LASALLE — An Irish Catholic cemetery here that is almost two centuries old got a much-needed face-lift last week thanks to the O’Reilly Family from California that has ancestors buried there.
The historic St. John Catholic Cemetery off W. Stein Rd., managed by members of St. John Catholic Church in Monroe, had about 20 headstones raised, brushed and cleaned thanks to a fund set up by the O’Reilly Family. The small graveyard that sits a few hundred feet off the road in a field looks like a modern cemetery again thanks to constant mowing by a cemetery committee and professional work by Carter Cemetery Preservation from Commerce Township that was hired by the family.
Mary Jo Windels, co-chairman of the cemetery restoration committee along with Ken Duffey, said the parish is thankful to have the family backing the restoration.
“It’s been a lot of work, but we’re so grateful to the O’Reilly’s for always stepping up to keep this going,” Windels said Saturday. “It’s important to show respect and maintain this cemetery. It helps people keep in contact with the past and their ancestors and also helps us understand our future.”
The family invested several thousands of dollars to maintain the graveyard where about 50 former church members are interred dating back to the early 1800’s. They paid for trees to be removed when the committee couldn’t afford it.
The firm literally “resurrected” gravestones that were falling down or deteriorated, Windels said.
Even David Carter, owner of the preservation firm, liked what he saw in the four days that he and his crew worked there.
“It’s a quaint little cemetery,” Carter said. “It’s on the smaller side of some of the 30 cemeteries we’ve worked in since 2010. But it’s nice enough to bring your lunch to while you visit.”
The scenic cemetery is less than an acre and sits on a sandy hill surrounded by soybeans, sunflowers, woods and homes in the distance. It once had several trees, but three of them have been removed and only a large mulberry tree remains and provided shade for the workers last week.
Carter asked Duffey to bring more sand and pea gravel for the workers to place around headstones that were moved or unearthed. The gravel is mixed with the sand and “makes for a good foundation and packs well and allows groundwater to drain,” Carter said.
“This ground is all sand, which is not a friendly foundation,” he said. “Many of the stones sank into the ground and we raise them up to look proper.”
The crew used a large metal tripod system with pulleys to raise and lower the heavier stones. Once the stones are raised, many of them had to be scraped with a plastic scraper and water to make the names and dates visible again.
“You have to keep it wet while you’re scrubbing,” said Rick Weidner, an employee who also is Carter’s neighbor in ???. “The dry brushing gets the moss and dirt off and then you rinse it and clean it more. Just water and a scrub brush is all you need.”
Several of the headstones were in pieces. There are several factors that cause monuments to fall and break, Carter said.
“Trees, vandalism and mowers cause most accidents in cemeteries,” he said. “Some of these stones have been in the ground for some time. But we can raise them with the tripod.”
The Carter firm also has done work at the old St. Mary Cemetery off N. Monroe St. and the small graveyard at S. Monroe and W. Sixth Sts. for Kentucky Militia soldiers in Monroe.
Workers used an epoxy adhesive to connect the stone pieces back together again.
Duffey said it was a shame in recent years to see all of the stones decaying, lying on the ground or caved in. One of the gravemarkers sank 2-3 feet in the ground. The Edward and Michael O’Reilly monument built in 1896 — at 15 feet the tallest in the cemetery — is made of granite, which can withstand extremes in weather better than marble, Carter said. The McCarty monument, another large headstone in the cemetery, was knocked down when a tree limb fell on it.
The committee knew it had to do something to make the graves look presentable again, Duffey said. The donations from the O’Reilly family made it possible.
“The O’Reilly family are truly a blessing,” he said. “They said get the costs and they would take care of it. They’ve maintained the property and said they would be willing to take care of anything that happened there. And they have done that. The stones are beautiful because they spent so much time and money.”
The last burial in the cemetery, once known as the Cooney Cemetery, was in 1923. With the restoration completed by the Carter firm, nearly all the names and dates of birth and death are readable again on the gravestones and family markers. One of the earliest marker is for 18-year-old John Lyons, who died on Christmas, 1835, two years before Michigan became a state.
Three years ago, volunteers from St. John’s parish and 4th Degree Knights from Monroe Council 1266, Knights of Columbus, installed a 30-foot-tall flagpole in the cemetery bearing an American flag on it at all times with a solar light shining from on top.
About a dozen volunteers from the parish make up the committee, Windels said. They take turns mowing the grass both inside and outside the fenced-in cemetery.
“This is a group of older people,” she said. “We’ve had other people help us at other times, like the Duffey Foundation and the Christian Women’s Group. It helps get other people interested in history.”
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Respecting ancestors / St. John’s Irish cemetery gravestones standing again