Story lives anew in renewal of old graveyard

DAN RODRICKS

March 18, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Out in the day, St. Patrick's Day, in the foul finale of a winter that has lasted too long, we were drawn again to a little glen in the city, just to the west of Bentalou Street.

We don't know a soul in old St. Peter's Cemetery, but we know the story, at least in bits and pieces, which is the way most stories are told to newspapermen.

Not for ghoulish delight did we go there on such a dreadful day, with the rain blasting the deep snow and fogging up the city, with streets turned to rivers, with mournful doves huddled on the telephone wires, with white mist clinging to the marble icons like long sacramental veils.

Wiser men than I make great efforts to avoid such bleak environments, especially on St. Patrick's Day, when the protocol is beer, beef and bluster, in about that order. You don't find smiles or hear laughter in a graveyard much.

Especially in old St. Peter's, established in 1850, and left for dead long ago.

Weeds had swallowed the place. High monuments and statuary, memorials bought with immigrant sweat, were overwhelmed by trees and bushes, and decades of neglect.

St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church, once the parish for hundreds of Irish-American families who settled in West Baltimore, and perhaps the largest parish in the archdiocese at the turn of the century, had fallen on poor times. By the mid-1980s there wasn't enough money to keep the graveyard clean, though the 15,000 men, women and children buried there deserved the perpetual care in which they had invested their money and their faith. They might have been the disappointed dead.

St. Peter's was sacred ground, blessed thousands of times with droplets of holy water. But, by the 1980s it was in ruins.

Such a desecration might have gone unnoticed had his great-granddaughter not visited a certain Mr. Kelly's grave on Father's Day, 1984. She found his with other stones in a bulldozed pile. She was outraged.

So it was, eight years ago now, that an alarm was sounded in Baltimore's Irish-American community and men named Shaughnessy and Quayle, passionate about their heritage, organized the effort to clean the old burial ground. They got with fellow Hibernians and people from the neighborhood, and they restored the cemetery, ridding it of strangling weeds and briars, rats and wild dogs.

The project began on a sunny Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, with white men and women, Irish-Americans, joining with men and women of African-American ancestry, all of them marching into the weeds with rakes, chain saws, sickles and bush axes.

They didn't bring back the dead; they merely accorded them the respect they deserved. They restored a shrine.

These were pioneers under the stones -- the McCarthys from Clare, the Dignans from Kildare, the Murphys from Cork. They were the Foleys, O'Briens, Leahys, Reardons, Clunys and McCrossans. They were the ones who suffered. They left Ireland and poverty and famine -- to start again in America, to take the new world up on its promise of freedom and prosperity.

It's one of the oldest stories we have about this country, but I fear we are too long between retellings.

Soon we'll come upon a new century and, as modern life becomes more impersonal, the technological revolution continues and our blood lines to the past become more diluted, we need to go back to the oldest story we have, piece by piece. We need to open it up, like a fine novel, and read the choicest passages to our children.

Our ancestry is deeply mystical and profound; that's why men and women are more awed than saddened by what they see in old graveyards.

Yesterday, even as the rain drenched my coat, I felt content, looking out over the little glen off Bentalou Street and the crooked stones and monuments.

I recognized this as the living world's devotion to the dead, a shrine that stands through all the seasons.

Out there on St. Patrick's Day, with the snow that covered the cemetery turning soft and washing away, I heard a man with a brogue reading a passage from James Joyce: "His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. . . . His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

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