Honoring the dead

Honoring the dead

Boy Scout Luke Dussault, 17, of Pawtucket, stands at one of the gravestones in Old St. Mary’s Cemetery. For his Eagle project, Dussault and a group of volunteers worked together to raise gravestones at the cemetery last Saturday. (Breeze photos by Bill Murphy)
Dussault and friends raise gravestones at Old St. Mary’s Cemetery

PAWTUCKET – For years, Tom Rogers gave the cemetery next to St. Mary’s Catholic Church all the respect he could afford it, often working as a one-man crew to restore stones and spruce up the grounds.

Last Saturday, a local Eagle Scout candidate and his volunteer friends, with support of the parish, took the next step at these Irish immigrant burial grounds located on Pine Street within easy sight of the Pawtucket River Bridge and Apex, jumping in to raise many of the stones Rogers hadn’t had the resources to dig up.

Luke Dussault, a Pawtucket resident, Davies Tech student, and former Boy Scout in the city who’s now with Troop 1 Georgiaville in Smithfield, told The Breeze he frequently walked through the Old St. Mary’s Cemetery as a parishioner at St. Mary’s and often thought about just how empty it looked based on the number of gravestones that had long since toppled.

“There are 2,500 burials here and it looks like 500,” he said. “It feels empty.”

Dussault is the son of Michaele and George Dussault. His target number last Saturday was to raise between 25 and 50 stones in one day. Ken Postle, the cemetery restoration advocate who first started working with Luke in the Scouts a decade ago in the Mineral Spring, said the group not only completed 50 gravestones in the target section, an area where some Civil War soldiers were buried, but raised another 23 stones in the front section of the cemetery, for 73 total. He said the group brought along just enough new dirt to complete all of those stones, including four markers for Civil War veterans. Many of the stones were cenotaph markers, meaning they record as many as five names.

After the stones were raised and secured, volunteers used water to clean the dirt and make the names visible again. Dussault went back on Sunday to put down some grass seed and complete some final touches on the project.

Dussault, who will turn 18 next February, said he was proud of his project and that it brought respect to so many of those early Pawtucket residents buried here. The oldest burials here are from 1835, he said, and the cemetery itself was officially established in 1840, 11 years after the church.

Civil War soldier Bernard Burns and Irish martyr and folk hero John Gordon are among those buried here.

Dussault built off his years of helping Postle and others restore historic cemeteries, completing a restoration effort of his own for his Eagle project.

This “herculean effort” represented an incredible show of support by the parish, the city and the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, said Postle.

“Today Pawtucket celebrated the spirit of our hardworking ancestors that can and could make us proud again if we look beyond our struggles and dare to dream of a better future,” he said.

The Irish survived and thrived by working hard and negotiating not for riches but a moral center for their children, he said. They got a church, school and cemetery they could call their own by agreeing to work in the mills.

“Today we celebrated some of their stories they left behind,” he said. “What a fantastic experience, with invitations for more outings there. There are at least twice as many more stones waiting to be found and restored.”

Postle noted that the original land was donated to the Catholic immigrant community by a Protestant mill owner family. He said it was an honor for him, as a Protestant pastor, to now collaborate with the Catholic parish on the restoration effort.

Pawtucket industrialist David Wilkinson, whose name is on the stone building at the downtown Slater Mill site, had been assured by his Catholic workers that they would settle permanently in Pawtucket if they had a church where they could worship. In 1828, Wilkinson and his wife, Martha, deeded the parcel of land on George Street, which became the site for one of the first Catholic churches built in the state.

The Rev. Ken Postle, center, of Pawtucket, makes a cell phone video as volunteers raise one of the stones in St. Mary’s Cemetery. Boy Scout Luke Dussault, of Pawtucket, is raising and restoring one of the oldest sections of the cemetery for his Eagle Project.
Lynda McCoy, of Pawtucket, carries buckets of dirt to the work site in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
Juan Moreno Jr., left, Jonatan Flores, center, and Samuel Hughes, all 17 and of Pawtucket, shovel dirt to set raised tombstones at St. Mary’s Cemetery last Saturday.

Comments

Thank you Ethan Shorey and staff for recognizing the effort!
You did a great job of describing how Tom Rogers..
And many others paved the way for this wonderful effort...
Also many thanks to Rev Mark Sauriol and the Parish of St Mary's for all the support and help!
Most especially-Thank you to Blackstone Valley Historical Society for sponsoring and supporting these efforts!
Very thankful to the the City of Pawtucket for facilitating the Trucks and for Dan DaSilveira of DPW for arranging for and donating the dirt needed..
Thank you to the many helpers including Bill Greenwood, Greg Duhamel, Zachary Cote and family, John Houghton and Lori Melucci from BVHS, Mindy, Linda, the Scouts and all the many men and women who came out to spend a productive Saturday with us!
The Day was an incredible day of blessing all around..
There is much, much more to do here and in many other cemeteries! This was a wonderful start!
If you would like to see more efforts like this contact myself or BVHS or your local Historical Society..Thanks again to everyone!