Removal of remains completed at rediscovered Roxbury cemetery

ROXBURY -- “Ar dheis Dia go raibh an-anam.” (“To the right hand of God their souls will sit.”)

This proclamation, commonly written on Irish gravestones, will be inscribed on the marker indicating the final resting place of the more than 1,200 bodies in a recently rediscovered cemetery on the grounds of the former St. Joseph Church in Roxbury.

Together with an old white cross and the church bell that once rang in the tower of St. Joseph’s, the monument will be placed at Calvary Cemetery in Waltham, where the remains will be reinterred.

The gravesite at St. Joseph Church was discovered when the property of the now-demolished church was set to be sold to the City on a Hill Charter Public School.

“I always knew there was a cemetery at St. Joseph’s at one time,” explained Father Walter Waldron, former pastor of St. Joseph Church and current pastor of St. Patrick Church, also in Roxbury.

In the neighborhood, stories were told of a parish cemetery that had been moved to another location, said Father Waldron.

“Occasionally a family would call,” asking if any ancestors were buried in the parish’s cemetery, he recalled, but he “could not find any records of any people buried on our property.”

“There was no evidence aboveground at St. Joseph’s that there was a cemetery there,” he said.

However, before the final sale of the church property, Father Waldron approached the Massachusetts Historical Commission in an effort to ensure there were no human remains accidentally left behind when the cemetery was relocated.

That was in May of 2006. What happened next shocked Father Waldron.

Archaeologists from the Rhode Island-based Public Archaeology Laboratory (PAL) began a “slow dig” of the site. Almost immediately, recalled Father Waldron, they found human remains.

The PAL archaeologists then began searching for records of the former cemetery -- looking at old maps, looking for records of any bodies being reinterred at local cemeteries during the late 1800s.

According to Father Waldron, the cemetery seems to have been used roughly from 1850 until 1868, when it was closed, presumably because it was full. Old city maps indicate there was a cemetery adjoining the parish during the 1850s. The cemetery continued to appear in maps until the 1890s; after that there was no mention of the graveyard.

“But the mystery is that there was no record of some huge removal of remains from our cemetery to another,” he said.

Using the maps, the archaeologists began digging grave shafts -- over 600 of them. Some of the shafts held nothing; others held multiple coffins.

Almost every day Father Waldron found himself visiting the site, “caught up in the massiveness of it.”

He also learned about the long-forgotten cemetery. There were very few gravestones, but those that were found speak of counties in Ireland, of family members and those who buried the dead. According to the archaeologists, many of those interred were children; most of them were Irish immigrants escaping the Potato Famine.

For Father Waldron, the reactions of the archaeologists themselves was particularly touching.

“Some of these scientists were spiritually or emotionally affected,” he explained. “It wasn’t just a job -- wasn’t just what they were hired to do. There was a feeling that what they were doing was important for the people there who had died.”

“They would dig out there all summer long with shovels, with no protection from the hot sun, and if they found the remains of a casket, of wood, then the shovels would go and they would go through each piece of dirt,” described Father Waldron. Any remains -- bone fragments, buttons, coins, articles of clothing, rosary beads -- were carefully removed and put into marked “shaft boxes.”

Every day a member of the Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston would arrive at the site and take the boxes to Calvary Cemetery in Waltham. The boxes were carefully indexed according to their original location.

Earlier this month, the PAL archaeologists finished the first phase of the project -- that of recovering the human remains. Now attention is focusing on reinterring them at Calvary Cemetery.

“We want not only to reinter them, but to make the area a tribute to those people,” said Robert Visconti, executive director of the Catholic Cemetery Association of the Archdiocese of Boston.

“From a Catholic point of view, the entire process, from the archaeologists, to the drivers, to the staff at Calvary was done with dignity, with respect,” he added.

According to Visconti, the entire process has been meticulously catalogued. A grid system has been employed so that remains will be reinterred in relation to the location they were found. This will allow descendants or researchers to locate the site of remains if more detailed records of the original cemetery are ever found.

In addition, a monument has been commissioned that will honor the memory of the St. Joseph Cemetery. The memorial will include the bell and a statue of St. Joseph from the former church, and a white cross and those gravestones discovered during the archaeological dig.

Once the monument is finished, said Visconti, the area will be dedicated in a reinternment ceremony.

“This place will be a peaceful, beautiful, final resting place for these souls,” said Visconti.

For Father Waldron, the ceremony will close a very difficult chapter in the history of St. Joseph Church -- one that he never imagined.

“When this started I had absolutely no idea that it would go to this extent -- that there were so many bodies,” he said.

“I thought originally that since the bodies had all been moved, perhaps they had missed a bone,” recounted Father Waldron. “They missed everybody.”