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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Niagara’s History Unveiled: St. Vincent de Paul Graveyard

Graveyard or cemetery? Why two words for a place where people are buried?

A graveyard refers to the burial area that is adjacent to a church, whereas a cemetery stands on its own and is not affiliated with any one church — keep that bit of trivia in mind if you want to impress visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

This week we’ll explore the history of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church (built in 1834) and its graveyard, located in Niagara-on-the-Lake on the corner of Picton and Wellington Streets.

The graveyard was in use about a decade before the church was built, though many of the internments did not have grave markers.

Here are the tales of some interesting people buried in the graveyard, and others whose records have been lost to the power of time.


Reverend J.J. Lynch

Reverend J.J. Lynch was the only priest buried in the graveyard. Lynch died suddenly on September 9, 1897 at the age of 34 during his tenth year as a priest. He had only been with St. Vincent de Paul for three years, but in that time made a very significant impact on the parishioners, with many having praised his hard work, good nature and kind heart.


Chisholm Family Mausoleum

One of the most impressive mausoleums in the graveyard (and NOTL) belongs to the Chisholm family.

Alexander Chisholm and his wife Mary Margaret Phelan were a poor Scottish family who arrived in NOTL in 1827. But how could a poor family afford such a grand mausoleum?

Janet Carnochan — a woman I’ve written about before — explained how one of the Chisholm sons, Hugh J. Chisholm, had been very successful in Canada. 

Chisholm was born in NOTL on May 2, 1847 and was the fifth child of Alexander and Mary Chisholm. In 1859, when Hugh Chisholm was just 13-years-old, his father passed away and he like his older siblings were forced to leave school in search of work to help support the family.

Chisholm moved to Toronto and landed his first job selling newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railway trains between Toronto and Chicago. He saved his money and soon bought his own papers to sell on the trains, and later on the ferries which crossed Lake Ontario. 

At the age of sixteen, Chisholm bought out his employer that sold him the papers and started his own business with his brother.

While still running the newspaper business, Chisholm furthered his education by enrolling in Bryant & Stratton College. He is listed amongst many famous college alumni, such as John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford.

Through his many successful businesses in the pulp and paper industry, publishing and investments, Chisholm ended up being a very prosperous and wealthy business man.

In 1900, he commissioned to have the mausoleum built for his parents in NOTL. Alexander and Mary Chisholm were subsequently disinterred and laid to rest in the new mausoleum with their original head stone being placed against an interior wall.

As time moved on, six other Chisholm family members were also laid to rest in the mausoleum, not including Hugh, who died on July 1, 1912 at the age of 65 and is buried in New York City.


The Paupers’ Grave

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 and no records of any building or parish hall existing on this site, nor are there records of any burials.

If you look closely though, you’ll notice there are depressions in the ground. 

According to stories passed down through parishioners and custodians, this section was the paupers’ grave — a section where people who were too poor to pay for a proper burial would place a body inside the fencing knowing that 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, a pale being a series of pointed sticks acting as a fence to encircle an area. 

Churches would often keep a pale around graveyards to keep cattle from tramping over graves, so beyond the pale meant a body would be placed within the fenced in area of the graveyard.

There are no accurate records of how many burials there might have been in the paupers’ section. 



There are accounts of two criminals who were executed and buried in the paupers’ grave.  

James Moreau was a commander with the rebels that William Lyon Mackenzie used in his rebellion of 1837. Moreau was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. On July 30, 1838, he professed his faith in God, was received into the Catholic Church, baptized and on July 31, 1838, was executed. He is buried in an unmarked grave in paupers section.

Another criminal who is buried in the paupers’ grave is Thomas Brennan, who immigrated to Upper Canada during the Irish Potato Famine (1830-50). Brennan was found guilty of murdering a Queenston woman named Mary O’Connor on May 4, 1848. He was executed in October of 1848 and was also buried in an unmarked grave.


The Lonely Grave

On the edge of the pauper’s grave site, facing onto Byron Street there is one lone grave stone, where lies Patrick Lawless, the night watchman on the Niagara Wharf in NOTL. As the night watchman, it was Lawless responsibility to ensure all was as it should be through out the night at the warves.

One August night in 1863, the Steamer Zimmerman which was tied up at the wharf caught on fire. Lawless, who was on duty at the time, sounded the alarm and all hands were tasked to extinguish the fire but the steamer could not be saved. Lawless’ body was found steps away from the pump he had been manning on the steamer. 

The fire was deemed an accident with no blame given to any person on board.


William McDougal

Directly behind St. Vincent de Paul is a grave marker that gives a dire warning — the grave stone of William McDougal, who died in 1851 at the age of 19. 

Although the stone is beautifully engraved with angels, ivy and a Roman cross, it is the inscription on the bottom that causes one to pause. It reads: “This grave never to be disturbed.”

One can only speculate as to why this would be put on the grave stone of a 19-year-old man.

Did he die of a horrible disease? Was he out of favour with the community, or was it a family concern that if the church expanded their son’s grave might be disturbed?

We will likely never know — but the grave has not been disturbed … Phew.


William Primus

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, Primus put up a magnificent monument in her memory. The verse inscribed attests to his love and respect of her.

How could a runaway slave and a poor Irish woman have possibly been able to afford this beautiful monument?

Census records at that time tell a very 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 the properties and took the matter to court. The church was awarded the properties in question.


The Polish Memorial

The largest gravesite within the graveyard is the Polish Memorial. An iron fence surrounds the 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. 

Walking through the gates, you will discover you are officially on Polish soil.

A review of the dates will show how one after the other the soldiers succumbed to the flu while in training to liberate their home country. It was only fitting that after World War One, Canada ceded this land to Poland so that they may rest forever in their motherland. 


“Conquering the World”

In the graveyard there are two stone pillar monuments with  large spheres on top and Roman Catholic cross on top of the spheres.  These two spheres which were seldom used, represent “Conquering of the World by Christianity.” 

The symbol was found on the monuments of people who supported Christian missions around the world.


Celtic Crosses

Two stone monuments in the graveyard use the Celtic cross, which is unusual to find in a Roman Catholic graveyard. Some speculate these crosses could be indicative of where the deceased was born.


Confusing Symbol 

One symbol found on many of the stone monuments at first glance looks like an elaborate dollar sign.  I was confused when I first saw it and had a feeling I was not seeing it correctly. I was right.

The symbol is comprised of three overlapping letters, “IHS”, and stands for the Latin phrase “Iesus Hominum Salvator” or “Jesus saviour of mankind.“

When the letters are overlapped one can be forgiven for seeing the dollar symbol.


The Oldest

The oldest recorded burial in the graveyard was in 1825 for Catherine Lyons. A stone was not erected on her grave until her husband’s death in 1888. 

The oldest grave marker in the cemetery is that of John Battle, who died in 1843 at the age of 49 years. The inscription reads: “Erected by Nelly to the memory of her husband.” 

There is no record of Nelly having been buried in St. Vincent de Paul graveyard.

When conducting tours through the graveyard of St. Vincent de Paul, I find it to be a special place, one where you can quite literally have your feet in two countries at once. Take a stroll through the graveyard, pause for a moment and remember some of the people who helped to build Niagara-on-the-Lake.


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 Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.

Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Denise's profile can be found here, niagaranow.com/profile.phtml/13

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