered under cemetery chapel floor

SOUTH BOSTON -- On Feb. 9, 1842, an Irish immigrant named Timothy Ryan died of consumption. Exactly 179 years later, his headstone was discovered -- not marking his grave, but buried under the floor of a cemetery chapel.

St. Augustine Chapel and Cemetery is part of Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parishes. The chapel has been closed throughout the coronavirus pandemic, which provided the opportunity to repair the sinking brick floor that posed a danger to elderly visitors. On Feb. 9, 2021, as workers were lifting bricks to reset them, they found an engraved headstone buried under the floor, with only dirt beneath it.

The full inscription says: "This stone was erected by James Ryan in memory of his brother, TIMOTHY RYAN, a native of the County of Tipperary and Parish of Capawhite, Ireland, who died February 9, 1842, aged 35 years."

Cemetery records indicate that Timothy Ryan was interred in the grounds of St. Augustine Cemetery, but they do not note the exact location of his grave.

Initially, Father Robert Casey, the pastor of Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid Parishes, did not know why the stone was placed inside St. Augustine Chapel. The individuals buried inside the chapel are priests from early in the archdiocese's history -- including Father Francis Anthony Matignon, the first priest of Boston, in whose honor St. Augustine Cemetery was established. The only person buried there who was not a priest is Sister St. Henry, a novice Ursuline sister.

With the exception of Sister St. Henry, "all of the people that are buried in the chapel were priests, so it's unusual that this stone was placed in the chapel," Father Casey said.

The other "strange thing" about the discovery, he said, was that the stone was found on the anniversary of Ryan's death, 179 years later.

Father Casey did what research he could to learn more about Ryan. Records indicate that there was only one person named Timothy Ryan living in Boston at that time, before the wave of Irish immigrants that came during the 1840s and 1850s to escape the Great Hunger.

Like many headstones in the cemetery, Timothy Ryan's stone indicates the area of Ireland from which he came: the County of Tipperary and Parish of Capawhite. Father Casey explained that including such information is typical of Irish immigrant headstones of the time.

"Most of the early stones were indicative of where they were from. They would always put down that they were a native of a certain county in Ireland or parish in Ireland. That was a normal way of them connecting themselves to Ireland, when they died and put it on their stone," he said.

Timothy Ryan seems to have come to Boston in the 1820s and worked as a painter. He married a woman named Mary Burke at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in May 1826. They had two daughters: Bridget Ryan, baptized at the cathedral in 1829, and Mary Frances Ryan, baptized at St. Patrick Church in 1838. Timothy Ryan died on Feb. 9, 1842, and was buried two days later.

The newly discovered headstone was paid for by Timothy Ryan's brother, James Ryan, who died in 1858. He is also buried in St. Augustine Cemetery and has a headstone in front of the chapel.

Father Casey considered putting the recovered stone next to the brother's. But then, it was discovered that Timothy Ryan's wife, Mary Burke Ryan, also had a stone erected in his memory in St. Augustine Cemetery, indicating the place of his burial.

While it is unclear why two people commissioned stones in honor of the same person, the fact that there was an extra marker may explain why one of them was left in such an unusual place.

"That could be the reason why they buried the stone in the chapel. They could not have two stones for the same person. The wife won out!" Father Casey said in a March 1 email.

Unlike the wife's stone, which shows signs of weathering after almost two centuries, the brother's stone remained in excellent condition, protected under the floor.

"It's amazing how well-preserved it is," Father Casey said.

When the chapel reopens, Timothy Ryan's recently recovered headstone will be displayed in there for a time before being placed behind his wife's long-standing stone.