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Monday, April 15, 2024
Niagara’s History Unveiled: St. Vincent de Paul Church – Part 2

In 1900, a prosperous and wealthy area businessman named Hugh Chisholm commissioned the construction of an impressive mausoleum for his deceased parents at St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church. It was one of the most impressive mausoleums in NOTL. 

Alexander and Mary   Chisholm were disinterred and laid to rest in the mausoleum with their original head stone being placed against an interior wall. As time passed, six other Chisholm family members were also laid to rest in the mausoleum. Hugh Chisholm died on July 1, 1912, at the age of 65 and is buried in New York City.

At the corner of Wellington and Byron streets is a large section of the graveyard that one might think is unused. There are no visible markers, there are no records of any building or parish hall on this site, nor are there records of any burials.

According to stories passed down through parishioners and custodians, this was the paupers graveyard where people too poor to pay for a proper burial would place a body just outside of the fencing, knowing the priest would say a few prayers and the deceased would be buried.

The term “buried beyond the pale” was often used to describe these burials. “Pale” is a series of pointed sticks creating a fence that would encircle an area. Around the church graveyard there would be a pale to keep cattle from tramping over graves. So, beyond the pale meant a body would be placed outside of the fenced area of the graveyard.

There are no accurate records of how many burials there might have been in this section, however, there is an accounting for two criminals who were executed and buried there.

James Moreau was a commander with the rebels under William Lyon Mackenzie during the rebellion of 1837. Moreau was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to death. On July 30, 1838, he professed his faith in God, was received into the Catholic Church, baptized. The next day he was executed. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the paupers section.

The other criminal was Thomas Brennan, who immigrated to Upper Canada. He was found guilty of murdering Mary O’Connor of Queenston on May 4, 1848. Brennan was executed in October 1848 and also buried in an unmarked grave.

On the edge of the paupers grave site, facing onto Byron Street, there is one lone grave stone. There lies Patrick Lawless, the night watchman on the Niagara Wharf in NOTL. On a night in August 1863, the steamer Zimmerman caught fire. Lawless sounded the alarm and all hands were tasked to extinguish the fire, but the steamer could not be saved.

The fire was deemed an accident with no blame assigned to any person on board. Lawless’ body was found steps away from the pump he had been manning on the steamer. He was the only casualty of the fire. Everyone else on board had been saved.

St. Vincent de Paul’s graveyard has one grave of a runaway slave, William Primus, who was one of the early free black settlers in NOTL. When his wife Margaret, a poor Irish immigrant, died in 1850, he put up a magnificent monument in her memory. The verse attests to his love and respect for her. How could a runaway slave and a poor Irish girl have possibly been able to afford this beautiful monument?

Census records at that time tell a successful story of William Primus. He was a teamster who ran his own business, while buying and selling properties throughout the town. Upon his death in 1857 he left all of his estate to his two daughters, Agnes Primus and Eliza Mills. Upon Agnes’ death, she left her portion of the estate to St. Vincent de Paul.

A scandal erupted over Agnes’ last will and testament when certain properties in her name were contested. Eliza Mills’ husband John disputed the ownership of them and took the matter to court. The church was awarded the properties in question.

The largest gravesite in the graveyard is the Polish Memorial. An iron fence surrounds the graves of 24 young men who died of the Spanish influenza that swept through the Niagara Camp in 1918-19, where they were in training in NOTL. A review of the dates will show how one after the other the soldiers succumbed to the flu. 

These young men died in Canada while in training to liberate their home country of Poland. It was only fitting then that these young men could rest forever in their motherland. After the First World War, Canada ceded this land to Poland. 

The graveyard of St. Vincent de Paul is a special place. Take a stroll through there, pause for a moment and remember some of the people who helped to build Niagara-on-the-Lake.

References: Stones, Saints & Sinners. History of Irish Immigration. Canadian Encyclopedia. Niagara Historical Society and Museum.


To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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