Old St. Mary’s Cemetery... frost... and water

Okay. Some of you will think I’m weird when I admit that I love cemeteries.

Perhaps my love of reading gravestones began when I arrived in Canada at the young age of six. Because my family lived adjacent to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, my brother and I considered it our “back yard.” It was here that my mother and father took us for long, leisurely Sunday afternoon strolls. After all, not only is it a heritage cemetery, Mount Pleasant is also one of North America’s famous arboretums.

So, while my brother and I gazed at the Eaton family’s grand, Grecian style mausoleum (and played on the wonderful bronze lions guarding the entrance), we also marveled at tree species like tulip and magnolia trees. Species that are rare or non-existent in these more northerly climes in which I now live.

On Monday, I explored another cemetery. It is over 100 years old... known as the “old St. Mary’s Cemetery” just west of Quyon.

A neighbour took me, someone who has lived here all her life and who, just like me, loves to peer at the inscriptions on the cemetery headstones and wonder about the folk who are buried there.

What are their stories? Who were they?

We didn’t come away from our jaunt much the wiser on that score. At least, because I’m a newcomer to Pontiac, I was unable to identify anyone.

But the surnames remind me of the Quyon phone directory listings. McColgan, Mulligan, O’Hearn, Draper. And there were some others I didn’t recognize at all: Moyle, O’Meara, and others.

Particularly sad were the infants: many only a few months old, with plain-sounding inscriptions that give no trace of the terrible sadness they represent. We found other gravestones that marked women dying in their late twenties and early thirties. Very possibly they died during childbirth.

One large, difficult-to-decipher headstone particularly intrigued us.

“O Lord have mercy on the soul of Hanna Mulligan (alias) O’Donnelly, died June 1861, AE 70 years”

Who was Hanna? Born in 1791, hers was one of the oldest markers in Old St. Mary’s cemetery. Admittedly, the word “alias” threw us both off. We wondered if the inscription merely meant that her maiden name was O’Donnelly (or Mulligan), or if the “alias” implied some sort of mystery. Probably not: I telephoned my friend Norma Geggie, co-author of many local books with her husband the late Dr. Stuart Geggie. Her most recent book, published last year after Stuart’s death, is “A Place Apart: A Search for the Pioneer Cemeteries of the Lower Gatineau Valley.”

The St. Mary’s Cemetery is not in this book, nor is Pontiac mentioned save in passing (more on this later.) However, when I asked her about the “alias” she thought it would only refer to Hanna’s maiden name, nothing more mysterious. But no, Norma admitted, she never recalls seeing the word “alias” written on a tombstone. “You’re probably thinking of Margaret Atwood’s novel, Alias Grace,” she teased.

She’s probably right.

But its this sort of thing that intrigues me about our heritage cemeteries. What, if anything, do you know of this Quyon cemetery, and the people who are buried there? If you have any information, I’d be interested in hearing it.

Why? Because this year Quyon is celebrating its 125th year of incorporation. A committee has formed to plan historical and other events that will celebrate this milestone. The plan is to hold many events for the week immediately following the Quyon Fair, July 3-8. There’ll be more on this event and its planning in future columns, but if you know about the history of Quyon, North and South Onslow, give me a call at 458-2090. Thanks.

And, talking again of headstones brings one to thinking of the task of burying folks in winter. How very difficult it must be to dig the graves. My neighbour mentioned that on January 14 or thereabouts, she’d heard that the frost had penetrated 24 inches, and that a mere week later, as someone else’s grave was being dug, that the ground was frozen up to 30 inches. That’s an inch a day, thereabouts. Because there’s hardly any blanket of snow to protect the ground, there’s nothing to stop the freeze going deeper.

So inevitably, our chatter turned from the passing of loved ones to the weather. (Typical Canadian conversation, wouldn’t you say?) Because both of us live on farms, we’re preoccupied with issues like water: will our wells be replenished? More than one neighbour’s well dried up this summer.

How will the water table be affected by the lack of snow cover this winter? Will the perennials in our gardens survive the penetrating frost coupled with the desiccation of the wind? And not even thinking of the perennials, what about the crops? Will alfalfa roots be killed, or will they survive?

We’ll know come spring. But it’s an anxious time. Neighbours complain about the ice, not because they are slipping on it, but because their cattle are.

We don’t own livestock or horses, so we’re not used to thinking about the perils of this kind of a winter of ice on such critters.

Let’s all “pray for snow.” It’s not just because I love skiing, you know. It’s really because I’m worried about the water table.



Katharine Fletcher enjoys learning about the human history of Pontiac. She writes from her home, in North Onslow, north of Quyon. Contact her at 458-2090 or at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com